‘As a young black woman, I’ve always seen education as the key to empowerment and independence.’
Those are the words of Ms Ayanda Tshabalala who was overjoyed when she recently graduated with a Master’s in Development Studies degree from UKZN.
Tshabalala says she always saw the need to write from the perspective of the black African women, and their existential experiences, subjectivities and identities, which she feels are lacking in the work they study/learn as students in academic spaces and institutions.
With a critical feminist perspective, research for her degree was on why young black African women in South Africa use skin bleaching creams.
She says the identity of the black African woman is influenced by several factors in society, including the legacies of colonialism and racism which, she believes, have contributed to the pressure and societal expectations they face.
Tshabalala found a rising trend of black African women choosing notions of beauty associated with the self-image of people who are white. This includes wearing long synthetic hair and using creams to bleach their skins to have a whiter complexion.
‘The skin bleaching practice in Africa attracts international attention. The major discussions about the practice are around its medical and psychosocial or cultural implications. However, very little academic work exists on this topic in Africa generally, and in South Africa specifically.
‘With my research I hope to start filling this gap by investigating the reasons behind the practice in South Africa,’ she said.
Tshabalala believes that society needs more discussions around racism and all interrelated issues. Her study also found that the ‘born-free’ participants interviewed expressed a blatant disinterest in discussing racism. ‘This may be due to them having not been exposed to institutionalised racism and finding it hard to identify and define.’
She also found that the ‘hour-glass body shape’, which she describes as mostly associated with black female bodies, was now ‘trending’.
During her studies, she was invited to present some of her preliminary findings at Leeds University in England. She also studied in Germany for a semester, thanks to funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF).
Tshabalala thanked her family and friends. ‘I have a very supportive family who have held my hand and dried my tears all along my journey. This helped tremendously towards me ultimately completing my degree.’
She is currently a full-time PhD student and research assistant for the SARCHi in applied poverty assessment under the leadership of Professor Sarah Bracking who was also her master’s supervisor.
Tshabalala has been awarded the NRF Innovation PhD scholarship. ‘It’s going to be three more years of hard work, learning and growth at all levels as an emerging researcher.’
Her advice to other students is, ‘Nothing beats hard work. Determination and remaining focused on the ultimate goal - which is attaining a degree - will encourage you when at times you feel like giving up. Accept the help and guidance of others and trust your work and yourself. Your confidence will ultimately shine through your work.’