Ubuntu Dialogues

Dr Nadia Sanger – Creating new words, images, and signs that trouble old feminist languages


It was her father, Bruce, owner of a successful sign-writing business in Salt River during apartheid, who taught Nadia Sanger to ask questions. He taught her to treat marginalised people gently, and to feed stray cats and dogs.

All this while cultivating thinking that kicks against the norm.

Bruce’s teaching-by-example would come to shape her career as a feminist scholar. Today as a senior lecturer in English Studies at Stellenbosch University, Sanger teaches and writes about race, gender and class.

However, this feminist is not in favour of blanket “men are trash” campaigns, saying that deeper reasons behind violent male behaviour need to be explored and addressed. She puts forward that a major cause of such violence is inequality driven by histories of racism and white capitalism. Thus, a lack in options for imagining and creating better lives – for some.

In a working-class suburb, Sanger grew up in an atheist home, in stark contrast to her conservative Muslim and Christian neighbours.

“He [Bruce Sanger] respected the anti-individualist positioning encouraged by working-class activism, and enjoyed the sharing of resources,” says Sanger. “But as we grew older, girls becoming women, we struggled to fit in. Our mother tried to sway her husband into buying a house in a more central, middle-class area. But no. He maintained we would benefit from this ordinary, working-class life, that we could learn by living every day with pragmatic people.”

In a poignant autobiographical paper on her father’s death in 2016 – one year after her son was born – Sanger reflects on her father’s role as her primary intellectual nurturer, debunking stereotypical perceptions around black masculinity and violence in South Africa.

She recalls how her baby was suckling as Bruce, bent crooked with arthritis and later alcohol, was hospitalised for the last time.

“I work hard at protecting my four-year-old [now six-year-old] son from the assumption that he will become a damage-doing man. Because he is darker-skinned, and male, he is especially vulnerable to the stereotypical assumptions. He is expected to fail – at being intelligent or thoughtful; at being not-violent,” she writes in her 2020 paper called Bending Bodies, Signing Words: Reshaping a Father and a Feminist Practice, published in the Routledge journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies.

“These assumptions nag at me, anger me, sadden me, because they feel out of place. But these emotions also drive me, purposefully, toward creating new words, images, signs that trouble old feminist languages, helping to reshape and unbend the harmful, damaging narratives scripted for black men, especially in a persistently raced South Africa.”

Sanger is one of five Ubuntu Dialogues Seminar Fellows participating in the Ubuntu Dialogues Project, jointly hosted by Stellenbosch University Museum and Michigan State University’s African Studies Centre.

In September, in a webinar hosted by the Project entitled Being-With-Others: Reflections on White Individualism and Male Violence as Anti-Ubuntu Practice, Sanger told the audience that while she did not have clear answers, it is important to unpack these issues.

In a later interview, speaking from her home in Muizenberg, she points out how inequality is a primary driver of violent behaviour in under-privileged communities around the world.

“I think that all the research points to the fact that where there are high rates of inequality, in countries like South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and so on, there will be people who are frustrated about not having enough to live on,” she says. “Or comparing themselves, naturally, to those who do have more. I mean in Cape Town, the inequalities are so stark. Poor areas alongside very wealthy areas, just across the street.”

She adds: “I am not a violence theorist, but I am trying to understand violence in our country. When people get angry and hurt somebody else, why do they do that? A lot of the research keeps coming back to deep inequalities, a lack of education – how it becomes harder and harder for people to imagine a better life.

“I’m not saying all people who live in apartheid dumping grounds are violent people. I am saying that we do have high rates of violence. The primary perpetrators of violence are men. I am saying, we need to try to understand it better. I’m not for these ‘men are trash’ campaigns. I’m interested in how we understand and then stop this? How do we live better lives? How do we move away from violence?”

Furthermore, she says that white individualism allows “white South Africans, through undeserved privilege – with the latter wrongfully being understood as individual merit – to maintain racial and economic inequalities.”

Sanger’s latest research has led her to believe that Ubuntu could offer a framework from where to counter inequality: “My use of Ubuntu as a concept in this paper lies in its possibilities for offering a philosophical and conceptual guide – a structure for race, class and gender transformation in post-apartheid South Africa,” she says.

Sanger points to a symposium called Men Engage Ubuntu, hosted by non-profit organisation Sonke Gender Justice earlier this year. The panel focused on redefining masculinity to include care, which of course is central to Ubuntu thinking.

“Being cared for requires allowing oneself to be vulnerable, a trait that boys and men in many societies across the world have been taught to avoid in the belief that it reveals male weakness. The expression of aggression and violence on the other, is believed to be reflective of biological, innate masculinity. It is a very dangerous myth.”

Wrapping up, she puts forward that men need to be considered in their specific contexts – personal, social, geographical and across their lifespans – alongside remedies invoking the significance of caring for others. “A more holistic and useful approach to male violence is to attempt to understand boys and men in the various spaces that they inhabit, and across their individual differences,” she says.

Sanger holds a PhD in Women and Gender studies from the University of the Western Cape. She completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Maryland in the United States in 2011 and worked for ten years at South Africa’s statutory research agency, the Human Sciences Research Council.​

By Biénne Huisman

Read original article here: News – Dr. Nadia Sanger: Creating new words, images,… (sun.ac.za)

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