The colour of rape

2013-08-09 00:00

ONE of the issues that the rape allegations against Zwelinzima Vavi highlighted is the unresolved discursive tension between feminists and anti-racists.

This stems from the way in which both the feminist and anti-racist intellectual tradition respectively regard sexuality as a site upon which the oppression of women and the repression of black masculinity occurs. Feminists understand rape as a violent patriarchal tool that some men use to assert their power over women. Anti-racists, on the other hand, point out that, traditionally, black masculinity has been constructed by mainstream white society around the idea of a hypersexual, natural-born rapist.

This racist stereotypical view of black men was perpetuated by the apartheid regime. It was partly because of this racist view of black masculinity that the majority of people hanged by the apartheid South African government were hanged for raping white women.

Interestingly, in the United States, the racist stereotype of the black male rapist was used to justify the practice of lynching. In fact, as Katheryn Russell points out in her book, The Color of Crime, “historically, rape was the most common criminal hoax played upon black men”.

While black men have tended to be portrayed as rapists, black women have been historically portrayed as possessing a “primitive” sexual appetite, according to Sander Gilman, an American historian. Gilman further points out that “the black female thus comes to serve as an icon for black sexuality in general”.

Black feminists add that black women are generally regarded as unreliable, untrustworthy, irrational and angry. Hence mainstream society rarely ever believes black women who have been raped. Similarly, it is within this historical context that the apartheid police did not take the cases of black rape victims seriously as they did the cases of white rape victims.

Historians write that the association of the black with lust was not invented by the apartheid regime, but reaches back into the Middle Ages. According to Gilman, “by the 18th century, the sexuality of the black, both male and female, becomes an icon for deviant sexuality in general …”

Patricia Williams, a black feminist scholar, points out that the social consequence of the racist stereotype of black sexuality is that when “black-on-black” rape occurs, the media presents it as a “sociological event, a circus of stereotypification”.

As we recently witnessed in the way in which the media covered the rape allegations against Vavi, “the intimacy of rape becomes a public display, full of passion, pain and gutsy blues”, to use the words of Williams. Hence, we saw articles titled “Inside the Vavi sex scandal”, “Vavi’s lesson: Don’t screw the intern?”, and “Vavi comes out with guns blazing”. Vavi fanned the flames by releasing a print-out of text messages between himself and his accuser.

Additionally, the name of the woman who accused Vavi of rape was published on the Cosatu website. The Sonke Gender Justice Network (SGJN) asked Cosatu to delete her name from the published report because such a “… symbolic gesture would demonstrate the union’s commitment to fighting gender-based violence”. SGJN’s argument is rooted in the feminist argument that to fight sexual assault effectively, a rape victim’s privacy has to be protected. That did not happen.

What did happen is that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) released a statement arguing, without evidence: “We have always viewed these allegations as just another form of political strategy aimed at liquidating comrade Vavi’s political career …”

The ANC Women’s League said: “We are extremely concerned that this case will result in an immense setback for our national fight against the rape epidemic in our country and the persistent harassment of women in the workplace. It will ensure that women with genuine intentions to pursue complaints of rape and sexual harassment in the workplace are viewed with extreme cynicism and malicious intent.”

Women’s organisations that understand rape from a feminist perspective know that false allegations of rape are rare. According to Kathleen Dey, director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, research shows that only two percent of women lie about rape.

I am of the view that these public responses to the rape allegations against Vavi show how Vavi and his accuser embody in the public imagination a variety of discourse of anti-sexism and anti-racism. Moreover, the way in which these discourses tend to be pitted against each other in the way that rape is talked about in this country stifles open discussion of sexual violence.

To fight against gender-based violence requires us to resolve this discursive tension between feminism and anti-racism. We should begin by acknowledging that although stereotypes of black sexuality have changed over time, they are not irrelevant in understanding the way in which rape is reported. — SACSIS.

• Mandisi Majavu is the book reviews editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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