- National MothersSinging a Queer Family Romance for the New South Africa
“Wait, so you mean that South Africa has two mothers?” Suzanne’s eyebrow was arched, and her head was tilted in the manner that told me we’d stumbled onto something important. We were untangling one of my dissertation chapters, and I had explained that scholar Meg Samuelson identifies both Sarah/Sara/Saartjie Baartman and Krotoa/Eva as figurative national mothers in recent South African literary and public discourse.1 I hadn’t yet read Brenna Munro’s characterization of the New South Africa as a “queer family romance,” but the idea that the South African national family might be distinctly queer helped me to think through the complexities of gendered citizenship and national performativity.2
In this article I consider ways that female singers have navigated and reworked motherhood in relation to the South African nation. Even as the profound queerness of the New South Africa produces alternatives to the conventional gendering of citizenship, the trope of mothering the nation reinscribes normative and limited female roles.3 In particular, the work of nurturing, comforting, [End Page 77] restoring, and reeducating both individuals and a society damaged by colonization, apartheid, militarist nationalism, and recovery-era crime and corruption rests with mother figures.4 Even as women are expected to assume this burden, their voices are dismissed or silenced using a discourse of bad mothering. I argue, therefore, that by thinking the New South Africa as a queer family of choice, the role of mothering the nation can be expanded and reinvented.
A Queer National Family
Brenna Munro describes the emergence of the New South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a “coming-out,” not a rebirth. She thus unhinges the national narrative from conventional natalist discourse, tracing instead the literary queering of white national family romance through a series of postapartheid novels employing gay or bisexual characters as symptom of the degeneracy of the old order or sign of the modernity and diversity of the new nation.5 She also, however, describes a family tree that diverges widely from the colonial or apartheid model of a racially homogeneous, heteronormative family in which white men run the state, white women reproduce the next generation, and black workers, frequently infantilized though never adopted into the national family, inhabit a queer margin.6 For Munro, the New South Africa in its transitional moment was a diverse adoptive family grandfathered by Nelson Mandela, with a disgraced and divorced mother, Winnie Mandela, a white drag queen aunt, Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys), and a self-styled “girlfriend of the nation,” or in Munro’s reading, errant daughter, black bisexual pop star Brenda Fassie. Munro suggests that Winnie Mandela’s ejection from this family was the result of her homophobic “disciplining” of black youths whom Mandela suggested had been corrupted sexually and politically by a white priest.7 Winnie Mandela thus stands for a heterosexist limit to the national family, symbolically overcome by relegating Mandela to the same past as the architects and perpetrators of apartheid. Simultaneously, the New South Africa’s modernity is asserted through the embrace of a drag queen who, Munro reminds us, debunks and inhabits the role of mother/nurturer. The rebellious daughter, Brenda Fassie, on the other hand, represented the freedom available [End Page 78] to South Africans at the end of apartheid, shifting from an early career in “bubblegum” pop to a come-back as the “Queen of Kwaito.”
Munro’s depiction of the queer national family can be productively augmented by referencing Samuelson’s work on the “re-membering” of national mothers Sarah/Sara/Saartjie Baartman and Krotoa/Eva, who might be imagined as birth mothers.8 Baartman is best known as the “Hottentot Venus,” who figured the supposed hypersexuality of black people. Following her death, a cast was made of her body, and her skeleton, brain, and genitals were preserved and placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. Sarah/Sara/Saartjie’s remains were finally repatriated and buried in South Africa in 2002.
While Sarah/Sara/Saartjie is the most literal dismemberment in Samuelson’s book...