Panashe Chigumadzi is the founder and editor of womanist platform Vanguard Magazine, an online publication for young black women in South Africa speaking to the intersectionality of queer politics, Black Consciousness and pan-Africanism. The magazine is a response to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, endeavouring to foster and build new queer black feminist futures. The notion of plurality is central to the editorial policy of the publication, as Panashe believes that it is only through creating a space for multiple, varied and local stories that healing can begin to take place. Similarly, she sees Vanguard as a safe space that might engage with harsh truths, but always from a place of love.
What first prompted you to think of starting Vanguard?
Vanguard started because I wasn’t seeing myself represented in local media – not only on the covers, but on the mastheads and most importantly in the ownership structures. I wanted to create a space that spoke to me as a black woman, in all the fullness of my life, without any anthropology (think: ‘modern sangoma’ stories), the false dichotomies (think: ‘weaves vs afroes’) and most importantly where young black women would not need to italicise, explain or censor themselves.
What happened next?
I went back and forth with the idea, but what perhaps finally pushed me was picking up a copy of the November 2013 edition of FASHIZBLACK featuring Kelly Rowland at Exclusive Books. I had been following the digital edition of FASHIZBLACK, a Paris-based magazine established by young Africans, since the Solange Knowles issue and this was the second print edition that I had bought. Perhaps a year earlier I had read on their site that the magazine was planning to go in to print once it got the funding, but in the meantime would continue with the digital edition and now here I was, all the way in South Africa, with a hardcopy of the print edition of a magazine established by young Africans in France. That gave me the push as a young writer with very little capital to simply start on my publishing idea: if I could just start online one day I would also be able to have my print edition bought worldwide like FASHIZBLACK had done. I remember going home and very excitedly telling my Ever-Suffering about it, holding the pages up to him and saying “If they could do it, what’s stopping me from starting my own thing?”
Literally the next week I was requesting quotes from web designers and working on the beginnings of ‘Generation’ magazine, which (thanks to the intervention of loving friends and one of our early Culture editors Nombuso Nkambule, who did a survey at a carwash on the name – big NOs! Reminded some of the soapie – and eventually suggested the new one) eventually became Vanguard Magazine, our digital baby.
Now, just over a year old, we are relaunching the site next month with a very different vision from when it was started. We, that is my partner Thato Magano and myself, still have the determination to have a print edition and talk about what form it will take very often.
Have you always been interested in media, or was this something that developed? Please tell us a little about the journey you’re on.
I have always been interested in writing and I wanted to pursue it as a career. I have also thought of studying things like Anthropology and History. My mother and father, a doctor and an accountant respectively, were not having any of that. So I did the safe thing which was to study accounting and was en route to becoming a chartered accountant. In the final year of my undergraduate degree I decided that I was tired of debits and credits and through a series of cold calls and lucky opportunities I was able to land a job in business media. Media, and in particular, mass media was a way for me to begin to communicate the ideas that I had found so important in reading African literature about identity and black consciousness to a wider audience. Of course, my ideas have evolved over time and I am no longer exclusively interested in Black Consciousness alone, I have come to learn about intersectional feminism and African feminisms and would articulate the ideas differently. Beyond that, I am no longer interested in ‘identity issues’ I am interested in how we can change the socio-economic order and that is reflected in why I am interested in who owns platforms and who gets to participate.
During a Ted-x talk you spoke about the importance of creating and shaping local, nuanced and relevant stories. Reflecting back on Vanguard thus far, how has this sentiment influenced and informed what you’ve done with this platform?
It’s hugely important in so many ways. For example, as black feminists in South Africa we draw a lot on the amazing work done by African American feminists on developing and defining intersectional feminism in thought and action. That is why the likes of bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, Kimberle Crenshaw and a lot of new and younger feminists such as Feminista Jones and Laverne Cox are inevitably referenced. However the question that is asked and raised by important young South African feminists such as Wanelisa Xaba is around the relevance of their experience to us.
Xaba says: “They are relevant to us African feminists especially in a South African context where we live under white supremacy where the Gatekeepers are an anti-Black government. They understand what it means to fight on all fronts. I am not saying that Audre Lorde is not useful, in fact my whole thing is that her and Angela Davis had/have a very broad sense of the term Black and to continuously make connections with the Global South. Even Assata Shakur in Cuba. But I become very critical of Alice Walker and her positionality when she delivers a talk in South Africa and criticises our president’s polygamous marriage. It’s like, you don’t have the understanding and cultural knowledges to understand the nuances of that. You can’t talk about that lady, sorry. Again, I think that even though I may not claim to know what it is to be an AA, however I educate myself quite regularly on their struggles and terms and tools. But I wonder if I would be able to have a conversation with Black feminists in the US about the cultural complexities of female circumcision and the fact that I know some feminists who want their husbands to pay lobola.”
