Salo’s legacy: Activism in the United States and South Africa

Salo Event
Courtesy of Colin Miller/THE REVIEW
The university hosted a symposium honoring a beloved professor, the late Dr. Elaine Salo. The event centered on the necessity for feminism and activism in the age of Trump.


Six months after her passing, Elaine Rosa Salo, former professor of political science, international relations and women and gender studies, remains a powerful influence on campus. On Friday afternoon in Mechanical Hall Gallery, her colleagues and friends discussed the necessity of feminism and activism while drawing parallels between Salo’s two homes: South Africa and the United States.

Her husband Colin Miller orchestrated the symposium named “A Grotesque Sense of Entitlement: Trump, Zuma and Feminist Activism Against Sexual Assault in the U.S. and South Africa,” after a phrase coined by Salo. The African Studies Program, Center for Global and Area Studies, Department of Women and Gender Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences sponsored the event.

The panelists included Teresa Barnes, a professor of history at University of Illinois, and Gabeba Baderoon, an award-winning poet and professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Pennsylvania State University.

“I thought it would be really appropriate to have these two people that were so close to Elaine talk about these issues that Elaine was so passionate about,” Miller said.

In memory of the South African activist’s passing, Barnes performed a cover of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” as several members of the audience wiped tears from their eyes.

“I’d like to talk about the world we are living in because I think that if Elaine were here that is what she would be doing,” Barnes said.

Barnes opened the address by discussing the aftermath of Trump’s election, where he delivered on his promises to reshape the country’s landscape by, according to Barnes, “beefing up” white privilege.

“An underdog candidate appealed to the disatisfaction of white, working- and middle-class voters and convinced them that they were, in fact, furiously angry,” Barnes said.

Barnes then paralleled her story about the Trump administration’s rise to power with the victory of D.F. Malan and the nationalist party in South Africa in 1948.

Barnes highlighted the decision for both countries to elect and empower men who have both been accused, but not convicted of sexual assault.

She said the normalization of sexual assault under the new administration will undergird everything that they are doing and going to do. Specifically, Barnes voiced her concerns about how the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education might increase the prevalence of sexual assault among young students.

Barnes expanded her concerns to the Tump administration’s reversal of the transgender bathroom directive, a policy that enabled transgender students to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender-identities, as well.

“Rolling back the school’s transgender bathroom directive will inexorably lead to more bullying, more assaults of transgender students and more suicides,” Barnes said. “They announced that the teen suicide rate has gone down —you watch, it’s going to go back up.”

In both countries there have been groups in place to combat misogyny and racism. Barnes drew another parallel between South Africa and the United States as she compared American groups such as Indivisible and The Resistance Recess to the South African Black Sash. Both Indivisible and The Resistance Recess encourage participation in local government to resist the Trump administration’s agenda.

The Black Sash, founded in 1955, was a nonviolent resistance group composed of white South African women who stood in silent protest against the institutionalization of apartheid.

“I think it’s important to say that the people who, for the last month in the U.S. are styling themselves as The Resistance, are important and useful and are very much like a fledgling Black Sash,” Barnes said.

Gabeba Baderoon, as a citizen of both South Africa and the United States, stressed another outlet for the current political situation — art. She told the audience what students of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) did when Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, was acquitted in 2006 for raping a young woman.

“They came together, several of them, and they shared their stories of sexual violence and they brought them together in a workshop over several sessions and they craft what eventually became a riveting play,” Baderoon said.

Eventually the play, “Reclaiming the P…Word,” became very well known and was shared nationally. Eleven years later Baderoon said she taught the play in her own classroom at Penn State.

One of her students was so moved that she invited students from UWC to come to Penn State and present the play. The student also asked Penn State students to develop their own play based on their personal experiences of sexual violence. In September 2015 Penn State presented a version of the play featuring both South African and U.S student narratives.

Baderoon said the student was able to receive thousands of dollars of funding from the university and the play garnered more than 400 audience members.

“This is what the arts can do,” Baderoon said. “Precisely when the most powerful people are telling you that there is nothing that you can do…what your stories can do, what your artistic prowess can do, what your empathy can do and what your imagination can do is to refute all of that.”

Barnes and Baderoon emulated Salo’s iron-clad commitment to activism and feminism through the event, at one point even reading Salo’s words aloud.

“We must eradicate the patriarchal myths that nurture the delusions of grandeur and power that so many men suffer from and that encourage this ‘grotesque sense of entitlement,’” Barnes read, quoting Salo. “It is a grotesque sense of entitlement to women’s bodies…it is a grotesque sense of entitlement to the soil, water, oil, gas, animals, plants and the air of this planet, the levels of grotesqueness feel new, but the sense of entitlement is old.”

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