Prof Puleng opens door for others

By Nombulelo Shange

History has been made globally and here at home. In the US, Kamala Harris became the first black woman to become vice-president, while locally we celebrate Prof Puleng LenkaBula’s appointment as the first black female vice-chancellor of the largest university in Africa, Unisa.

When both announcements were made, I was filled with hope and joy that transformation is possible and we are all witnesses to it.

But as we celebrate these women in the media, in our communities, within academia and social media, we have done a disservice to them.

Maybe without intending to we have ‘tokenised’ them, focusing more on the fact that they are black women, instead of their remarkable career achievements and victories that have led them to the powerful roles they hold today.

Listen, I am not saying we must not celebrate when black women make it into leadership positions.

They have to be celebrated because representation is so important for young black girls who are often told by the world that they are not important or will never amount to anything great. We have to celebrate them as black women because they often have to work 10 times harder to get half the recognition. And this is my point.

These women and many others before them who were or are “firsts” in their fields have worked much harder than male or white predecessors. They have had to work harder while also fighting the patriarchal whiteness woven into our systems and workplaces.

The systems constantly find new and creative ways to negate black womanist labour and achievements, while trying to keep black women at the same level. Many of us in these situations feel powerless, give up and become content with “just getting by”.

Or we end up skipping from job to job, often to find the new environment is more toxic than the last.

So, when black women are successful in battling these aggressions while making remarkable strides in their careers, we have a responsibility to celebrate their accomplishments and list their endless achievements in the same way we do for men.

This is also important because often when women and people of colour occupy positions of power, there is the assumption that they are purely “transformation” or “B-BBEE” hires and are or were not the most suitable candidate for the position.

So I want to take this opportunity to move beyond celebrating Prof Lenka-Bula, the black woman, I want to celebrate her work and scholarly contribution. She fights for the empowerment of all, while pushing the door open for others who are marginalised by violent epistemology that often limits the involvement of black people, women, LGBT+ and disabled groups and individuals in higher education.

•Shange is a  lecturer in the department of sociology at the University of the Free State.

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