Masculinities and multiple-sexual-partners in KwaZulu-Natal: The Making and Unmaking of Isoka
This paper examines one dominant element of masculinities worldwide – the high value placed on men’s “success” with women. In southern Africa, where HIV infection rates are typically 1 in 4, sexual networks characterised by multiple concurrent sexual partners are said to be an important factor driving the AIDS pandemic (for instance HSRC, 2002). Given the tragic levels of AIDS deaths today, masculinities that celebrate multiple sexual partners are, as I show later, facing intense criticism in African communities, those the worse hit by the AIDS pandemic and the subject of this paper. But even some of the most
vigorous critics of these powerful masculinities tend to see them in historically static terms – hangovers from a relatively fixed African past when men wielded uninterrupted power.
Rather ironically, given his controversial stance on HIV/AIDS, it is President Mbeki who has most publicly adopted a historical and constructionist approach, rightly pointing to
1 Many thanks to Ben Carton, Gillian Hart and Robert Morrell for comments on previous versions of this paper.
2 how dominant white groups have represented Africans as “diseased” and “promiscuous”.
2 And yet Mbeki stops firmly at the door of representation, appearing to view any more concrete research on African masculinities as inherently racist.
3 This essay argues that masculinities play a powerful material role in social life and yet possess a fluidity that only historical analysis can capture - there is no essential “African” or “Zulu” masculinity and
yet masculinities are important constituents of social relations. It does so by attempting to chart in KwaZulu-Natal the rise and fall of the isoka masculinity. In its contemporary form, this masculinity draws from powerful symbols of “tradition”, notably polygamy, to associate manhood with multiple concurrent sexual partners.
4 Empirically, the following discussion is based on ethnographic, archival and secondary sources for my ongoing PhD dissertation research based in Mandeni, a municipality 120 kms north of Durban on the North Coast of KwaZulu-Natal. The project is only partially completed and its analysis must therefore be seen as exploratory.
5 My PhD will focus primarily on the post-1950s period, though in this paper I take discussions back to the beginning of the 20th century. It is clearly ambitious, possibly over-ambitious, to engage with such a large time period in a single paper. Nevertheless, in order to challenge any notion that an “innate” African masculinity exists, I think that it is important to examine the historical processes through which the isoka masculinity was “made”, as well as the contemporary processes through which the isoka masculinity is being reworked.