Finding freedom in the Academy

Chido Nyaruwata
8 min readJul 16, 2021


This is an updated version of a paper that was one of the panel presentations delivered at the Dreaming Feminist Futures Symposium in March 2018 titled ‘What is black wom?nhood: An intergenerational conversation’ held at the AGI, UCT*

1. Introduction

I am the daughter of Professor Leonorah Tendayi Nyaruwata’s ( Nee Dodzo) and our relationship is my first feminist encounter. My mother is best described in one photo. She is sitting at the dinner table working on a second-year assignment whilst her fourth child, a baby girl is strapped on her back in a blue towel.

At this moment, Lea does not allow her motherly and wife duties, teaching job, or age to get in the way of pursuing her dream of becoming a Professor of Education. This dream was sparked at 17 as she knew she wanted to be a producer of knowledge. To probe the challenges of postcolonial African education systems. To ensure Zimbabwean rural schools were accessible and inclusive learning space

Black women academics like my mother are disrupting a space that was designed by and for cishet white men. Men who still seek to maintain a monopoly over knowledge production. The university was a central pillar to the colonial project as it defined who was knowledgeable and what was worthy of scholarly inquiry.

Not only did it stipulate the condition for “knowledge creation”, but also fostered/es an environment where the mental, emotional, sexual and reproductive needs of cishet white men were centered in the development of institutional culture.

In an 2017 opinion piece, former Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Dr. Max Price notes that: “ UCT has developed over two centuries a culture that reflects the values, aesthetics, and norms of white English-speaking South Africa. This culture is so entrenched and normalised that those of us who are part of it see it as the natural way of the world”.

Despite the promise of the postcolonial and post-apartheid order, the South African University has not sufficiently centralised the fluid African experience, critical black African scholarship, or radically shifted power relations based on gender. It is in the dawn of intense student and black academic-led protests, whereby the university’s intended beneficiaries, white males, are recognising the pain inflicted on black students and staff by the institutions.

But this painful experience is not singular. Young black wom?n, gender non-conforming and feminist allies’ protests against rape culture, sexual violence, homophobia and sexual harassment on campuses expose the systematic gender inequalities within the university. On the surface, universities appear to be meet the sexual and reproductive needs of the student population. Services on campus may include free HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, free contraceptives, and sexuality education. However, persistent protests illustrate the gap between South African universities providing SRH services and ensuring the bodily integrity and sexual rights of students.

As a young feminist scholar, I come to position the university and the academy as two distinct sites of knowledge production. The paper explores how black wom?n[1] use the academy as mobilizing space against the patriarchal and racist university structure.

2. The University vs the Academy

For seven years, I floated between the university and academy space. Whilst within the literature these words are used interchangeably, I regard them as two distinct entities. I have learned at three historically white universities: the University of Pretoria, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Cape Town.

Whilst the universities are different in name and location: they are the same. The South African university fosters a great sense of alienation, anxiety, and anger in black students and staff. It is at the university where I was informed that I had not been selected as a tutor for the private law department because they had reached their “quota”. My ability to facilitate discussions and assist students was not determined by my intellect or interpersonal skills but by my race.

It is at the university where all black women academics are expected to be experts on “ black and women issues” by their departments as articulated by Potgetier & Moleko’s ( 2004: 81) study on black women’s experience in university spaces. The assigned mother role stifles the professional and scholarly development of blackwom?n as not all are interested in these research areas. As with cultural misrepresentations of blackwom?nhood, the university expects blackwom?n academics to place their professional aspirations on hold in order to assist members of their community. In the same vein, it’s the university space that is hostile to feminist scholarship particularly, black feminist thought as it is perceived as a flimsy theoretical paradigm.

It is at the university, where the mental health of black students is not regarded as a priority. We are constantly told to either shape up or shape out, which unfortunately results in the student population being notified of our deaths in an “In Remembrance” email. It is not only academic pressure and racial exclusion which affect students’ mental wellness. Conversations around sexual violence and rape culture on campus illustrate the contradicting messages sent to wom?n and gender non-conforming students. Our acceptance into the university demonstrates that we have the intellectual abilities to be viewed as equal to our male peers. However, this equality does not transcend to the ability to have equal control over our bodies or our gender identity expression.

During my undergraduate studies, I was an HIV/AIDS Education and awareness volunteer. My roles included marketing a 13 week HIV/AIDS training course facilitated by one of the research institutes on campus and assisting with student forums. Each time we handed out condoms, there was hesitancy and an appearance of shame from some students. Other times, student forums on sexual health and consent demonstrated the limited negotiating power young wom?n have in sexual relationships. At an institutional level, the vulnerability of wom?n and gender non-conforming individuals is worst illustrated when they report incidents of sexual assault or harassment on campus. The bureaucratic processes within the university structure have limited victim/ survivor support systems, policies are often laden with victim-shaming language and protect alleged perpetrators.

