Decolonising Academic Spaces

Updated: Aug 9, 2019

The second of two posts about launching South Africa’s Sex Worker Theatre Project. Written by GlobalGRACE member Phoebe Kisubi (Work Package 1: South Africa).

"Launch Sculpture"

In a recent social media post decolonial scholar Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni makes an important point: decolonising is not just a counter-argument to colonialism. For Ndlovu-Gatsheni, decolonising holds possibilities for rehumanisation and re-membering, challenging long and also regionally distinct modes of turning humans into objects. These are some of the incitements that Global Grace researchers have been inspired by as we try to develop ways of working and knowledge informed by feminist and decolonising commitments. What might rehumanising and re-membering mean in practice?


The symposium for the Global Grace project on sex work and theatre in South Africa offers a small glimpse of such practices. The symposium was mostly sex-worker led and centered on their stories, elicited and supported by the project team of academics and our local civil society partner SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce). The theatre performers were made up of the newly appointed sex workers theatre group. At the symposium, they led the performances themselves, delivered the key-note talk and curated the music and the accompanying exhibition. Together these practices changed conventional academic habits of ‘speaking about’ sex workers. Sex workers were able speak for and about themselves, dismantling stereotypes with a boisterous, vibrant presence.


Stereotypes of sex workers are fabricated from enduring and interlocking systems of classification (foundational of the colonial matrix of power – Mognolo 2017), where in South Africa the moral argument against sex work in combination with the fact that sex work is still criminalized, places sex workers on the margins, the peripheries. Colonialism and apartheid in South Africa manufactured the production of the metropole/center and colonies/peripheries. What this brings to mind is what Wynter and Mignolo refer to as the over-representation of man as Human – “He is the one who classifies racially and sexually. And He is the one who embedded in Christianity, whiteness, and heterosexuality sees His ‘imagination’ of the world as ‘representations’ of the world” (Mignolo 2017:x). In other words, in the colonial logic the model or citizen is an individual with full rights and therefore Human and those on the peripheries are deemed non-human.


It is through the decolonial lens that the image below is one representation of rehumanisation that was part of a symposium session on busting stereotypes about sex workers. In the image you will see the juxtaposition of a live image theatre piece centered on a baby being held and admired. It is a familiar scene, almost mundane in its ordinariness. The image was created and built-up by the sex workers in a workshop that asked them to talk about some of myths and stereotypes that surround sex work in South Africa. This live scene was restaged next to an exhibition image that includes the words, “sex workers desire for their children to have a better life”, animating the surrounding images and text.

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