Writing the history of sex in South Africa

Presented by Catherine Burns

Monday, 6 August, 2012 - 15:00

In the early1980s South Africa, a society in the midst of a huge socio-economic and political revolution, suddenly saw a striking number of films and books with central sexual themes being released for general or restricted consumption. The South African Union, and later Republic, formed in 1910 produced seventy years of state work around sex. The pervasive and extensive use of banning orders and other forms of legal, political, moral, social and discursive forms of control over sex and sexual expression, marked out the South African state from other regions of the world colonised by Anglo powers in the 17th to 19th centuries. I will argue that this feature of the South African state distinguished the country in relation to the ex-settler colonies of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as the recently formed post 1979 state of Zimbabwe. Laws and official discourses about sexual themes and sex in post-Anglo independent states such as Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi, and states on the borders of South Africa, such as Botswana and Mozambique, need more detailed treatment than they have received in scholarly literature, but in these societies the depth and tenacity of legislation and policing around sex never matched the purpose, dedicated resources, or ferocity of South Africa. This feature of the state was intrinsic to its nervous conditions, its raison d'ĂȘtre, and its form of rule. It was an immensely fertile and productive project of state power, drawing in powerful patriarchal, normative, religious, cultural and medical domains of power with great persistence. It displayed both overt and furtive characteristics, and it produced and generated a myriad of intended and unintended perversions. It was a domain of state power less challenged and less resisted than many other areas of state power, and its discursive and lived legacies linger on in the pathologies and contradictions besetting South Africa today.

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