New public TV series from South Africa: “I am Woman”

Starting on April 1, South Africa’s public TV channel SABC3 has been running a weekly series called “I am Woman.”  Every week, the show tries to follow the arc of a woman’s journey, the ways in which she comes to understand herself and the world by creating herself as the world and the world as herself. Imagine doing that without over-weaning ego or impossible humility, and you get the picture. The leap of faith is ultimately each woman’s discovery and invention of her own amazing and ordinary kind of humanity. Her discovery, and ours. If you don’t live in South Africa, you can also view the series online.

Last week’s episode followed Diana Motsisi and Themba Nkosi. Diana Motsisi is a nurse working and living in Johannesburg. She is proud to report, and has the picture on her mantle to prove, that she touched Madiba when he came out of prison and went into hospital. She cared for Madiba, and this makes her happy, in a wry, amused sort of way.

She had three sons and wanted, more than anything, a daughter. And then … Mbali came along. Motsisi was as happy as happy could be. Now she could finally “share the feminine” with someone, with her daughter.

We learn quickly that Diana Motsisi’s journey is Mbali’s journey. From childhood, Mbali doesn’t ‘conform’ to the norm, doesn’t want to share the feminine, doesn’t want to be a girl, isn’t a girl. As Mbali grows older, she transitions, at first on her own and then with family and therapeutic assistance, into Themba. Themba Nkosi, gender activist:

And that’s where the real story is. Transition. Learning. Transformation. Revolutionizing not only expectations but also material conditions. Community. Loss. Caring. Freedom. Love. Touching.

Sound familiar? It is.

On one hand, it is the story of thousands upon thousands, millions, of individuals and their loved ones’ journeys through gender transformation and gender choice. The timeliness of this particular broadcast last week is that May 17 was International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). May 17 was chosen because, on May 17, 1990, the General Assembly of the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. This week, The New York Times reported that Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, the ‘father’ of modern American psychiatry, at 80 years of age, has just — or is it finally — apologized to the gay community for his work in establishing a so-called gay ‘cure’. Of course, the long ‘science’ of criminalizing homosexual and transsexual people, communities, cultures is never invoked when horror is expressed, from distant shores, at “corrective rape” committed in townships — but where was the horror at the equivalent violence committed in clinics and hospital wards ‘at home’?

It is also the story of Joyce Banda, the President of Malawi, who in her first State of the Union address, announced her intention to overturn laws that criminalize same-sex relations.

But it is fundamentally the story of South Africa, a story too often overlooked by the international press, perhaps because it is too ‘soft’. Too sentimental. Too human.

Diana Motsisi comes to realize that she has taken a kind of maternal and parental and human Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. Not doing harm means doing right, doing justice. It means she must, in her own words, “walk with him”. And so she does. In shopping malls, in schools, in public as well as private venues. Everywhere. It means she must ask, critically, “Have I done damage to my child?” It means she must take responsibility not only for her actions but also for her dreams and for the future. And it means they must share laughter, love, pain, regret, truth, wisdom and more. That too is the story of South Africa.

Further Reading

A power crisis

Andre De Ruyter, the former CEO of Eskom, has presented himself as a simple hero trying to save South Africa’s struggling power utility against corrupt forces. But this racially charged narrative is ultimately self-serving.

Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.