If Khwezi could speak

2014-06-30 12:00

President Jacob Zuma’s rape accuser is back in the country. Her mother, who accompanied her in “exile”, was quoted by the Sunday Times as saying: “I was missing home very much.”

The woman who was at the centre of the scandal, named “Khwezi” to protect her identity, did not speak, except to ask the Sunday Times to leave her mother alone.

I imagine that her wish is to resume or carry on with her life in peace, away from the shame and humiliation.

Interestingly, there is another woman with a similar history with a president who has returned. Monica Lewinsky, now 40, wrote an essay titled Shame and Survival in the May issue of Vanity Fair.

In it, she details the tumultuous time in 1998 when the affair she had with then US president Bill Clinton as an intern in the White House led to his impeachment and her public shaming.

The Johannesburg High Court did not find Jacob Zuma guilty of rape, but the taunting of Khwezi started before the verdict was read, with some pro-Zuma protesters calling her “nondindwa” (a whore). Some placards outside court screamed “burn the bitch”.

It would be untrue to claim that only the women in political sex scandals suffer scorn. A president with an impeachment or a rape trial on his record is a humiliated figure.

I also believe that in the cases of consensual sex, it’s not wise to rob women of their agency. Lewinsky is firm on the point that she was a willing party. “Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position,” she writes.

But once the scandal blows over, the politician carries on with his life, to bigger and better: another term in office, and perhaps even global honour and recognition.

Not so for the women. Khwezi moved to the Netherlands soon after the conclusion of the trial, under humanitarian asylum, according to reports. Leaving the way they did “was very painful”, the mother said.

Lewinsky went into “self-imposed silence for 10 years”. Their lives were stunted, with Lewinsky commonly referred to as “America’s BJ Queen”, “that intern”, “that vixen” or, in Clinton’s own words, “that woman”.

Often much younger, these women are meant to be forgettable, dismissible, and dispensable. Zwelinzima Vavi was implying the same thing when he called his accuser “nopatazana” (a floozy).

Lewinsky says it’s been tough to find a job or relationship where people are not put off or looking to exploit her past.

In a 2007 report, a friend of Khwezi’s talks about her not being able to keep her head above water.

But after trying not to be a problem to the Clintons, Lewinsky says she’s not putting her life on hold any longer.

“I turned 40 last year, and it is time to stop tiptoeing around my past – and other people’s futures. I am determined to have a different ending to my story. I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past.”

I like the idea of Lewinsky refusing to be the expendable one in the aftermath of the folly of a powerful man; the footnote in the historical record of Clinton’s political career. It’s not going to change the course of history, but her voice has nonetheless been recorded.

Khwezi’s charge against Zuma was rape. The courts rejected it, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in Khwezi’s position. Hopefully, now that she’s back, we will get to hear her speak or write. In her life story, she should be the one to have the last word.

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