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African Feminism

SITHANDA NTUKA: A Paragon of Independence.

Sithanda Ntuka is a 25 year-old dynamic woman from Botswana. She has lived all over the world: Denmark, Canada and now she is a New Yorker fast climbing the corporate ladder. As an auditor for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, she is in the thick of the male-dominated corporate world. In my chat with Sithanda, we mostly discussed the desirability of a woman and its place in the workplace. But before we delved into that I asked her to give us insight into the gender relations in her native Botswana.

Donald Molosi: Hello Sithanda. Welcome to DESIRE: A Four Part Harmony where we will discuss the role of a woman’s desirability in the workplace. Happy Women’s Month.

Sithanda Ntuka: Thank you.

DM: You are a woman in the 21st century. What does that mean for you in the workplace?

SN: As a woman in the 21st century I have more social power than the women that came before me. I have more opportunities to choose from in the professional environment. But I still do not have the privileges afforded to males in either social or professional environment.

DM: We will return to those privileges because I think that is a good point. But first, tell me about growing up in Botswana as a girl child.

SN: The gender imbalance was enforced. Boys were always excused for being naughty, disrespectful or even experimental with things because they were “just being boys.” Girls on the other hand were expected to be limited and proper and demure. Society always reminded you in many ways that women are secondary to men.

DM: You strike me as a woman without that inferiority complex that you describe as being fed to young girls.

SN: I grew up in a household where those complexes were absent so when society tried to confine me, I was already armed. I already knew I could be as good and even better than a boy in the classroom.

DM: Did you encounter the same inequalities in Danish society, or in Canadian society?

SN: Yes. In Denmark there are active steps being taken to ensure equal numbers of either gender in workplaces but of course minds take a long time to change despite quotas. Actually some people are quick to dismiss a woman’s success in the workplace and attribute it to the woman being the token female for the quota rather than basing it on her capabilities. In the US, I feel gender equality in the workplace and not much socially.

DM: Tell me more about that inequality in the workplace in the US. How does it manifest itself?

SN: Statistically, there are lots of male partners in any firm and only a handful of women, for instance despite the fact that there are so many women to climb that ladder. Also, on average women partners get promoted much later in their careers than their male counterparts. Perhaps most disheartening is that women are made to choose between their job and starting a family. Executives fear promoting women because they fear she might slow things down if she ends up needing maternity leave.

DM: It must be daunting, surely. Can one win?

SN: In theory, we can all win. As a women in this field, if you do well professionally there is no room for family. If you start a family, there is apparently not enough room for work. If you have no family, society says you must be gay and so on.

DM:  So, society also takes cues from professional achievements on how to subvert the woman?

SN: Yes.

DM: Let us segue into image and desirability.  What image does a woman have to project in this industry to increase her chances of success?

SN: She has to give the impression that she is industrious and that she knows what she is doing. That is in order for her to win the trust of her colleagues both male and female.

DM: Does she have to appear desirable to the male gaze?

SN: Yes. She has to appear ‘beautiful’ but enough to not be ‘distracting.’ You can wear black nail polish if you work in a bank for example, but not red nail polish because it is supposed to be distracting.

DM: Are men ever told not to appear a certain way because that they may be ‘distracting?’

SN: No. It is always the woman’s fault.

DM: So, distraction is sexual as seen through the heterosexual male colleagues’ eyes.

SN: Exactly. I personally do not seek to appear sexy at work but I know people who do. And that helps them get ahead. Executives associate with them more and those professional associations lead to promotion and other good prospects.

DM: Could that desirability hurt one’s reputation?

SN: Potentially but usually it seems to help those women’s standing. I wouldn’t know, I don’t go for that desirability at work. I put my credentials and professionalism first.

DM: Do men have to appear desirable?

SN: They have to appear professional. They do not even need a good attitude. They just need to be able to do the work well. No one sits and analyzes them.

DM: Because the men are the one who are supposed to analyze, right?

SN: Exactly. They never have to exploit themselves.

DM: Double standards. What four things do you think should not be made the markers of desirability about women in society?

SN: Skinniness. Nakedness. Light skin. Big boobs.

