Love has often been placed among the lesser order of priorities against the more important issues that hold our attention in seeking to transform gender relations in Africa. In discussing the concept note for the issue we were reminded of feminists’ belief that love has been seen not only as one of the relational contexts where women were likely to reproduce the worst forms of gender inequalities, but these were often the very inequalities they sought to change in the wider world. It situated them in vulnerable subject positions as love’s meaning was invariably determined by patriarchy. Among feminists there are therefore diverse understandings of love and its absence is cause for equal lamentation. The reason for placing a transformative eros at the heart of the gender debates, as Deevia Bhana, the guest editor of this issue of Agenda writes in the Introduction, is to correct the glaringly absent focus of intimacy and love in Africa, and to attempt to legitimate and build its recognition as an important analytic category of research.

Love as an emotion is embedded in daily life: the work to make and renew love’s meanings in our day to day existence, not least in how it takes place through women’s reproductive labour in the care economy. The exchanges entailed in love are often perceived as inconsequential, as romantic love is associated with the feminine. One of the strengths of feminist research has been to admit and encourage freedom to write within subjective positions and therefore validate subjectivities, the relational and affective. The acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the dimension of feeling, including love, is an important consideration against the empiricist tradition which has tended to ignore and negate the subjective as unscientific and therefore, irrelevant. As a consequence the dominant practices of research on gender and HIV/AIDS in Africa have been linked with a narrow dehumanising preoccupation with control and surveillance, which, as Bhana argues, have repercussions for the lives of the subjects of research in Africa who are portrayed as powerless, without history or context and, worse unknown to love.
Previous issues of Agenda have focused on the importance of the gendered aspects of love and the gender inequalities within which it occurs, particularly in how it is mediated by patriarchy in social institutions such as marriage (#87) in which much investment in love holds its store, and the (mis)constructions of teenage desire, which often serve to disempower young women and men and deny them sexual autonomy and responsibility (#89). The issue on ‘Sexuality in Africa’ (#62) sought to elicit a clearer understanding of the gendered meanings of sexuality, particularly in relation to the need to retrieve women’s voices and bodies from northern based theorisation, the colonial gaze and its painful inscriptions on African bodies and sexualities.
Bhana in this issue calls “attention to aspects of intimacy in everyday social life, where gender and sexuality are necessarily implicated”, and for the interrogation of the diverse contexts in which love takes place, and how it is mediated by the exercise of power. This issue seeks to contribute to deepening and building the body of knowledge on love, gender, sexuality and power across the sexual spectrum. Writers in this issue question how women and men understand, practise, negotiate and strategise within and around love. Writing about young men’s discourses of love Louise Vincent and Desiree Chiwandire consider whether men’s discussion of love and their indication of degrees of affection and caring, poses a challenge to the culture of male entitlement so implicit in dominant hegemonic masculinity in South Africa. The recuperation of love (and the way we choose to love) and its implication with gender violence and HIV/AIDS and the consequent denial of its importance in self-actualisation is taken up by Candice Rule-Groenewald. Of course, the right to love who we choose in South Africa is a recently won freedom and needs to be considered against this history: under apartheid same sex love and love across the colour line were policed and against the law. The intolerance and violence against same-sex love in post-apartheid South Africa, reflect an often trenchant heteronormativity which can erase and effectively banish the possibility of love for same sex couples as Thabo Msibi, writing in the context of the denial of same-sex love, and Nomancotsho Pakade’s research on self-identity and the labelling of Black Women-Loving-Women in Soweto, so clearly relate. Yet, heteronormative love is also often contested and idealised (see Shakila Singh, Sisa Ngabaza et al and Ronicka Mudaly) and equally (de)constructed within the parameters of hurt and gender violence (see Shahana Rasool and Cleo Firmin). Materiality and sex are also a recurring theme, drawing attention to new research on gender and love in relationship to poverty which expand on and problematise the possible meanings of ‘providing’ and provider masculinities and the place of instrumentality for young women in their relationships with sugar daddies (see Terry-Ann Selikow and Tola Mbulaheni).
Two welcome pieces which take us outside of South Africa provide an understanding of love on the Caribbean Miskito Coast and Zanzibar (see Laura Hobson Herlihy and Katerina Daly Thompson) that are instructive of how love can be understood within the contexts in which they occur and how the practices of love may change and be shaped by women’s precarious position in the economy and their lower social status in relation to men. Their desire to ensure their security either in marriage or in exchanges with men and their capacity to sustain love require that they strategise, manoevre and use the means within their power, to maintain their position in confronting possible abandonment, and as Hobson Herlihy describes, also the commodification of sex, abuse and magic.
Finally, Deevia Bhana’s interview with the feminist writer and researcher Jennifer Cole, one of the editors of the volume Love in Africa which has broken important new ground in focusing attention on the absence of love in scholarship, clarifies several critical questions in the discussion of the contextual importance of love for feminism and feminist scholarship in Africa.
Two book reviews are a welcome addition to this edition, taking our attention to women’s experiences and narratives on sex and sexuality and sexual difference. The collection of essays edited by feminist and well-known blogger, Jen Thorpe, opens up the silences around sex and sexual debut as Unathi Nopece relates in the review of My First Time: Stories by Women Like You.Reclaiming The L-Word: Sapho’s Daughters Out In Africa edited by Alleyn Diesel, reviewed by Lillian Artz, celebrates lesbian women’s sexual identity and difference and the journey’s made by many of the writers in this volume to self-acceptance.
As the research by writers in this issue shows love often reproduces gender inequalities and there are signs of many small – perhaps important – resistances and changes. Nonetheless, it is often when changes occur at the personal and relationship level that collective changes in wider society take place. By putting the spotlight on love’s practices, its inscriptions and its gendered repertoires everywhere in Africa as signs of life and hope, love may yet transform the world, not least in the inculcation of more reflexive research and scholarship on Africa.