The male difference: izifebe and amasoka

I’m a rural township boy. I’m defined by that reality, and because of that, as a black person in this country I grew up oppressed and disadvantaged by the system. Yet as a male in this nation, beyond the reality of my blackness, I was hugely privileged. I did whatever I wanted and whenever I wanted. I remember my uncle asking me when I would bring my first girl home to “shag” so that I could prove to him that I was a “grown up man”. In fact, we were taught to prove our manhood by “hitting it” (excuse the language, but it’s the honest truth). I remember growing up with my sisters and seeing them being beaten like slaves just for not coming home on time. When this happened they would end up being accused as “hoes” and “skanks”, and we saw this as kids and assumed it was normal and it taught us as young boys that girls should “know their place”. I bring all of this up because I want to deeply challenge these patriarchal realities in my own life and in society.

Isoka is an idea of manhood designed for men, for the benefit of men. Isoka is a man who can express himself better in front of women, it’s a man with good fashion sense and ultimately the “smooth operator” who can get with a lot of girls. Isoka is what every man wants to be called in society. They are the “players” and the “Casanovas” of our time. In fact when we call a group of men amasoka it is normally to give them a status of manhood that few can achieve. The ones who then can’t achieve this status are referred to as izigwadu. They are the men who struggle to get with girls. They represent the group no one wants to belong to at all. So in growing up I clearly knew the difference between isigwadu and isoka, and the moment I realised I was becoming part of a group known by everyone as izigwadu, I ran like the wind. Why did I run? Because I knew that it was the amasoka who not only dated whoever they wanted, but they also slept with whoever they wanted. The truth of this is a reality clearly acknowledged throughout society, yet it is also a reality that is seemingly positively reinforced by the same society.

Now izintombi (meaning women in isiZulu) is in fact a word with intrinsic value in it. What is intrinsically hidden in the word is that izintombi refers to women who are virgins (the word is obviously different to intombazane, which just simply means “a girl” in the neutral sense). Intombi is praised for something totally different to isoka. Intombi must keep away from men, and if she’s ever seen in a compromising position with a man, then the whole community knows about it. A woman who is caught sleeping with a man (other than her husband) is beaten and labelled as “isifebe”. Isifebe is a loose girl who can’t control her sexual impulses. I remember one of my sisters coming back home from seeing her boyfriend (which was actually “not allowed”) and yet when she was punished, the words that were thrown at her were: “usuyafeba ke manje? Wena nondindwa” (“you are fooling around now? You are a whore”). This word, unondindwa (meaning: “a whore”), is another word used to label a “loose woman”. Yet this is where the problem lies: both isifebe and undondindwa are derogatory words used for women who are “sexually immoral”. Note that they are completely derogatory. There’s nothing appealing about being called these names. Yet men are never unondindwa or isifebe in society, men are simple amasoka. The negative and positive values places on these different words is important. Do you see the big difference here?

My privilege and dominance was formed in this terrain of society which consequently ingrained a patriarchal mindset in me that said: “it’s allowed for men but not allowed for a women”. I could go see a girl at any time of the day and no one would say a thing to me at home or anywhere in the community. I could even sleep around and have many girlfriends and yet no one would call me isifebe or unondindwa. In fact, people literally envied me by praising me with the name: isoka. Imagine the psychological effect of all of this? Being taught from a young age that it’s okay for me to “look at that booty” and thus objectivity women’s bodies.

Males are privileged from a young age in black communities. They are taught to just be themselves, but girls are taught to be everything other than themselves. If a girl expresses her sexuality she’s then told “uthanda amadoda” (and it’s obviously even worse if she gets pregnant, which for a woman, is almost the equivalent of being labelled as a murderer). Women are given a standard of humanity to live up to which is measured against societal norms which oppress them in so many ways. Another way of understanding the realities of male privilege and the supremacy of manhood is by looking at it in light of white privilege and white supremacy. In South Africa, black people have to learn to live in the white world or be cast out. It’s a world built by white people for the benefit of white people and all their ways of life. Yet if I can understand (and agree) with this then I must surely be able to understand what it means for women to say that our society is built by men for the privilege and benefit of men and that women just have to fit in and oblige.

As black men we have to face white privilege and white supremacy every day. So surely, black men should know what it’s like to struggle to “fit in”, to be obscure, to exist in a world that wasn’t built for you, to assimilate to an already established culture of living which is against everything that you represent? Black males should know what it’s like to be in pain, to be oppressed and voiceless, to be told we’re over reacting about “these issues”, to be constantly told that “surely it’s not that bad”? When white people live in their own privilege it affords them the opportunity to never have to experience racial oppression – that’s why they often don’t get it when we talk about it. Yet now (as black men) we do the very same thing to our women! It must stop now! The fight against patriarchy should be a struggle that men (especially black men) should fight shoulder to shoulder with women! Black men fight against the supremacy of white bodies over their black bodies, yet we ourselves are part of a system where female bodies are slaves of male bodies. It’s a system where men are almost god-like and women are confined to ideas of what these god-like beings want them to be. How can we want to win the fight of emancipating ourselves as black people from white supremacists who walk on black bodies every day, and yet we leave out the struggle of our women who walk with us in the very same struggle against white supremacy?

Now if you are a man, you’re probably asking yourself what can you do to be part of dismantling this patriarchal system. As a man you can start by admitting that you live in a society that has made you superior on the very backs of female bodies. Confess that you were raised privileged as a man to the disadvantage of women. If you can confess this, then surely we can start fighting towards emancipating ourselves from this god-like maleness for the sake of a more just and equal society.

Madala Ngubane – Izwe Lethu

NB! This paper is based on personal experience as well as personal insight. It is in no way explaining the lived experience of all black people and it is also not meant to depict Zulu culture and Zulu tradition as something negative in and of itself


One thought on “The male difference: izifebe and amasoka

  1. Very interesting insight that you recognize that you oppress others as you yourself have been oppressed.
    When slaves were freed on the USA two shiploads of them took up an offer to return to Africa. they were offloaded at the nearest point- Liberia (check out their flag). they immediately made the locals their slaves. It is the spirit of slavery/oppression/racism we need to fight, otherwise it will manifest in another form. Afrikaners felt oppressed by the English up till 1948. This was the seed of Apartheid


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