DM: These are all physical. That is interesting. I would like to add that a woman having to dumb herself down should also not be the embodiment of desirability in general. Do you agree?

SN: Yes. You have no idea how many times I have argued with men about that. Why is patriarchy so easily threatened?

DM: What should be desired in women, by men and women?

SN: We must all desire to see power, outspokenness, confidence and natural beauty in women.

DM: Who embodies that for you?

SN: I am totally on the fence about Beyonce. She works hard and is successful but the more successful she becomes because of her hard work  the more she takes off her clothes and objectifies herself to the male gaze. I would say Mary Erdoes embodies those lovely qualities for me. She is the CEO of JP Morgan Asset Management. She has a family and has climbed the corporate ladder far up at the same time.

DM: Any last words?

SN: I am annoyed by women of my generation who are so quick to say that feminists annoy them unknowing that it took feminism for them to be enjoying the freedoms they enjoy today. So why not work even harder through a feminist mentality so that our daughters can have it even better?

DM: Sithanda, I thank you for having this chat with me. It truly has been too short and I hope that we find time in future to converse once more.

SN: It was my pleasure. I hope so! Happy Women’s month.

DM: Why, thank you.


  1. Annie

    Excellent interview. Thanks for doing this Donald. I hope we can start a conversation here around Sithanda’s thought-provoking question: why is patriarchy so easily threatened? Suggests to me that it is an illegitimate kind of power, fragile because it is always aware of its illegitimacy. But then why is it so hard to get it to crumble? Gosh!

  2. Sokari

    Yes, excellent Donald. Annie’s follow up question on why is it so hard to crumble suggests there are other forces or factors at work. Sithanda mentioned being annoyed by women who dismissed feminism, is it possible then that at least one of the reasons for patriarchy being so hard to crack is because it has allies amongst some women? However at the same time I do think there is a growing feminist consciousness that goes beyond just equality in the workplace and other institutional equalities and it is through this that patriarchy will really be challenged.

  3. Keletso

    In awe Sthanda, totally completely in awe! Well done! And thank you for shining your star bright!

  4. Annie

    Sokari: I’ve been mia too long. I hope you’re well. I think the truth of women complicit with patriarchy is accurate…hard as it is to swallow. I was reminded of that this week re-reading Mariama Ba’s So long a letter and Miriam Warner-Vieyra’s Juletane back to back. It seems like literature specifically and art generally is one of the spaces in which patriarchy is being seriously challenged. What other spaces/strategies do you have in mind Sokari when you say “a feminist consciousness that goes beyond just equality in the workplace and other institutional equalities?”

    Donald please weigh in and tell us your thoughts on patriarchy and desire. It sounds from the interview like you believe it’s about more than the body.

  5. Comment by post author

    Thank you all, Thanks Annie. I remember in our chat Sithanda mentioning that women put other women down more than men do and that simple (self)divide-and-(be)conquer(ed) if you like is what upholds patriarchy. It is a a fragile fear-based ideology that its male avatars do not have to work that hard to sustain because women are doing such an excellent job at thwarting the collective female voice/upward mobility if you will. So, I would not so much say illegitimate but certainly fearful and precarious. I think what women do to each other almost legitimates patriarchy in a dark twisted way.

  6. Comment by post author

    I like to believe it is also about consciousness. Gestures like “dumbing-down” are some of those silences that subvert women. And when they manifest themselves physically in sexing up one’s image to self-objectifying extents in the workplace, the physical is only a crystallized symptom of a deeper lack of consciousness of what it means to be a woman of dignity. What do people think of Sithanda’s annoyance with women who despise feminism for its “radicalism?” I am tempted to argue for cultural relativism but I may be hitting the bush as we say in Botswana. Thoughts?

  7. Sokari

    We can start with Sthanda’s comment on Beyonce’s ‘objectifying to the male gaze’; looking beyond buying into consumer and media notions of beauty again Sthanda mentions these and of course a consciousness that is inclusive in struggling against other oppressions – class, race, heteorsexism, homophobia, ableism. And yes I think literature and other art forms are spaces for challenging patriarchy. Donald and I have just been talking about using drama and drama therapy in this way. I hope he will comment more on this later.