Are the ‘golden years’ of the elderly a time of encompassing love, care and respect by families, the state and communities? What are the lived experiences of elderly, ageing women? In talking about ‘re-skilling’ the elderly, what do we mean? Does our ageism blind us to their already existent skills which could be put to good use in a South Africa with a critical skills shortage?

The questions above peppered the lively discussions at a videoconferenced launch of Agenda Feminist Media’s (AFM) special issue on ageing, No 94/26.4 2012′ titled Gender, Intergenerationality and Ageing. Jointly organised and hosted with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), this event, held on the 12 November 2013, drew about 50 participants from Durban, Pretoria and Cape Town. Speakers included guest editors Vasu Reddy and Nadia Sanger, contributors Catherine Ndinda, Monde Makiwane, and Tamara Shefer, artist Gabrielle le Roux and Janine Hicks, Chairperson of AFM’s Management Board.

Despite its launch date, the journal itself was a bit of an ‘elder’, conceptualised about 8-9 nine years ago as part of AFM’s themed journal-planning process, said Vasu Reddy. Its extension to include the inter-related themes of gender and intergenerationality was to project the idea that ageing is not a final destination point, a metaphorical full-stop or dead-end, but is intrinsic to an organic human experience in which the individual is constantly developing, with space for agency and change. Indeed, both ageing and intergenerationality highlight that there is much about them that is unknown and remains unexplored, and is fraught with “taboo, stigma and denial.”

Another significant objective which the issue had achieved, was to extract African perspectives and scholarship on these themes. Many African countries, including South Africa, have yet to define and/or implement comprehensive and gender-sensitive policies to protect elderly persons’ rights through gender-sensitive policies that meet the gender-specific needs of elderly men and women.

Co-guest editor Nadia Sanger said that linking the issues together, using a “feminist methodology”, had been a “wonderful” and important experience. There was real “biological stuff” around ageing; people are living longer in the world and questions arise around how we experience the world and the “everyday” across the generations. People also grow old emotionally. On the African continent, Black women age because of factors beyond their control. This particular issue constituted a “first conversation” on gender, intergenerationality and ageing on the African continent and was a “wonderful and important first step to take forward.”

Authors Catherine Ndinda and Monde Makiwane of the article “Gender, race and ageing in South Africa” in the journal, said they had approached their subject through the “lens of intersectionality”, using the 2010 General Household data. Women, they stated, are not a homogeneous group; their experiences of ageing vary depending on their race, class and gender. Poor African women have the “worst” experience of ageing, qualitatively speaking. Their research highlighted the high levels of dependency of African women on the state as a result of apartheid race and class discrimination, particularly in education and employment opportunities. There was a lack of work and skills development opportunities for older women that they believed needed to be addressed as a way to address the high poverty levels that exist and which would support elderly women who perform unpaid labour in their communities.

Artist Gabrielle le Roux spoke about her portrait work, done jointly with feminist Nancy Childs, on Dominica’s oldest women, some of whom were over a hundred years old. One of these (of elder Rose Peters) was part of the cover design of this issue. The portraits had inspired longevity studies posing critical questions about whether the remarkable ages the women had reached were due to hard work, diet or the fact that the island of Dominica has a tradition of caring for the elderly, especially older women.

The portraits, said Tamara Shefer who spoke after Gabrielle, demonstrated how images speak far more powerfully than words on issues, in many instances.  Further, as an example of feminist work, they showed how undervalued the labour of producing feminist knowledge is.

Speaking to her and Anna Strebel’s focus, “Deconstructing the “sugar daddy”, Tamara Shefer said their research on transactional sexual relationships had attempted to challenge the “problematic” representation of older men in South Africa and the “demonisation of young working-class Black men, emerging out of the large body of studies on intergenerational sex attempting to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.” A more nuanced look at the nature of transactional intergenerational sex was required: not all of it has to do  with “powerful” older men and younger, powerless and submissive women, but is grounded in other factors indicative of young women’s agency and control”.

Narratives of the”sugar dads” phenomenon ignore and overlook their versions of these relationships, and various studies have “exposed a race and class bias” resulting in an “otherising” of African sexuality. While not calling for sympathy with male perpetrators of unequal sexual relationships, it was necessary that men’s investments in these are examined with a more critical eye, moving beyond a repetition and “confirmation” of dominant, rigid constructions of masculinity.

During discussions, participants interrogated the reality and meaning of the elderly’s “golden years”, especially in South Africa. For most, especially elderly women, this is a period of extreme hardship and vulnerability, of poverty and a continuing burden of care of dependants across the generations, resulting from other social factors such as large-scale unemployment, the impact of HIV/AIDS, etc.It is common knowledge that entire families are dependent on the old-age pensions that the elderly receive. This is a far cry from the ideal of “communities taking care of their elderly”.

In a youth-obsessed world, the process of denial of agency based on ageism, begins as early as at age 30 years. Older people today live longer; many need employment to survive and retain their independence, but despite being “able, capable and willing” are forced to retire due to labour and employment laws that fix arbitrary retirement ages. In South Africa, clamouring for this to change is difficult because of the focus on the high degree of unemployed youth, and the perception that older workers need to “make way for the young”.

Janine Hicks raised the social concern that there is evidence of abuse of elderly widows by relatives, traditional leaders and communities that has been revealed in the Commission for Gender Equality’s (CGE) work on widowhood rituals, especially in rural areas, and she emphasised that the elderly are a socially vulnerable group that experience discrimination that must command our attention as a caring society.

The phrase “re-skilling the elderly” was challenged in discussion, with participants asserting that the elderly already had skills, knowledge and experience that could be used. It appeared that “re-skilling” meant the acquisition of new technological skills such as computer competency.  On a more positive note, a participant from the Department of Social Welfare mentioned that the department was employing older social workers to mentor younger ones entering the field of social work. She said people contribute taxes during their working lives and the state has a role to play in addressing the needs of the elderly. She said that we need to understand more about the problems and ailments that the elderly experience so that these can be addressed appropriately.

Asha Moodley (Member of the Agenda Editorial committee and Agenda Board) raised the problematic attitude of ageism that the market and capitalist system reproduces through the commodification of youth as the only useful or legitimate time of life. She said that ageism is at odds with a society that recognises people as having intrinsic social worth, particularly the elderly whose value is in the wisdom, knowledge and experience they have.

In concluding, Vasu Reddy referred to his interview with Hannah Yilma, a retired Ethiopian diplomat and her statements about retirement, “…it does not change what you are. You are leaving a particular job and you take up another one. Retirement is not about opting out of life.” Underlining this, Janine Hicks said that it was clear that the issues of the elderly and ageing are important and must be carefully considered. We need to have informed conversations on their issues in which their voices are clearly heard.