COVID-19 has become a household word across the globe. It is a stark matter of life or death that disrupts human movement and postgraduate students are no exception.
Unlike forestalled classroom activities, postgraduate supervision has continued throughout the lockdown. Postgraduate students are expected to attain qualification-specific attributes. South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP): Vision 2030 envisages that Higher Education Institutions will produce more than 100 doctoral graduates per million of the population per year by 2030. In 2018, the Council on Higher Education unveiled nine graduate attributes. Five are concerned with knowledge, namely, obtaining both broad and specialised knowledge; gaining insight into related fields; heightening ethical awareness and making an original contribution to knowledge production. The other four attributes are skills-based and require applied use of appropriate methodologies; reflection and autonomy; and communication and digital literacy skills as well as critical thinking for problem solving.
What does this mean for doctoral (or Master’s) students subjected to homebound lockdown, full or partial? For example, how can the African female doctoral student cope with the depth of her doctoral study whilst home-schooling children, and handling cooking, laundry and cleaning especially when the ‘nanny’ or ‘helper’ may be absent? What if she is gainfully employed and must now also work from home? Perhaps she is part of “essential services” and on the front-line fighting the war against COVID-19. This is where I hear Sly and the Family Stone declare to female doctoral students: ‘It’s a family affair’. The song continues: ‘One child grows up to be; somebody that just loves to learn’, and “Another child grows up to be; somebody you’d just love to burn’. Lyrist Sylvester Stone’s hypotheses are being tested during the lockdown period and will continue to be throughout the unlocking stages.
That doctoral student is somebody who loves to learn and she would likely love to burn those who interfere. Staying at home with moment to moment encounters with everyone can turn the achievement of doctoral attributes into a family affair. This calls for us to reflect on indigenous ways of knowing and being, particularly in terms of gender complementarity. Unlike women in the westernised societies of centuries gone by, whose daily life was relegated to the domestic sphere, African women in ancient societies were very active in public life – politically, socially, economically, spiritually, militarily and otherwise. We learn from Diop’s classic work, The Cultural Unity of Black Africa that ‘the Africans had produced a civilization where men were secure enough to let women advance as far as their talent, royal lineage and prerogatives would take them’. This includes pre-colonial female leadership in public life through amakhosikazi and amakhosazana among Zulu and makhadzi among Venda peoples (all “royal” women leaders). The institution of “Queen Mother” as king-maker was evident in Ghana, Zululand and elsewhere. Igbo female political leadership included dual-sex organisations as well as umuada (patrilineage daughters) who provided governance structures complementary to broader governance modalities.
Esther Boserup’s book on economic development foregrounds the fierceness of Yoruba women in the marketplace. Whilst westernised women remained “perpetual minors” under the tutelage of their husbands, African women were traditional leaders of communities and were military leaders for Fon, Shona, Zulu and other territories. As spiritual leaders, they worked with male rulers by engaging the ancestors in governance. In Zimbabwe, a ruler once ignored advice from the ancestral spirits and his army employed a female traditional leader from another community to spearhead a rebellion against him.
So fluid and flexible were gender relations in ancient Africa that there were “male daughters and female husbands” among the Kikuyu, Kuria, Nandi (Kenya); Nnobi (Nigeria); Lovedu, Venda, Tonga, and Zulu (Southern Africa) peoples, to name but a few. For example, a male daughter when there was no son to handle political and economic matters. Barren and son-less women of wealth (who might be married to a man), became a female husband to advance the paternal lineage and protect future inheritance. These woman-to-woman marriages had nothing to do with sexual relations, but the female husband might participate in selecting a “sperm-donor” for her wife. Such relationships resulted in women being actively involved in public leadership. The notion of patriarchy is a westernised concept imposed by colonisers who were taken aback by and sought to dismantle the role of independent African women in pre-colonial societies.
How can indigenous ways of knowing gender complementarity uplift African female doctoral students in a COVID-19 world that is forcing homebound familial contact? These students confront a myriad of challenges on the home front that could make them a PhD drop-out statistic. Financial, family and time management challenges are the main reasons that doctoral students drop-out. Although she is trying to be strong and stoic, I can hear Sly and the Family Stone serenading her: ‘You can’t cry ’cause you’ll look broke down. But you’re cryin’ anyway ’cause you’re all broke down’.
We will all be “broke down” if we fail to produce South African born doctoral graduates who can innovatively upscale our depressed economy which COVID-19 helped degenerate into ‘junk status’. A 2018 Department of Higher Education and Training report shows that the more than 100% increase in doctoral graduates from South African universities between 2009 and 2016 primarily stemmed from the inclusion of Africans from other countries. We are all “broke down” if we fall short of knowledge production that empowers South Africa’s voice in continental and global affairs. This is why attaining doctoral attributes is a family affair and why we should revisit indigenous ways of knowing gender and create an enabling environment in each and every home and extended family for the African female doctoral student to exercise her talents and prerogatives. Provided we use the COVID-19 lockdown phases as a turn-around strategy to promote gender complementarity instead of a death sentence, she can become a doctoral graduate who helps us to meet our NDP targets.