Gender Unit: The roots of a new tree of knowledge

Professor Sarojini Nadar has called for the new gender unit at Stellenbosch University to produce genuine intersectional knowledge. “It is my hope that this tree will produce branches of decolonial knowledge,” said Nadar who made use of the metaphor of the tree of life. “In the city of Eikestad, the city of oaks… what we are doing today is planting a symbolic tree.”

Using the tree metaphor to signify the launch of the gender unit, she provided her thoughts on what the flagship gender unit should stand for and what its objectives would be. She said that, “faith and feminism” would be essential to building the ethos of the unit. Nadar added that she hopes this tree of knowledge would “continue to be cultivated and flourish in the African forest of change.”

Stellenbosch University launched the Gender Unit at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University on Tuesday 28 March. Nadar presented the keynote address on Gender and Health in Higher Education today. Professor Julie Claassens gave some insight into the story of the gender unit. Dr Charlene van der Walt discussed the future of the unit, including its opportunities and challenges. Professor Amanda Gouws provided the closing remarks.

In an effort to educate attendees, the event offered free publications produced by the Commission for Gender Equality.

These publications included The Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in South Africa, a copy of a presentation on the One Woman, One Hectare of Land campaign by Dr Wallace Amos Mgoqi to the WDB Anniversary, Celebratory Dialogue -Making Poverty History as well as an election observation report entitled From Rhetoric to Gender Reality: Women’s Participation & Representation in South Africa’s 2014 elections. A draft for public consultation of the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance produced by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development was also available.

The Vice-Rector for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, Professor Eugene Cloete, who helped secure funding for the unit said: “We live in a society where women have been marginalised. Look at rape culture, look at violence against women, look at power relations in politics and companies. Women have had a raw deal.”

Cloete said that proper research on the underlying causes of these challenges and subsequent projects to empower marginalised groups are necessary.

Cloete went on to say, “Women have become the victim of society. Not only women but also other groups that have been marginalised.”

He said that the unit had two priorities: “What this unit stands for is human dignity. Human dignity is the number one priority, and secondly, how do we create an inclusive environment and create a space where people can talk to one another. The idea is to work towards a common good.”

Coming together for change: Attendees mingle ahead of the Gender Unit Launch. PHOTO: Aydn Parrott

Chairperson of the Theological Student Committee, Ashwen Thyssen, said: “I think it interesting that we have taken so long to have a gender unit at our university, however, I do think the time is right in that it is extremely important.” He pointed out that “the faculty is the most representative of the South African demographics at this university”.

Speaking on the role of student leadership in promoting discussions about gender-based questions, Thyssen said: “I think that it’s very important that we realise at present there is dialogue happening on campus.” He went on to identify what he felt was the key challenge in creating dialogue. “Those of us in leadership should not be the ones initiating the dialogue, but advertising the dialogue, so that more persons can participate in the dialogue. At this stage I think that it is not that there is an absence of dialogue but rather an absence of participation in that dialogue.”

“We want to create a conscious community,” said van der Walt, a faculty member for Theology at Stellenbosch University. Responding to questions about the unit working with other organs within the university, she said: “We are not this silo. How do we make links and connect to already existing initiatives?”

Van der Walt stated that the unit have looked into working with activist groups on campus. She said that there are great activist initiatives on campus but the unit also needs to create reflective spaces around those initiatives. She said that these spaces should theoretically engage with how to think about these initiatives and how they influence change. She said the unit is currently connected to various NGOs working on HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, and minority sexualities in Africa. Van der Walt added that they are open to conversation with those interested in partnering with the Gender Unit. – Aydn Parrott