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

What’s happening in South Africa?

After unrest in July and municipal elections in November, it’s clear South Africa is in the midst of a serious social, economic and political crisis. What are the roots of it? Listen to this episode of AIAC Talk to find out.