Student protestors at Stellenbosch University. Image sourced from End Rape Culture

In comparison, the academy is a multidisciplinary activist community. This community functions on “problem-posing education” as knowledge production is anchored in the lived realities of black wom?n ( Freire, 1968). It’s a space where one’s scholarship is a form of protest as we deconstruct Eurocentric, Patriarchal, and quite often mediocre scholarship, which is highly celebrated by the university structure.

The knowledge activist community not only focuses on scholarship for peer review journals. We learn of frameworks that assist us to analyse the world from our perspective. One such framework is feminist intersectionality, crafted by Professor Kimberly Crenshaw in 1991. Crenshaw provides that the collection of social identities should be taken into consideration when accounting for social injustices. Each person holds certain identities which hold a particular standpoint within broader society. In this light, people can exist with identities that have been historically marginalised such as being a woman, being a woman, having a low income or poor background, and being a person with a disability. Crenshaw (1991) explains that these oppressed identities are interconnected in how they impact an individual’s life.

Given this background, feminist intersectionality works as an empowering framework to allows wom?n and feminist allies to deconstruct patriarchal structures that motivate acts of institutional neglect of black students mental wellness, sexual violence on campus and erasure of black scholarship. In this space, being critical and acting against the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist order is encouraged.

It is the academy, particularly the black woman network which creates a sense of belonging. The commonalities in our desire of gender and socially just learning and teaching environment drives us to create safe intellectual spaces, “where we do not have to explain ourselves” as noted by Gqola ( 2016) The academy is an interactive and mentoring space, where follow members of this body remind you that your work and personal needs are valid. Through literature and friendships within the academy, we are reminded to trust our voices.

It is in the academy, where I have learned that self-care is not just about spa days but as Audre Lorde said “it is an act of political warfare”. We are constantly in physical, financial, mental battles with the university structure. It is an extremely difficult space to navigate if you are not an intended beneficiary. Therefore, choosing to prioritize your mental, sexual and emotional health whilst existing in the university space, is an act of rebellion.

3. Conclusion

In conclusion, I believe that blackwom?n academics can maintain the work-life balance by locating themselves in the academy. It’s a place of refugee as we escape the demands of the home and university space. This knowledge production site thrives on solidarity, self-care, and protest. We are allowed to reimagine ourselves as there is no restriction on our thoughts, movement, and bodies. Therefore, blackwom?n academics must find freedom in the academy.

2018 Me at the steps of now named, Sarah Baartman Hall


Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Dangarembga, T. (1988). Nervous Conditions. Harare: The Women’s Press.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of Oppressed. New York: Seaburg Press.

Gqola, P. (2017). Reflecting Rogue: Inside the Mind of a Feminist. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.

Jan-Louise Lewin, Kamohelo Mabogwane, Ariana Smit, Andréa Alexander, Amanda Mokoena & Chido Nyaruwata (2019) What is Blackwom?nhood: An intersectional dialogue with the Young Wom?n’s Leadership Project, Agenda, 33:2, 61–73, DOI: 10.1080/10130950.2019.1603424

Mazuru, M., & Nyambi, O. (2012). Celebrating Africana Motherhood: the Shona Proverb and the Social Roles of Mothers as First Teachers,Cultural Bearers and Co-Partners. International Journal of Asian Social Science, 596–601.

Potegiter, C., & Moleko, A. (2004). Stand Out, Stand Up,Move Out: Experiences of Black South African Women at Historically White Universites . In R. Mabokela, Hear our Voices: Race,Gender and Black South African Women in the Academy (pp. 80–95). Pretoria: University of South Africa University Press.

Price, M. (2017, July 16). A subtle kind of racism. Retrieved March 20, 2018, from News 24:

[1] YWL (UCT) chosen to use the question mark in the word ‘wom?n’ in place of the A, E, X or Y. Unpacking the idea of what it means to be a wom?n, we conclude that using an A, E, X or Y can be exclusionary to people who do or do not identify as ‘women’. In using the question mark (?), we aim to constantly interrogate the idea of what it means to be a wom?n and to explore how the idea of ‘woman’ is evolving. The aim of this practice is to create a safer feminist space for dialogue. We also acknowledge the rigidity of colonial languages that do not allow for flexibility. It is thus our hope that the question mark allows for flexibility and new possibilities in this debate.



Chido Nyaruwata

Writer, Digital Storyteller & Photographer | Climate + Gender | Women + Agriculture | African Feminisms | Young Feminist Movements