Professor Zintombizethu Matebeni is one of the few trailblazers at the forefront of championing and mainstreaming the interests of the LGBTQI+ communities despite the prejudice, ostracisation, and horrific homophobic attacks from society. A few weeks ago Siphamandla Khoza from Ntuzuma in KwaZulu-Natal was brutally murdered for being gay.
Matabeni, who is currently based at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), became the country’s first recipient of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Sexualities, Genders and Queer Studies.
This is one of the highest accolades conferred by the National Research Foundation (NRF) to individual scholars who have shown research and innovative capacity and also produced high quality post-graduate students. Matabeni is the second UFH academic to be awarded a SARChI Chairship by the NRF after Professor Gary Minkley who holds a SARChI Chair in Social Change.
The ecstatic Matabeni said her role as SARChI Chair in Sexualities, Genders and Queer Studies at UFH “comes at a very difficult time in the academy and society as a whole. The impact of Covid-19 has altered the nature of learning and engaging in very significant ways”. She said this has also “exposed the inequalities in accessing learning and knowledge”. Matebeni said her studies will consider these limitations and restrictions as significant impediments and also as opportunities.
“In a queer fashion, the SARCHI Chair will develop creative and exciting ways to engage students, staff, and communities with content on sexualities, genders and queer studies,” she added. Her interest in research started off with a focus on black lesbian sexualities and identities in South Africa, under lesbian and gay studies.
“At the time, very few people dared to get into this area for various reasons, including fear of being ostracised by society or even being considered unscholarly. For a long time my research has been a struggle with the notion of non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities being at odds with what is deemed African,” said Matabeni.
She said she has since narrowed her interest to a “field more broadly described as Queer Studies. My approach to Queer Studies, which is very western field of study, is from an African perspective”. Matabeni said through this approach she puts African people and African experiences at the forefront.
“In unpacking genders and sexualities from an African perspective, my interest has moved away from seeing these as un-African,” she said. Creative work is central to Queer Studies, added Matabei, particularly in the African context as many queer people find ‘safety’ and political expression through art and creative works.
She hailed the UFH for demonstrating leadership in developing and nurturing a field of study often marginalised in the African continent, adding “this is a significant investment for future generations of scholars. Young researchers and students who have feared to pursue their research interests because of ostracism can rest assured that their pursuit of knowledge and life-changing research will be recognised”.
Matabeni joined the UFH in March this year. In 2017 she was the Presidential Visiting Professor at the women’s gender and sexualities studies department at Yale University, USA. A year later she was awarded the African humanities program fellowship and the African Studies Association, American Council of Learned Societies Presidential Fellow.
She has edited various volumes on African sexualities and gender diversity, written over 40 academic journal articles and book chapters, some of them have been translated into Portuguese. She has also published short stories, poetry and essays for art exhibitions, the latest appearing in French at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, France (The Power of My Hands, 2021).
Matabeni grew up in Port Elizabeth and started her academic career at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) where she pursued her undergraduate studies in sociology. After graduating from NMU she pursued post-graduate studies in sociology (health, population studies and labour) at the University of Pretoria where she obtained a Master’s degree.
She then got two fellowships, one at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in 2000 in Laxenburg, Austria, and another one at the department of epidemiology and public health, school of medicine at Yale University, USA in 2002-2003.
She left the University of Pretoria in 2004 to pursue interests in public health, working for an international organisation. She later returned to academia to pursue interdisciplinary doctoral studies at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) and graduated in 2011.
Between 2011 and 2017 Matabeni worked at the University of Cape Town as a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities in Africa and later (2019 to 2021) as an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of the Western Cape.