Overall, the most important thing for us to remember is that blackness is not homogenous even within South Africa and even for intersectional feminists. We first of all recognise that blackness is not only defined by skin – it is also defined by aspects such as gender, class, sexuality, able-bodiedness, body shape, nationality and more.
As the editor of a platform that aims to give voice to as many black experiences as possible, I have to be aware of the many privileges and blind spots that I have as a black heterosexual, able-bodied, middleclass, cis-gender woman. I have to be committed to listening first and foremost and secondly actively creating the space that encourages and develops voices that are marginalised.
As editor, what does your role involve and where are you steering the publication?
A large part of my role is listening, asking questions and encouraging. I have to listen to what conversations people are having and what is on their minds. I have to ask hard questions of our contributors and of ourselves. I have to do a lot of encouraging with my contributors because there is always a concerted effort to silence and delegitimise the voices of young black people (additionally so for those who are also queer, female, poor, disabled and other social identities that are not the accepted norm) and let them know that their voices are valid.
Beyond that, a huge part of Vanguard is my partner Thato Magano. We spend hours debating – the topics, the politics of our picture and headline choices, our editorial plans, the way our site lives and more. A large part of my time is spent being challenged by him. I think I do the same for him.
Can you tell us a little about the people who contribute to Vanguard and those who read it?
The people who contribute to Vanguard are young black South Africans who want to break down white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and want to build new queer black feminist futures. We are not perfect, they are not perfect, but we are interested in learning and building ourselves. So these are people who are interested in what their intersectional feminist politics means on a Monday morning. In other words, these are people who, beyond wanting to write, want to live their politics whether they relate to the big news items of the day, relationships, music choice, social media, whatever. Vanguard contributors are visionaries who are interested in everyday consciousness. I would say the same for our readers.
What is the tone of the publication and what does this say about Vanguard?
There’s a popular twitter/facebook line that goes “Your fave is problematic”, meaning that the people who we idolise and paint as having perfect politics are likely to be found to be wanting somewhere. I would adjust that and say we are all problematic. We all have some form of dodgy politics and perspectives that we have learnt and have not seen anything wrong with, it’s just that we might not be famous enough for a hashtag to be started to call us out.
So, in recognising this, we are interested in this being a platform for unlearning. We recognise that we ourselves are conditioned to the white default. We are conditioned to the able-bodied default, to the heteronormative default, to the patriarchal default. And, and, and. There is a lot that we have to unlearn in order to learn new ways of being. That is why we really discourage our writers from being preachy and always ask that they insert themselves in whatever topic they write about it because that process of being honest and critical about where you stand in relation to a certain politics for both the writer and the reader of the articles. I hope I will never see the day when we have #panashebelike or #vanguardlogic trending, but I think it’s important that we will make mistakes. The most important is having a space where we can learn from each other in a safe space.
Very importantly, in a world that is anti-black, anti-women, anti-queer, anti-poor, anti-…. it is important that we come from a place of love. There may be harsh truths that will be written, but they are always done in love. There is a fine line between critique and criticism that we have to tread. Love is an important principle for any kind of radical and transformative politics.
Why is the content you publish important?
It’s important because there is a tide of change happening in South Africa right now. Black South African youth are awake and defining a new decolonised future for themselves and the country. We are a platform that aims to give expression to that as we debate and dissect the internal contradictions and ways in which we are complicit in maintaining the status quo.
What will never be published on Vanguard?
Anything that is anti-black, anti-queer, anti-womyn, anti-trans, anti-, anti-poor… the list goes on. Essentially anything that is anti-black and beyond that, because we are intersectional feminists, we will not publish anything that does not recognise that blackness is not defined by the black heterosexual male. It’s important that we don’t pick and choose between consciousness. That means that we don’t want your feminism if you are homophobic. We don’t want your queer politics if you fat-shame. We don’t want your Black Consciousness if you are misogynistic.
Beyond that there are some specifics. In particular, it is important that is not ahistorical and de-contextualised. We are not interested in ‘Capitalist Nigger-esque’ writing that victim blames oppressed people and ignores historic socio-economic conditions. For example, we will not publish any “weaves vs afroes” pieces that shame weave-wearers but do not speak of school codes of conduct that ban “exotic hair such as afroes” or workplace discrimination of natural hair. Likewise, we will not publish pieces on absent black fathers without any reference to the migrant labour system, etc.
Please can you share your thoughts on the importance and necessity of black women-only spaces and platforms?
