Gender, Violence and Moral Ambiguity in Rural South Africa

Blog post by Kathleen Rice

I am an anthropologist and currently co-lead a research project entitled “Ukuvula Isango:  Opening the Gate to Women’s Empowerment and Post-Pandemic Reconstruction in Rural South Africa[KR1] .” Ukuvula Isango documents women’s pandemic precarity through longitudinal life history interviews, as a first step towards developing a program of social action and policy recommendation for post-pandemic rebuilding. So far, the team of graduate student researchers who are working on Ukuvula Isango have collected over 100 life history interviews, and from this data it is evident that domestic violence is a pervasive challenge in contemporary rural South African life. I find the following example to be especially thought-provoking:

Bonelwa (graduate student researcher) was getting her hair plaited and was chatting with three young women who work at an informal rural salon. All three women were unmarried and precariously employed, and recounted candidly that they enjoy and depend on the modest financial contributions provided by multiple boyfriends. Such arrangements are unremarkable in South Africa today, as contemporary economic precarities intersect with longstanding forms of romantic intimacy in which affect and material provision go hand in hand (see Hunter 2018; 2002). The three women cautioned, however, that each boyfriend must believe that he is the only one, otherwise he will use violence to force fidelity.  This claim is also unsurprising given South Africa’s notoriously antagonistic and violent gender politics.  What is more thought-provoking, in my opinion, is that one hairstylist, “Babalwa” [pseudonym] commented that she prefers to be in a violent relationship, because after her boyfriend has beaten her he will regret it for days, and he will show remorse by giving her gifts and increasing the amount of financial support that he provides. Thus, by Babalwa’s account, being beaten by one’s intimate partner is in some ways desirable, because it leads to increased security while revitalizing the relationship.

Although shocking to liberal sensibilities, I would argue that Babalwa’s reasoning makes sense in the context of the rural Eastern Cape. This is because, in South Africa today, discourses of human rights and gender equality which disavow practices such as violent gendered discipline are ubiquitous and are guaranteed as attributes of citizenship, meaning men like Babalwa’s boyfriend will certainly “know” that they have done something morally reprehensible and potentially criminal by beating their girlfriends. Yet at the same time, economic realities and an idiom of tradition that posits gender inequality and violent discipline as aspects of gendered personhood and as legitimate dimensions of intimacy constantly confound the egalitarian, rights-based principles that are promoted in state discourses, popular media, and by many NGOs. How Rights and Responsibilities in Rural South Africarural Xhosa navigate these complicated pragmatic and ideological circumstances is the central focus of my new book, entitled Rights and Responsibilities in Rural South Africa: Gender, Generation, and the Crisis of Meaning[KR2] . In it, argument unfolds through an exploration of topics such a s gender-based violence, bride abduction, gendered and generational conflicts about human rights, and the meaning of forms of state support such as old age pensions and disability grants. In so doing, I show that contemporary life in rural South Africa entails selectively deploying, embracing, and rejecting often incommensurate moral frames as a survival strategy, thus enacting, sustaining, and reproducing moral ambiguity about what it means to be a good person who knows their place I the world.   


Hunter, M. (2018). The political economy of concurrent partners: toward a history of sex–love–gift connections in the time of AIDS. In The Political Economy of HIV in Africa (pp. 28-41). London: Routledge.

Hunter, M. (2002). The materiality of everyday sex: thinking beyond ‘prostitution’. African studies, 61(1), 99-120.