Spotlight on Simphiwe Dana

2013-07-02 09:00

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When musician Simphiwe Dana confessed to having an affair with a married man last year, fans and detractors were shocked, judgmental – and vocal. In an extract from a new book about Simphiwe, author Pumla Dineo Gqola explores why ‘slut-shaming’ is so problematic.

Afro-soul singer Simphiwe Dana is no stranger to public debate. From Twitter rows about racism with DA leader Helen Zille to touring schools with a passionate message about fighting illiteracy, the 32-year-old mother of two has a voice to be reckoned with.

With three albums under her belt – Zandisile, The One Love Movement on Bantu Biko Street (which won her Best Female Artist at the 2007 South African Music Awards) and Kulture Noir – she is revered as one of our country’s most important artists.

‘Simphiwe is simply not interested in adhering to conventional ideas about where to live, who to love or how to write,’ author and close friend Pumla Dineo Gqola, left, says. ‘One minute South Africa worships at her throne. The next minute, we are trying to rein her in. This says something about her, as someone whose investment in trying out what interests her and living her truth trumps risking societal censure. It also says something about South Africa’s sensibilities. As a renegade, Simphiwe does not play safe.’

Here is an extract from Pumla’s new biography of Simphiwe, A Renegade Called Simphiwe, out now.

‘Reducing a woman who occupies the public sphere for her brain, courage and/or talent to her vagina is an established way of trivialising women. One of the better-known photos of One in Nine activists [who campaign for and support victims of sexual violence] protesting outside court shows placards with the words “not just faces and vaginas”. This statement challenges highly circulated hetero-patriarchal assumptions about women’s place in South Africa.

For Simphiwe Dana, a more public enactment of this was the revelation of her affair with a kwaito group member turned pastor.

One Sunday morning in February 2012, South Africa woke up to news that Simphiwe had been carrying on an affair with a married man. The man had once been in a music group.

South Africa’s memory of this man and his group was so vague that the same old pictures from the 1990s were recycled over and over.

What was striking in all the coverage was the manner in which Simphiwe was slut-shamed: she was marked as the immoral woman who was having sex with a married man at the same time that she had constantly tweeted on the virtues of heterosexual monogamy as it culminates in marriage.

The attacks on Twitter were so virulent that she withdrew to lick her wounds, and at the time of writing this, many months later, she has not returned to even half of her previous social media presence.

The attacks were not just attempts to hold her accountable for the inconsistency between her social media declarations, on the one hand, and her recent affair, on the other. She was slut-shamed, which is a phenomenon in which women are policed, taunted and censored for participating in sexual behaviour which transgresses conventional patriarchal sexual conduct.

Slut-shaming is performed publicly against a woman, and marks her as sexually out of control and inappropriate and seeks to induce guilt.

Such slut-shaming is also evident in the popular Twitter trend of ridiculing “side-chicks”. Women thus named are not the “official” girlfriend/partner/wife of any man, but have a secondary relationship with him.

There is rarely any mention of the offending man who strays from the official relationship, just like there is no male equivalent for a “side-chick”.

This outcry would’ve been understandable were it not for the inconsistencies that are rife in the area of sexuality in South Africa.

Whereas Simphiwe was held accountable for her double-speak on fidelity, the married man was able to escape much of the public censure. This is because he is a man, and South Africa is quick to forgive men who veer off from the monogamous fidelity path.

Secondly, while she initially tried to shield him, admitting that she loved him but would not name him, he chose to save himself once discovered.

He claimed that his association with her had been a brief indiscretion, that he felt sorry for her and that he loved his wife.

He wasn’t slut-shamed because male virility grows through association with multiple partners, whereas women’s standing is in danger of tarnish because of who they may or may not have had sex with.

Even when it is the man who is married and not the woman, she bears the sole brunt of the indiscretion. We very often forgive and later reward men who act in defiance of the same vows they professed.

That this man is a hypocrite, too, seemed minor even though he was also a man of the cloth, and had therefore transgressed two institutional commitments to his wife and their marriage, on the one hand, as well as to the church where heterosexual marriage is a central foundation, on the other.

Because of the society we live in, however, where women’s desire is perpetually pathologised and regulated unless it is expressed within heterosexual marriage, the repetition of these claims to Simphiwe’s body also work against her.

While these men speak about themselves through Simphiwe, they do so in a manner that speaks against her. To become better men, they need to publicly shame and betray her.

There are various ways to achieve “better man” status. They can do so through the rendering public of something that should be private between two available and consenting adults. Or, they can recast her as a sexual being in semi-public spaces, focusing attention away from why she is in the spotlight in the first place.’

A Renegade Called Simphiwe (R218, MF Books) by Pumla Dineo Gqola.

‘I've never been slut-shamed, but i'm terrified of it’

‘Eight years ago, I cheated on my husband. Four years later, he found out. He threatened to sue me for everything I had. What he wanted, above all, is that I confess my sins to the readers of my blog. “I want your readers to stop respecting you,” he said. I refused. But later, I did write about it, in a chapter for a book on emigration. It was a way to take responsibility for what I had done. In a way, my sordid past rose from the depths to save me from an unhappy marriage. That doesn’t mean I don’t regret what I did, horribly.

But it does mean that I know too much of the mess behind the perfect exterior we present to the world to ever slut-shame another woman. – Media strategist Sarah Britten

» Get your copy of iMag in City Press on Sundays.

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