Patriarchy and gender roles in South African praise poetry

Praise poetry, known as ‘izibongo’ in Zulu, ‘maboko’ in Tshwane, and ‘lithoko’ in Sotho (Gunner 1991:1), is a unique form of oral literature in Africa. It is practised across the continent in various countries as a means of storytelling, historical interpretation, entertainment, political discourse, and ceremonious adulation to kings, chiefs, warriors, and other important figures. Praise poetry is a semi-structured genre where there are loosely defined categories and functions which serve different purposes. Both male and female Africans are involved in the art, however the praise poets are predominantly male. Men and women have different roles in the way praises are performed and sung. An investigation into these roles leads us to question whether there is equality between genders in this industry of performance poetry in Africa. The content of the poems also gives us an indication of whether patriarchy is upheld by this particular art form or not. In this essay, I will demonstrate that praise poetry in South Africa alone upholds the notions of patriarchy by examining the gender roles assigned to poets, and the masculine and feminine content in the poems.

Ruth Finnegan, from the Open University, writes extensively about praise poetry in her book, Oral Literature in Africa. From reading about the customs and traditions related to praise poetry in her book, one can notice that praise poetry functions within the patriarchal system of the culture. It does not go against the traditional beliefs of male superiority over women. The praises show that men are given more reverence than women, men are praised more often than women, and male poets supersede the number of female poets.

Starting from childhood, boys are trained to become praise poets during initiation practices. An investment is made into developing and honing their performance skills. The king’s court provides apprenticeship opportunities for potential poets. A male is chosen as the lead praise poet, called an imbongeni. His role is to work closely with the king’s royal entourage to praise the king and the ancestors. The imbongeni has a troupe of performers who also work with him; in this team there is only one female and her role is to essentially provide sound effects for the main poet. She is not given the role to perform the words or main parts of the poem. She works to emphasise the points which the imbongeni makes. (Finnegan 2012:83-164) Her function is limited and is secondary to the male poet. This clearly indicates a patriarchal structure within the king’s royal performance group. It is also worth mentioning that the queen does not have a praise poet of her own. 

Apart from the royal courts, praise poetry is performed in communities. There are individuals who work as freelance poets. They move from one place to another, seeking out wealthy and important people to praise. (Finnegan 2012:83-164) The object of their praises are usually the ones to pay them, therefore their praises are mostly given to men, as men are the ones who hold the wealth in the patriarchal communities. As Finnegan points out, “Poets naturally turn to the patronage of well-off men.” (2012:153) This is yet another way in which women are side-lined from the content in poems.  Men form the bulk of the content in poems because they are the kings, chiefs, and warriors in the community. When women are praised, it is often in the capacity of being a mother. She is respected and admired for her role as a mother, and not for her individuality, career, or other achievements. Women in the community sometimes do write and recite poems, but these are usually only on the subject of domestic issues, where women might complain about problems with polygamy. Elizabeth Gunner says, “Women’s izigiyo hardly ever touch on war, and focus often on things close to their lives like money (or the lack of it) or absent lovers…” (1991:2) This reinforces the patriarchy where women are limited and reduced.   

The women in the community are given the opportunity to create and perform praises in a specific setting. They are called on to give praises at funerals and memorial rites. This is the one category in which women are given the leadership role. (Finnegan 2012:83-164) This decision, however, is based on the stereotype that women are more emotionally charged than men. This type of praise singing at funerals and memorial rites include sobbing, wailing and weeping. The content performed by these women, praise the lineages of both the maternal and paternal ancestors, so in this regard there is equality amongst the genders. However, there are instances when the content of songs favour men and their motivations to enforce patriarchy. 

One such example is the use of the song Umshini Wami by the politician Jacob Zuma. Elizabeth Gunner points out in the ‘Journal for African Affairs’, that Zuma used the song to stir up old emotions in South Africans about the apartheid liberation struggle while he was facing rape allegations. The song worked as a war cry in support of Zuma against his so-called political enemies. Zuma politicised the song to his advantage by implying that his political adversaries were using the rape allegations to sabotage his election as South African president. The song was originally sung during the Apartheid Liberation Struggle. When the song resurfaced with Zuma, supporters were filled with old memories of battle and injustice. Umshini Wami, when translated in English, means ‘machine gun’. This symbol of the machine gun evoked images of power and brute force, which supported the masculine ideal of female subordination. This effectively helped Zuma to reduce the validity of Kwezi’s rape claims, and revealed gender inequalities in South Africa’s patriarchal culture.   

In the book ‘Musho!’ written by Elizabeth Gunner, there are poems under the chapter of Men, Women and Children, which vividly describe the attitude of men towards women. Polygamy and adultery are praised amongst men. When Elias Majadu is confronted by his mother-in-law about hitting his wife, he blame-shifts onto his wife, saying that she fights him! (Gunner 1991: 197) An attitude of contempt for women underlies the male-dominated culture.  Lines such as, “Fucker of the girl who was too hot and was never satisfied, whom he passed onto his brother. His brother in turn passed her onto the Mpukunyoni fellows with the heavy balls” (Gunner 1991:197), show that men have the freedom in izibongo to speak about women as they wish, and they are spurred on by their male peers. In comparison, the poems show that male genitalia are described with honour and strength to glorify the masculine. In the poem, The Izibongo of a Young Mjadu Man, it is said, “One whose penis head has medals of honour.” (Gunner 1991:199) The title of Gunner’s book itself, shows us that at the heart of praise poetry is the masculine – Musho means ‘Speak him’.    

I conclude that praise poetry, on the surface, looks like a free genre involving all genders, but on closer inspection reveals an underlying structure which reinforces patriarchy in South Africa. Female poets in the royal courts, freelance female poets, and women in the community are assigned separate functions which are subordinate and supportive to male poets. Women’s voices are restricted and reduced based on the topics of praise which they are allowed to speak about. Finnegan states, “Certain kinds of poetry are typically delivered or sung by women particularly dirges, lullabies, mocking verses, and songs to accompany women’s ceremonies or work).” (2012:58) A clear distinction exists in praise poetry, by way of gender roles about who performs what and how, and within the content of the poems itself.    

Works Cited:

Barber, K. 2003. Text and Performance in Africa. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 66 (3):324-333, (accessed 4 July 2022) 

Barber, K. 2018. A History of African Popular Culture. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

Finnegan, R. 2012. Oral Literature in Africa. Open Book Publishers CIC Ltd. Cambridge, United Kingdom. 

Gunner, E. & Gwala. 1991.  Musho! Zulu Popular Praises. Michigan State University Press. Michigan, United States of America. 

Gunner, E. 1995 Remaking the warrior? Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 7(2): 19-30, (accessed 4 July 2022) 

Gunner, E. 2008. Africa and Orality. The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, (accessed 4 July 2022) 

Gunner, E. 2009. Jacob Zuma, the Social Body, and the Unruly Power of Song. African Affairs 108 (430): 27-48 (accessed 4 July 2022) 

Seddon, D. 2008. Written out, Writing in: Orature in the South African Literary Canon. English in Africa , 35 (1): 133-150 (accessed 4 July 2022) 

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