Gendered processes produced and sustained families and labor in southern Africa from the first hunter-gatherers through the present, but these processes were never static or uncontested. Archaeological, oral, and ethnographic sources suggest that southern Africa’s first hunter-gatherers experienced tense contestations of social and sexual roles and that the division of labor was more fluid than is normally assumed. Some 2,000 years ago new ways of life—pastoralism and agriculture—organized societies according to gender and generation, with young persons under the control of adults, and older women able to wield control over children-in-law as well as political and spiritual power. For agriculturalists, the home was a political space. During the centralization of states in the region, leaders tightened control of women, coming-of-age practices, and marriage as well as militarized age sets. After the onset of colonialism, gendered violence and contested social relations shaped and maintained a gendered and racialized capitalist society. Enslaved, dependent, and free African women’s labor unfolded in the service of white settlers along European ideas of women’s work, and a consensus emerged among officials, missionaries, and African Christian converts over the centrality of educated women converts to the making of Christian African families. Authorities enacted legislation to govern sex and marriage and to differentiate by race and culture. The developing system of migrant labor relied upon women’s agricultural work in the reserves. The apartheid state, too, intervened in social relations to control labor and produce not only racialized but also ethnicized persons in the service of separate development. Across the 20th century women shaped nationalisms, often using their association with social reproduction, and mobilized both within larger nationalism movements and specifically as women. Their political and social activism continues in the post-apartheid era.
Jill E. Kelly
Mariana P. Candido
Kidnapping, warfare, seizure, and enslavement were gendered experiences in the sense that men, women, and children did not necessarily face the same process. Each enslaved woman and man was an individual who navigated bondage, resistance, dependency, and violence with different degrees of success within specific contexts. Recognizing their complexities and the variations regarding their enslavement and bondage is vital to avoiding essentialization of African slavery as a monolithic or an ahistorical institution. Women composed most of the enslaved population within the African continent, due in part to the operation of internal markets and local demands. The internal demand for enslaved women affected prices, values, and flows of the external slave trades, as well as gender imbalance. Women in bondage played major economic roles in the domestic and public spheres as farmers, skilled craftspersons, street vendors, miners, healers, and cooks, performing tasks that respectable and honorable free women would not do. They were valued as producers and reproducers who could attend to sexual demands and be incorporated into lineages as unfree people. In different societies within and outside of Africa, enslaved women in bondage were sexually objectified and exploited. There is thus nothing “African” about this violence, since one of the premises of enslaving girls and women was the ability to abuse their bodies. The sexual dimension of the use of women’s bodies explains the higher value for female captives in internal African markets, as well as the silence surrounding the enslavement of women. It is important to recognize that in Africa, as elsewhere, the institution of slavery was not monolithic. Detailed regional studies indicate variations across time and space. Women experienced capture, enslavement, and bondage in different ways. One cannot make general assumptions when analyzing exceptional lives.
The idea of race shaped the encounter between Africa and Europe from the “age of discovery,” through the height of colonial rule in the 20th century, and on into the age of independence, decolonization and the birth of the postcolonial nation. Race, understood today as a social construct rather than a biological fact, emerged as an ideological framework in Western thought to rationalize difference. In the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and color stood as markers of difference. The Atlantic slave trade furthered the notion of African inferiority by defining African people as “heathen” and therefore suitable for enslavement. By the 19th century, scientific racism advanced the idea of blackness as biologically and culturally inferior to whiteness, which in turn served to justify colonial conquest under the guise of “civilizing dark Africa.” Colonial rule, moreover, relied on ethnicity as a means of categorizing African peoples. Using the idea of “tribe” to characterize and govern African peoples furthered the objectives of European imperialism by taking a complex landscape of social, cultural, political, and linguistic identity and establishing a rigid and fixed system of classification. African women stood at the intersection of racialist thinking about Africa and the construction of a colonial social order that used race and ethnicity as means of defining and controlling African populations. Women like Sara Baartman became the symbolic projection of racial and ethnic difference for Europe; at the same time, customary marriages between African women and European men in Atlantic Africa defined cross-cultural trade and gave rise to multiracial communities. As European imperialism gave way to colonial bureaucracy, the fluidity of interracial unions gave way to policies that sought to police the boundaries between black and white in the colony; children of mixed racial ancestry did not fit neatly into the ethnic or racial categories erected by colonial regimes. Far from being passive receptacles of racial and ethnic thinking, African men and women used these categories of European knowledge as tools for their own purposes. African women, in particular, developed their own strategies for engaging with European merchants and officials in the age of encounter, and for navigating the evolving landscape of colonial rule, whether defying colonial boundaries by entering into intimate partnerships with European men, or rejecting European suitors.