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Amanda Gouws: firebrand, art lover, traveller
Author: Engela Duvenage
Published: 10/09/2019

​​​​​Firebrand. Art lover. Traveller. These are the three words that friends recently sponsored as a birthday gift for political scientist Prof Amanda Gouws. There's a host others that one could choose to describe her by too: Feminist. Academic. Garagist winemaker. Columnist. Lover of poems and novels. Fighter. Friend. Mother. Activist. Political psychologist.

“I am very accessible to my students and likeminded people, but stereotypically people think that I am difficult, and that I am often angry. Which is of course also true some of the time," she just smiles in her office in the Arts and Social Sciences building with its view over the campus of Stellenbosch University. "But if for instance you've been at a university for 30 years, and still have to constantly reinvent the wheel ever so often, you really do get a little fed up."

On Wednesday 11 September Gouws will present the next lecture in the Division for Research Development's Forward with Research Impact series, at 13:00 in the Old Main Building (law faculty). She will talk about the influence that attitudes about culture have on gender equality.

"Interestingly, the data shows that women tend to feel more strongly about the stereotypical roles of men and women, and that some go to great lengths to reproduce them," explains Gouws, who was among the thousands of South Africans who marched to Parliament last week to protest against violence against women.

Gouws currently holds the SARChI Chair in Gender Politics in the Department of Political Science. She has served on more committees on women's issues, sexual harassment, gender equality, discrimination and violence against women within the sphere of the University and South Africa than is appropriate for one CV. She has written new courses, arranged overseas exchange programmes and co-authored a book on political tolerance in South Africa. She has also helped to edit four others, the latest being Nasty Women Talk Back (2018) with her PhD student, Joy Watson.

For the past 16 years, Gouws has written opinion pieces for the newspaper Die Burger. She regularly shares her views on gender-related issues on radio and on television. No wonder she was one of the first academics to receive a new Rector's Award for being an outstanding voice in the media last year.

Through her bi-weekly opinion pieces, Gouws tries to broaden Afrikaans readers' perspectives on gender, politics and social events in the country.

“In 2003, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation asked me to write something for Youth Day. It was about how vastly different white and black students engaged with issues about reconciliation, or something like that," she tries to recall. “Back then (Thabo) Mbeki was still president. He later quoted almost two thirds from it in Parliament. Of course, it suited his agenda."

After that, Die Burger asked her to write a regular opinion piece. It often elicits quite strong, confrontational reactions – but in the process she has developed a skin as thick as a Sunday newspaper. She's been publicly called a traitor, and another time was threatened with so much heinous violence on a far-right website that she had no choice other than to report it to the Human Rights Commission. Five years later, no steps have yet been taken against the (male) author.

“I get hate mail and I also get fan mail. The hate mail can be very intense, and at first it upset me," she explains. "There are not many grey areas when it comes to what people think of me."

The hate mail is 99.9% of the time from men.

“It's not necessarily about what I said or wrote, but what I represent. 'A woman out of her place'", she muses.

Then Gouws adds: "I come from a stubborn line of French Huguenots who were prepared to stand by their principles."

The makings of a political scientist

“I love being a political scientist. In South Africa, that means there's never a dull moment. There's something about gender issues every day. I'm generally always enthusiastic about my work, and it's a big part of my identity. "

Gouws grew up as the child of a bank official who was, typical of his profession, relocated often. It meant that she quickly learnt how it felt to be the outsider. She started her schooling at Truida Kestel Primary School in Bethlehem and completed it ten different school uniforms later as the Dux learner of Eldoraigne High School in Centurion.

“Moving so often made me the outsider. You develop a sense of fairness and justice. This definitely contributed to my later choices," Gouws believes.

There was at least one plus to her father's career in the bank sector. In her first year, she was visiting the building where he was working. An art exhibition was presented in the foyer, and there this avid art collector purchases her first pieces of art. It was a set of pencil sketches by Judith Mason. Gouws simply knew she had to buy it, because of the way that Mason's social commentary spoke to her through her art.

Back then, Gouws was studying BA Communication at the then Rand Afrikaans University, largely because she loved writing. Thereafter, she became a journalist at the Afrikaans daily newspaper Beeld, while also working on an honours degree in political science.

At the newspaper, she was in for a shock, and had to hear that women couldn't write politics: “They assigned me to the fashion pages. It simply did not work for me," she emphasises.

She admits that she only understood the concept of gender equality (or lack thereof) once she stood in the workplace: “First job and they say I can't write politics. And I am qualified!"

After six months in the newspaper industry, Gouws returned to university to obtain her master's degree. In the politically loaded early 1980s, she went on to lecture at UNISA, the University of the North and later also SU. The two years she spent at the University of the North in particular, opened her eyes to the often brutal treatment that the state machinery inflicted on black activists.

In later years, she was able to put her writing talent to good use in academia, through the writing of books, columns and journal articles across a range of disciplines.

"When I write, I work with a gender lens, and specifically from a feminist perspective," she explains. “Political science is a male-dominated field. This has started to change a lot in the last two decades, but most theories are still formulated with men's view of the world in mind."

Was her gender lens a deliberate choice?

Gouws breathes in, before telling how in the 1980s she was feeling disconnected from s the politics she had to teach: “Betty Friedan, an American feminist of the 1970s, called it 'the problem with no name'. You know something is wrong, but you do not know what it is.

"I knew there were things that bothered me. There was discrimination, and there was inequality, but in the early 1980s social justice and gender equality wasn't really addressed in political science."

She left for the USA in 1986 to complete a PhD at the University of Illinois. Her majors were political science and gender studies, a subject that one at that stage could not study in South Africa.

“There I started to understand why I felt so unhappy about things. I understood that I was attracted to gender studies because of the explanations it gave me about how I understood the world and viewed it. My unhappiness with the world about how I was treated as a woman," she emphasizes.

She has since often written about feminism within institutions and the state - always with a woman's perspective - and has helped to drive the large-scale development of gender studies in political science in South Africa. She draws inspiration from other women with a feminist mindset, and from her children:

“I have two daughters, who are also young feminists," she notes, before adding: “It's not like I deliberately raised them to be feminists, but I am their mentor and role model."

Then she smiles proudly, as a mother should: “They keep me grounded. I'm so proud of them."

2019 and women in South Africa

In 1994, Gouws was one of the feminist academics who helped write submissions made to the government on how the architecture of state institutions should promote gender equality.

And, where do things stand in 2019?

"Well, I think you have to be very strong, in the sense that it is really difficult to remain positive," she tries to be diplomatic.

“Everything is rolled back. We have this very dysfunctional ministry for women, youth and people with disabilities, that have actually had no successes yet. Four ministers later, and no success," she stressed.

She tells of a conference she organized shortly before Women's Month. It investigated the state structures that should be driving gender equality. Afterwards, many of those attending the event were quite depressed.

“Things are not positive. I often work with gender-based violence. It's a terrible thing to have to work with. I was a commissioner for the Gender Equality Commission and realized within 3 months nothing was going to happen."

At the time, a report she helped compile as Western Cape commissioner calculated that prisoners receive nearly three times more state money per day than is allocated for women and children fleeing to shelters as a result of domestic violence.

Nothing has changed since then.

All of this could leave one despondent, she admits.

“I remain positive about work, because I continue to believe in it," she adds.

“It's a tough battle, but just look where we started in the 1980s and where we are now. When I was young, feminism was severely frowned upon. Now young students embrace the concept. They will take the projects further. They are much more fearless. "

Then she muses again: “I'm the proudest of the people I've mentored during my career. And who I have been able to see grow."