In a world that is not only anti-black, but anti-women, one that is defined by what the queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey calls ‘misogynoir’, these are so important. After seeing the backlash to the important space that is #ForBlackGirlsOnly, I wrote that we as Vanguard say “‘Njalo!’ to all those who use their “#AllLivesMatter” logic to issues that specifically affect black women. I have written before about how the presence of white bodies in spaces where black women come to heal can be deeply hurtful and divisive.” I quoted her then and I quote her again because I think the words of the brilliant and brave Sivu Onesipho Siwisa, organiser of #ForBlackGirlsOnly and Founder of Ikasi Pride summarise it best:
“I think the time has long gone for us to tip toe around needing Black only spaces. I am not apologetic about that. We cannot deal with trauma and damaging experiences anywhere because we are called upon to be ‘inclusive’. NO! Everywhere, every day, we are called upon to explain and legitimise our pain; as Black people, as Women, as Queer and Trans folk. Everyday we are expected to rise through the trenches of our experiences in order to justify why we are worthy of being alive, unharmed or not traumatized, particularly to people who could not care less if we are harmed or traumatised. #ForBlackGirlsOnly is a deliberate and unapologetic space to centre the lives and experiences of Black women right across gender and sexuality lines. It is a space to share tools to build ourselves. A space to tend to our wounds – wounds we may have not even known we had. It is a space of safety, however momentary, where Black girls are not threatened. This space is especially important if Black Girls want to survive in a world not designed to see them alive. It is even more important now, as we have realised that we still have to explain our pain and have it weighed or debated for validity. I am unapologetic about wanting to create spaces where Black people can breathe without having to mumble or silence themselves around Whiteness out of fear of offending or hurting our White counterparts. Personally, I will not debate my pain or trauma as a Black Queer Woman. I will also not coddle or baby walk anyone about it. I am certainly not wanting it validated or legitimised by anybody. Just don’t distract me trying to deal with it.”
Is there such a thing as positive discrimination?
To be honest, that is a very tiring question, one that is usually followed in conversations with those who are against affirmative action policies and are wilfully blind to the continuing legacy of past (and current) injustice. It is related to the ideas of so-called ‘reverse racism’, ‘reverse sexism’ and ‘misandry’. Yes of course certain forms of discrimination are justified. The reason it is a tiring question is because, as Sivu Siwisa mentions, we are constantly being asked to justify ourselves. The only reason I will articulate the reasons as I have done in the past question is to address the concerns of black and other historically disadvantaged groups who feel that they are not justified in taking corrective action for themselves.
At the beginning of this month you penned an editorial entitled “We are Your Sisters Killjoy…” as a response to women’s month. Can you tell us more about the sentiments of that piece, as well as your thoughts on women’s day/month in general.
The editorial was a play on the Ghanian feminist writer Ama Ata Aidoo’s brilliant novel ‘Our Sister Killjoy’. I used it in commentary of the way in which “gender talk” and “women’s empowerment” is done in South Africa skirting radical and transformative gender work. Women’s month is a very conservative take on gender that is untransformative for the vast majority of South African women and, amongst other issues of gender equality, leaves the country in a position where for example gender based violence is ordinary.
Essentially the sentiment is that we are ‘Killjoys’ of the ways in which we avoid addressing patriarchy and the many forms of violence that it comes in – be it physical abuse, emotional abuse, or patriarchal gender norms and roles.
As said, “We are Your Sisters Killjoys of all things banal in their reinforcement of patriarchy and white supremacy through notions of women’s empowerment that hinge themselves on the image of the ever-suffering Strong Black Woman. We are the Sisters Killjoys of all notions of black womanhood that Hoteps love, you know, the ‘Nubian Black Queen’ ever loyal and devoted to her ‘Black King’. We are the Sisters Killjoys of all notions of black womanhood that Fake Deep men or ‘progressive patriarchs’ such as Steve Harvey will so generously advise us to become in order for us to become marriageable.”
What alternative would you posit? How can we celebrate women without being discriminatory?
The point is that you cannot celebrate women without being committed to fighting patriarchy and other systematic forms of oppression such as racism, homophobia, classism and ableism that are interlinked with it. If you continue to celebrate women while continuing with those oppressions then what you are doing is harmful because it is a distraction from what is important for us to focus on.
Looking to the future, what changes do you hope to see in our society?
We tweeted this the other day:
We hope to see the decolonisation project that is being carried forth by student movements and black youth come into full effect in South Africa, the continent and the wider world.
Similarly, looking ahead, where do you see yourself and Vanguard?
Of course in the very near future, October to be exact, my debut novel Sweet Medicine will be published by Blackbird, an imprint of Jacana. That is exciting and scary because I find fiction to be more personal than non-fiction because I think you really get to know someone through their imagination and I’m letting people in on that.
Beyond that at this point in time, I know that I want to continue to be a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I would like to be an academic. I would like to contribute to meaningful thought and action that will help bring us closer to those black feminist futures. I will pursue whatever is required in order for me to do that.
Likewise, Vanguard aims to be a platform that contributes to meaningful thought and action in bringing us closer to those black feminist futures in South Africa, the continent and the wider world. We will be guided by that – whether that means we need to get into print, stay exclusively digital, publish books, create more web series, host more events, decide to have contributors as exclusively black women, or that we decide we need to publish news – we don’t know, but we are excited and want to continue the process of unlearning to relearn.
Photos of Panashe by Tarryn Hatchett.