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Transactional love (in black relationships) is not an accident of history

Unmarried explores relationships beyond the tinted lens of romance by making distinctions between sex & love, drawing parallels between money & contentment
Author: Kulani Nkuna
Fri, Oct 02, 2020

Unmarried. Three women. Perpetually in economic motion but currently occupying three different stations in life. One, the lead Brenda (Renate Stuurman), a suburban corporate maven who works for an institution ironically called Freedom Bank. The second, Thembi (Thembisa Mdoda), a township family woman unravelling due to severe financial constraints. The third, Lesego (Keke Mphuthi) an enterprising woman who believes that love should come with financial perks.

The men. Well, they are on the periphery – coming and going. The nice ones are broke, the rich ones are *ssh*les, fraudsters and players. Such are the perils for this slate of Joburg women.

The show makes deliberate distinctions between sex and love with an omnipresent economic/financial thread that ties the production together.

Brenda's husband wants to siphon more money from her when the pair get divorced. She later dates a security guard, but when left alone in his Soweto backroom, she decides "nooo maaan! I can't live like this." Thembi leaves her husband after he lies about losing a job. And Lesego? Well, she to go back to school when her benefactor decides she is too old to be his side chick.

The question of money and love is an age-old conundrum for a people who have always had a perilous relationship with labour in this country. From migrant work and legislation that sought to break up black families, black love has taken so many financial forms that today's society is still struggling to grapple with it due to racialised economic injustice.

And where class and economic struggles are concerned, this will inevitably spill into the private and sexual lives of black people. The show subtly explores this.

During the fourth Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture, former president Thabo Mbeki recognised the moral values that many South Africans were beginning to adhere to as the lives of some black people begun to change around them. With reference to economics historian, Karl Polanyi, Mbeki said:

"The capitalist market destroys relations of 'kinship, neighbourhood, profession and creed', replacing these with the pursuit of personal wealth by citizens who as he says, have become atomistic and individualistic.

"Thus every day and during every hour of our time beyond sleep, the demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare. With every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity – get rich! get rich! get rich!

"And thus has it come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side are written the words at all costs, get rich!"

It is within this scope that the relationships in the production fail.

It's a historical disjuncture that haunts even the most avid of black love advocates. In other words, there is no romance without finance, and given our underclass status in this country, black love merely does not wield the requisite financial muscle to survive. The quest for economic freedom is not merely about escaping poverty, but also about seeking to be humans deserving of love.

Patriarchy is also a key theme in Unmarried, although the writers made sure to turn it on its head, where dregs of men as providers remain in some instances but decimated in others.

There is also the suggestion that creating a society devoid of patriarchy and the roles therein that govern the male provider vs nurturing woman, would be a good way to solve the tension in heteronormative relations. If we accept that patriarchy is indeed unAfrican, and that many African societies hail from matriarchal lineages, there may be hope for us yet.

In Black People and Love, feminist scholar bell hooks reminds us that the tension between black men and women was not always present in the classical provider and nurturer sense.

"When sex roles in black life did not conform to sexist patterns, black women and men often forged new paradigms of love and affection. From slavery on, black males (and most black females) had theoretically accepted the same sexism that was the norm in the dominant white patriarchy, but material deprivation caused by exploitation and oppression based on race and class meant that gender roles in black life could not conform to sexist norms.

"Black women were workers. Unemployed or marginally employed black men often cooked, cleaned, and did childcare. The fact that black women worked outside the home and worked equally hard as black men in the anti-racist struggle was not seen as detrimental to the psychological welfare of the black family but central to its survival."

  • Season two of Unmarried is on Mzansi Magic (channel 161), Mondays at 8pm, and is available to watch on Showmax