World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        



Lessons from the T-Section

Thembisa Waetjen


     In July 2007, a twenty five year old woman named Zandile Mpanza was assaulted in the T-section near an all-male worker hostel in Umlazi, a township in Durban, South Africa. She was stripped of her clothing and her home was burned to the ground. The explanation given by her attackers was that she had violated a local code—a code apparently decreed by some of the men living in the hostels—that forbids women in the area to wear pants because they are not culturally traditional among siZulu speakers. On the one hand, this can and should be understood as a straight-forward case of criminal violence and, in particular, an instance evidencing South Africa's notably high rates of violence against women. On the other hand, it is a case that demonstrates the issue of the past as a contested resource authorizing and authenticating social agency and power interests in the present.

     All over the world, battles between communitarian identities and liberal conceptions of rights emerge in politics. Is there a difference between long skirts in South Africa or, in the U.S., creationist science in the classroom, tea-partiers' campaigns to treat the bible as a source of modern law, or the difficulty of courts to legitimate same-sex marriage? Stakes are high. In the case of violence in Umlazi, letter-writers to newspapers highlighted issues for women, with one citizen arguing that

     The protection of human rights should not supersede our right to protect our culture, identity and our image as Africans in line with our noble ideal of African renaissance. What happened in T-section is but a prelude of more challenges to come which will seek to define our democracy… The question still remains to the woman [Mpanza]: was the wearing of pants worth struggling for to the extent of paying such a heavy price? 1

     Voicing another view, Ntokozo Mfusi wrote:

The rights of women in KwaZulu-Natal must be respected. We want to be free to go anywhere and wear anything as long as it is respectable.2

     What can world history offer to this and analogous conflicts? is the challenging question Trevor Getz poses for me. Does it take 'sides' between two positions, articulated in various ways in this forum? Can the binary itself be destabilized through a world history approach? World history is often promoted as a politics of inclusion, how much time and space is allotted to certain 'peoples', continents, civilizations, cultural groups, genders, nations and so on in textbooks and classrooms. The trap of a multiculturalist motivation, even while one can affirm a more dynamic version of its agenda to continually broaden the scope and variety of accounts and narratives (as Patrick Manning does), is that it too-often reifies through banal description the classifications it should rather expose as socially and historically produced. In this sense, world historians cannot be distinguished from their historical subjects. They produce and reproduce the categorizations of humanity through which the present and future continue to be imagined, through references to (for example) 'Africans' and 'Europeans', 'blacks' and 'whites', as enclaves of 'obvious' meaning and agency. These labels are not always pertinent and can be blinding to other readings of history.

     Giving voice to the life-worlds of individuals like Viramma to challenge 'the liberal, modern, secular subject as the end goal of history' and to encounter complexity and difference, as Chris Chekuri has noted, is a vital aspect of what world history should indeed do. But, to be fair, need North American classrooms look to India for confrontations with alternative cosmologies and 'the other' in order to bring about important debates regarding relativism, tolerance and other needed discussions? We need to be more relentless in our comparativism! I would guess that many students in U.S. multiculturalist classrooms would prove less respectful, less tolerant, more rigorous in their challenge to 'traditionalism' and culturally advanced arguments in, say, white bread America even as they rush to consider African patriarchy as age-old and somehow more authentic. Continuous inclusion of the histories of 'others' may not remedy the problem of representation and if neglected histories are sought specifically for their difference and marginalisation, we run the risk of a new Orientalism.

     With Jerry Bentley, I think the methodological tool of critical, disciplinary history is powerful in revealing that the battle over the meaning of the T-Section violence can not be reduced to camps of traditional and modern, Africanist and Western, and so on. A world history approach has the capacity to disclose other ways of telling these stories: of how many Zulu-speaking men, migrants from rural areas, came to be housed in single-gender barracks for underpaid labour, apart from family and community; of how the moral economies of Christian missionaries from abroad came to impact conceptions of gendered respectability of women's bodies and attire, through mission schooling and religious conversion; of how apartheid legislation and, before that, segregation in colonial Durban, made distinctions in law and material rewards between 'customary' and 'civilized' African people; and of how international discourses of modernity came to be mobilized in anti-apartheid struggles, producing a new modernist hegemony of 'development' while politicizing the authority of culture. And, beyond the global connections we may draw upon to historicize this particular case, these stories are by no means unique to Africa. The historical processes and changes we can denote are ones that invite a more relentless comparative exploration, to find what is common in these experiences and why they render structures of power and marginalisation ubiquitous. I cling to the ideal of a better and more just world, and I think critical world history offers some tools towards that project.

Thembisa Waetjen lectures in history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa and writes about gender, culture and politics. In collaboration with colleague Goolam Vahed, a new book, Gender, Modernity and Indian Delights; The Women's Cultural Group of Durban, 1954–2010, has just been published by the Human Science Research Counsel. She can be contacted at



1 Letter to the Mercury, by Simphiwe Manono Dlangamanla, KwaMashu. 28 August 2007. This letter becomes threatening in tone: 'Those who seek to engage in the struggle to wear pants must understand the consequences of embarking on a struggle …'

2 Mfusi, Ntokozo. 27 August 2007, the Mercury.


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use