From the early informal art teachings of a semi-literate, stay-at-home aunt, the seed for creativity was planted. Soon this young girl would make a daily commute between a dusty village in rural Eastern Cape that she affectionately refers to as home, to a plush school in the suburbs. Through this journey her eyes were awakened to the injustice surrounding her world. Little did she know that the culmination of the two would [be]… what is now known as Circles. – Azola Goqwana
A wholly black female owned and operated company, Circles of Creative Women is a clothing brand that offers printed t-shirts and customised apparel with messaging that promotes the rights and celebrates the individuality of women. They achieve this by combining pro-women political messaging with stylish modern design.
AfriPOP! spoke to founder and managing director, Azola Goqwana, about the role of this bespoke company in advancing the feminist message and her thoughts on the movement in South Africa.
Give us a short bio of who you are and what part you play in feminist movements (state which ones)
I identify with black feminism as an ideological home which enables me to sharpen my own politics so that whatever form of activism or organising that I do always leans towards black feminism that is black conscious. This is because our challenges as women, as universal as they are, are specifically impacted by geography, race and class.
My affiliation with various collectives that identify themselves as black feminists is too long to list here but perhaps most notably I am known for my work as the founding member of the South African Young Feminists, SAY-F, which was the birth space of the thought provoking t-shirts produced by Circles. Currently I am part of a forum called Manyano which is a vehicle where I continue to participate in lobbying and creating awareness of the issues affecting African black women to build the movement of black feminism.
What was the driving force in creating these items which bear provocative statements such as Assata Shakur pronouncement of “A Women’s Place Is in The Revolution”?
Using everyday apparel allows us to make statements which stimulate debate in everyday situations and in everyday spaces. Because clothes are a common denominator, regardless of everything else that separates us as women, we are able to use them as a moving vehicle which carries our message. Our intention is to disrupt the masculine face of politics in the world. We aim to push the agenda that women can and have played a critical role in the political discourse and that the erasure of women in politics is intentional.
Assata’s statement of “A Women’s Place Is in The Revolution” is an important one as the message is universal in encouraging women to take their place in history and change the status quo. For Circles it was our first message that we printed and as we grow in operation and our messages evolve to reflect current day lived experiences, it has remained in our new range which now includes dresses and bags to complement our t-shirts and aprons.
In the South African context, we identify with Assata’s displacement from her home country, America, to living in exile in Cuba because of her politics participation. For Circles it is important to remember and celebrate women who have contributed towards the emancipation of black people. Our items therefore allow women to push back and claim the space and say we too belong here.
Can you talk about your friend who died recently? Tell us as much as you can about her and what happened to her, and how this has made you feel.
Someone I knew well as a sister and friend, whom out of respect for her family I will call Nomathemba in this article, was recently murdered by her boyfriend. She was last seen on her way to see him and following a series of screams that same evening at 2am she was found butchered in his bed the next morning. The boyfriend was apprehended by police in Johannesburg, where he had run to from Mqanduli, after he was reported by family to be there.
I am saddened by her unnecessary death because even though we know black women are vulnerable to violence, mostly through a man they are close to, there is something too close to home about it when it happens to someone you know so intimately. I am sad because in my last conversation with Nomathemba, three weeks prior to her death, we spoke about her friend who had been butchered.
I am also angry because, until when will the unnecessary deaths of black women that die in various ways in this country continue to go unpunished? We have normalised violence so much as a society, but more so we have privatised violence against women. This is evident in Nomathemba’s cries which went unanswered at 2am that fateful evening. The reality is that even the most well intended person couldn’t respond to her cries because of general normalisation of brutality against black women.
What do you think our message has to be in light of all the violence that happens to women in this country?
We need to create a language that is centred in changing the lives of poor black women as they are the majority of the oppressed in the country. This needs to change in business, politics and education. Society in general needs to change in how it treats violence against women.
What do you have to say to the backlash encapsulated in the “men are trash” statement on social media?
“Black men are trash” is a result of our lived experiences as black women. We didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to man bash and be mean. Instead we use the statement to call out clear accounts of patriarchy’s ugly head. Like the man who, on a public platform, Twitter in this case, asked a woman he’d slept with to come back and wash her menstrual blood stains off his sheet. Like the man who butchered my Nomathemba and the many men who violate women daily in various ways. Our society is more invested in telling women how to react to the violence instead of asking why women are saying ‘men are trash’.
What does it mean to be a feminist? And a feminist in South Africa?
Being a black feminist in South Africa means that we are breaking down the unjust status quo and disrupting the “order” of things. But naturally, the minute you declare that you are a black feminist people’s defences go up and you are labelled a mad man basher who is ungrateful for the “great and glossy” South African constitution. Black feminism also gives me and others a language to articulate our oppression and find ways of plotting and planning how to challenge power.
So the reality is that as black feminists we are constantly required to defend our position and redirect negative assumptions in support of our cause. But our greatest battle lies in being able to develop a national coordinating body or structure to ensure that the pockets of amazing work being done on the ground and the amazing social media campaigns which stimulates debate and national outcries start to translate into policy and law. More importantly, our awareness and education campaigns can and should be more strategic and coordinated. But this takes money and because capitalism benefits from the marginalisation of disenfranchised women, nobody is eager to give.
As per the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie vs Beyoncé debate – what are feminisms that each of these two women espouse, or do you not care? How important is it to state what kind of feminist you you are or what kind of feminism you espouse?
At its core, feminism promotes choice. So if Beyoncé chooses to portray herself as a certain type, which distinctively differs from Chimamanda’s feminism, who are we to cast stone and say she is not a feminist? However, it becomes problematic when she portrays herself as a feminist yet certain lyrics in her more circular music says the opposite. For instance, when she declares her Diva status but compares it to a version of a man, or when she and her husband JayZ sing about Ike and Tina Turners’ abusive relationship as if it’s something to be celebrated. This crosses so many fundamental lines of feminism and this begs the question, “are we seeing the commercialisation of feminism to sell more records?”
Having said that though, and as important as the fundamentals are, I don’t believe we must sanitise feminism because none of us get baptised into it. It’s a process of unlearning of hundreds of years of socialisation. I always say to my black feminist counterparts, how much space do we allow and where do we draw the line?
Prejudice results with women being marginalised in various ways that are oppressive and hence the need to build more enterprises such as Circles which not only see women as active participants in their own economic emancipation but also creates a space which is conducive for us to thrive regardless of the barriers imposed by patriarchy. Enabling us to become the change we want to see in the world.
This interview is dedicated to Nomathemba and all the other poor black South African women who have been murdered this year. Even one is too many.