The Men Affirming Dignity (MAD) exhibition, currently on display a the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town, serves as a profound platform for marginalized voices, specifically focusing on ‘Coloured’ African men living on the Cape Flats. It’s a significant narrative that highlights their humanity within oppressive belief systems, seeking to amplify their stories rather than romanticize their struggles. This exhibition is groundbreaking in its approach and the fact that it is accessible to the deaf community. It does not portray these men as heroes or idealized figures, but rather as individuals navigating histories of dislocation, oppression, and survival. The emphasis is on showcasing the sources and resources these men draw upon to affirm dignity in their relationships, both personal and public. Their quest to heal relationships between men and women is at the heart of this narrative.
Amidst this narrative of systemic violence found in African communities, the MAD initiative was sparked by Elizabeth Hoorn Petersen’s desire to acknowledge and amplify the humanity of African men like her father, Daniel Hoorn. The South African Faith and Family Institute (SAFFI) emerged in 2008 from Petersen’s extensive background in social work and managing shelters for abused women and children. Recognizing the challenge of nurturing healthy families in a society marked by violence and deep religious roots, she founded SAFFI to address the intersecting issues. Her father’s non-violent and respectful behaviour within the household, devoid of abuse or violence towards her mother and siblings, became the inspiration behind MAD. Elizabeth observed that contrary to prevailing portrayals of African men as either iconic or predominantly violent and delinquent, there existed a narrative of non-violent black men, like her father, whose conduct affirmed the dignity of their families and communities. In a society where discussions around gender-based violence often dominate, the MAD exhibition offers a crucial counter-narrative. It shines a light on African men who exemplify respect, empathy, and dignity in their relationships, challenging the prevalent stereotypes that perpetuate harmful representations of black African masculinity.
Ruben Richards’ book, ‘Bastaards or Humans: The unspoken heritage of Coloured people,’ underscores a crucial point about how ‘Coloured’ individuals, particularly with indigenous Khoi and San ancestry, were historically dehumanized. This context adds depth to understanding the struggles faced by these men and their communities. The poignant words of Uncle Willie, a participant in the MAD exhibition, resonate deeply with struggles faced by these men. His lament about the impact of dislocation, the need for space, and the cycle of violence speaks volumes about the intergenerational trauma inflicted by apartheid. The echoes of violence perpetuated by the past are felt in the present, underlining the urgent need for healing and understanding.
In the current state of South Africa, where historical wounds continue to reverberate through society, the MAD exhibition stands as a testament to resilience and the power of storytelling. By shedding light on these silenced narratives, it aims to foster empathy, healing, and a deeper understanding of the complex layers of identity and dignity. It’s a pivotal step towards acknowledging the humanity and struggles of these men and fostering reconciliation within a fractured society. The exhibition stands as a testament to the quest for human dignity in the face of deep-rooted oppression. Through the stories of 14 ‘coloured’ African men from the Cape Flats, this exhibition delves into the essence of their humanity, drawing insights from the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, encapsulated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words, asserts that a person’s humanity is intertwined with others; it emphasizes interconnectedness and mutual respect.
In the context of this exhibition, the men challenge prevailing stereotypes that paint coloured men as inherently violent or morally deficient. They don’t position themselves as heroes but instead as individuals navigating ordinary lives amidst a backdrop of oppression and dehumanization. The origins of MAD are deeply rooted in the historical context of South Africa, marked by centuries of oppression stemming from slavery, colonialism, and apartheid. These systems ingrained the belief in white supremacy and patriarchy, normalizing the subjugation of black people. This normalization of inequality continues to corrode both the oppressor and the oppressed, resulting in pervasive gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.
By showcasing these narratives, the exhibition not only seeks to honour the humanity of these African men, but also aims to foster a more nuanced understanding of masculinity, promoting healing and reconciliation in a society scarred by historical injustices and ongoing challenges. By highlighting the stories of men like Daniel Hoorn, who exemplify non-violent and respectful behaviour, the exhibition talks back at the pre-dominantly daunting portrayals of African men, by inserting the life affirming Ubuntu, asserting narratives of African men which is a crucial part of the history of African men. This also allows young men to be reflective of themselves as they normalize the cultivation of Ubuntu in intimate relationships, families and communities.
SAFFI will be launching an app soon that is in collaboration with this exhibition.
Watch Iziko and SAFFI’s social media platforms for an announcement on when the App will be going live!