Dear Men of South Africa*

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I love you. I really do. With your PT shorts from matric, your weird relationship with fires and your insistence on drinking brandy and coke because someone told you it’s what real men do, you are my uncles, my cousins, my boyfriends, the first guy I kissed playing Spin the Bottle when I was 11. I know you, and there’s a comforting familiarity in your Boy Speak (‘howzit, bro! My China!’) and the way you view the world. But (you knew that ‘but’ was coming, right?), I feel like the time has come to clear up a few things. In terms of gender stuff, you are just not getting that memo. You know, the one they seem to have sent out in most other parts of the world about it not being the 50s anymore. I know that change is hard and that as human beings we’re inclined to repeat old patterns, but the world is a different place now and it’s time for you guys to catch up. So, I’m going to take the time to explain a few things to you. Like our ostensible leader, a truly South African man says, ‘listen properly now.’

1. We Don’t Like it When You Pay Us Sexual Compliments

We might smile and say thank you but that is because we were brought up to be polite and we don’t want to make you uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean we like it. It is an objectification: what you are telling us, in essence, is that we have no value over and above our physicality. Those well-intentioned ‘compliments’ make us feel demeaned and irrelevant and, frankly, a little bit dirty. Like you’re having thoughts about us we’d rather you didn’t have. We know you mean well, but unless we are in a relationship with you, stop it already.

2. We Can Open Our Own Wine, Thanks

Last weekend at a lunch a man offered to open the bottle of champagne I was holding. When I said, ‘thanks, I’ve got this,’ and started to peel off the foil, he tried to wrestle it out of my hands. Sometimes I just hand the bottle over because I can’t be bothered. This time, I didn’t feel like it and I stood my ground. He looked confused and a bit offended, like I was breaking some unspoken rule. I am certain he was oblivious to the nuances of the situation; what the unconscious message is when men do stuff like this to women. And I’m sure he was perplexed about why I was being so ‘stubborn’. I don’t have the energy to go into the whole thing now, so just take it from me. We can open our own wine.

3. Chivalry is Cool as Long as We can Repay the Compliment

You want to open the door for me? That’s really nice. And in return I will pay for dinner. Or buy you flowers. Or pour your beer. Treating people with consideration and respect is a beautiful thing, but it goes both ways. As women learn very early on in the dating game, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If you insist on paying for our evening out, that’s fine, but please don’t think that means I owe you anything. We are equal players in this game.

4. We Are the Same as You, Just with Different Details

So, look us in the eye when you speak to us. Ask us about our lives and listen when we answer. Something I learnt in my years in Scandinavia is that women and men can actually talk to each other at social gatherings without anyone getting antsy or beaten up. There, it’s normal to make conversation with members of the opposite sex. Here, there is total apartheid of the genders, and when I insist on going outside and standing by the fire I get funny looks. I’m not hitting on you, I swear. I’m here with my partner and children. I’m just making conversation. And please – don’t talk exclusively about yourself. I know you find your job in finance fascinating. I’ve been listening politely for an hour. I also have an interesting job. Why don’t you ask me about it? Maybe we could even find a common area of interest. If not, at least we tried.

5. Stop Insisting Your Wife Takes Your Name

You married each other. Why should she become Mrs You? It’s such a weird norm. Two adults get married and the one has to sacrifice her identity because she has a vagina? This country is totally in the dark ages when it comes to that stuff. The amount of times I have had to explain to my bank and Home Affairs people why I have a different surname to my husband is beyond. Again, to use a foreign example – in Denmark and Sweden when two people get married it’s up to them to decide if they’re going to adopt the husband or the wife’s name. The better name wins. It’s equal and democratic and how it should be here too. It’s time we moved on from that patriarchal rubbish.

6. No Woman Ever Needs a ‘Good F?ck.’

Some months ago a man who was driving too fast in a residential area smashed into a parked car outside the home of a friend. When she went outside and pointed out to him he was driving recklessly he told her she needs a ‘good f?ck.’ The violence and misogyny implicit in a statement like that defies belief, and reflects the rape culture that permeates our society. It’s a shame that this young man driving an expensive car grew up without somebody to teach him about what it means to be a man. To show him how to treat and speak to women, and to help him out of the adolescent emotional state he somehow got himself stuck in. He is like those young male elephants which get kicked out of the herd and align themselves with older, bachelor elephants who teach them how to be behave. Only, there is seemingly nobody to teach the lost men of our society. Instead, they get jobs as investors and bankers and are rewarded handsomely with fat salaries and fancy cars. They have no incentive to reflect on their attitudes and behaviour. Any man who says this about a woman is a product of a very sick society.

7. You Are Not the Kings of the World Because of Your Unsurpassed Brilliance

You run the show because, since forever, society has favoured your maleness. You’ve been pushed, promoted and encouraged purely because you have dicks. Time and time again, as the world changes at its snail’s pace, women are proven to be better at many things than their male counterparts (flying planes, doing maths, investing on the stock exchange) but biology – combined with the deeply entrenched patriarchy into which we are born – continues to be a major obstacle to our achieving success on the same levels you do. In many parts of the world we are still denied an education. We get overlooked for promotion because at some point we’ll probably breed. Despite having better qualifications and higher levels of competence than many of the men we will compete against, the Old Boys’ Club otherwise known as the western world still means that the guy who played rugby with the boss will get bumped up the corporate ladder. And it’s a given that we’ll be paid less for doing the same job. Even Scandinavia, with its so-called gender equality, has very few women running its big businesses, never mind running the country. We don’t blame you because it is what it is and we’re ready and willing to fight this system. But don’t be too damn smug about the fact that you live in an expensive apartment and have piles of disposable income. You were given leg ups. That’s all. Be humble, be nice. Promote the women on your team. It’s the very least you can do.

8. You Are Not Raising Your Boys Right

So many times I have stood in my kids’ school playground and listened to dads telling their 4-year-old sons to ‘man up’; to not be a ‘girl’, to ‘stop crying like a sissy,’ and I cringe as these tiny children try to be something other than what they are. Something dies in little boys when you don’t allow them to feel. They become dull, blunted men who grow up to say things like the guy who crashed into the car. Your 4-year-old is not a man, he is a baby with feelings and worries and fears. Stop telling him not to have emotions. You, as his primary role model, need to create a safe space for him to be what he is. Only then will he grow up to be healthy, happy man who has good, fulfilling relationships with the people around him. Whatever he is, let him be that thing. He doesn’t like sport? That’s okay, give him books. Let it be good enough for him to be himself. Love him just the way he is, and maybe he’ll grow up to teach you things you didn’t even know.

*Disclaimer:

There are men in my life who are more passionate and eloquent about gender equality and vocal in their promotion of feminism than I dare to be. And there are men who choose not to make a noise about it, but quietly and determinedly love and support the women and girls in their lives. This was not written for you.

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