The ripple effect of rape on SA

2017-10-08 05:43

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The Book Lounge, Roeland Street, Cape Town. There is only standing room available on the ground level of this much-loved space for conversations about books. The basement is equally packed with people. Crowds are spiralling up the staircase and spilling out onto the street, forcing the staff of the bookstore to close its doors to deter anyone else with hopes of squeezing their way in. People are lined up all around the perimeter of the bookstore, looking through the windows, though not hearing anything. It is as if it is enough just to be here.

It is Monday evening and we are at the launch of Redi Tlhabi’s book, Khwezi – The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, in which she recounts the tragic story of Kuzwayo, the young woman who was forced into exile after being tormented by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters during his 2006 rape trial and subsequent acquittal.

People in the room – an audience of mostly women – are sitting or standing very close to each other. Black, coloured and white bodies have heeded Tlhabi’s call for South Africans to stand in solidarity against the violence that has captured women’s bodies in our country.

When Tlhabi speaks, images of the theatre of violence that played out against Kuzwayo during Zuma’s rape trial spring to mind. The relentless attacks on Kuzwayo’s character and threats of physical attacks, which culminated in the burning down of her home, were not enough to move Zuma to speak out against his supporters’ actions.

Now, remarked Tlhabi at the launch, as a new frontier of war is being waged on women’s bodies in this country, we are haunted by the notion of an indescribable war that seems to know no bounds. The cycle of violence and orgy of terror against society’s weakest and most helpless continues to play itself out in domestic violence, sexual abuse and the high rate of rape and murder of women and girls, and sometimes infants.

To be a woman in South Africa is to live with the fear of rape. The silent time bomb that waits ominously is male power, wielded by some men through their sex organs and other weapons of destruction.

Yet, we have a president who does not seem to recognise the power of his position and how he can use it to connect to a wide-ranging audience of rural and urban young men to send a message about the importance of respect for women.

Normalised abuse

Last week, Zuma presented maskandi group Izingane Zoma, which had composed a song that was critical of Kuzwayo during the rape trial, with a minibus to acknowledge their support of him during tough times. He was boastful about his ability to get any woman he wanted, saying that with his middle-aged looks he could still “win” beautiful women. “Don’t even doubt me,” he reportedly said, “because whenever I approach a woman, she will never say no to me.”

Zuma’s careless insensitivity is beyond comprehension. He seems less interested in building the stability of our country than in rallying support for his incorrigible ways.

He should be offering men – especially young men, who feature prominently among perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against women – an alternative to the violent masculinity pervading our society.

Instead, his flippant remarks about women perpetuate misogyny and encourage men to treat women with disregard. These attitudes are founded in the rape culture in which the thresholds of control sink lower and lower, and abusing women becomes normalised.

In the wake of the launch of Tlhabi’s book, it would be difficult to believe that Zuma’s comments were not a reaction to the outpouring of support for the book, and to the collective act of solidarity that our response to the book shows for Kuzwayo. Zuma’s boastfulness produces a two-fold effect: it bolsters his masculinity – the very masculinity that reproduces the abuse of women – and tries to drown Kuzwayo’s voice.

But Tlhabi’s book stands as unerasable witness testimony. It renders so powerfully Kuzwayo’s voice as she addresses us from the silence of her grave, as if confronting us with this question: “Where were you when this was happening to me?”

Accountability

Zuma’s devil-may-care attitude, which he has also displayed by sniggering responses to questions asked of him in Parliament, points to a deeper problem. If the silent anti-rape protest by a group of young women – conducted during Zuma’s announcement of the results of last year’s municipal elections – invites violence from his bodyguards; if a show of solidarity by South Africans protesting against state capture is criticised as an act mobilised by racists; and if criticism of Zuma transforms him into a victim, will Zuma ever be accountable?

South Africa is like a country holding its breath. There is something surreal about opening daily and weekend newspapers and reading about yet another violent murder or rape and mutilation of a young girl; or about millions of rands that some parastatal employee is set to receive; or about ill-gotten billions of rands that have gone to Gupta-owned companies; or about the staggering, and still rising, cost of electricity.

It is as if one is waking up in another country or watching a film about the slow violence attacking all the values that once gave us hope. In countries that have faced physical destruction, where the signs of war are visible in the hollow structures of burnt buildings, the language of violence and of human rights violations easily comes to mind. But in South Africa, where the abuse of state power is running out of control, slowly invading our livelihoods, security and freedoms, the violence of the state is not immediately visible.

Yet, looking around the packed room of The Book Lounge on Monday and at all the people lined up around us – signalling a strong desire to be part of the conversation – I sensed that many of us feel the slow violence that state capture is inflicting on South Africans.

The absence of shame by the ANC’s top brass in supporting Zuma is a gross violation of human rights against those at the margins of our society, who are rendered poorer with each billion that enriches the president, his friends and their families.

This point crystallised for me when Palesa Morudu, who facilitated the conversation with Tlhabi, referred to a question that Tlhabi had put to convicted apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock about whether the rape of captured women was practised at Vlakplaas.

De Kock’s story reminds us that, like rape culture, the political culture of fear, silence and denial – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – comes back to haunt not just those encouraged to commit unspeakable acts “for the sake of unity” of their political organisations, but also those who knowingly turn a blind eye to these deeds.

The ANC will have to face South Africa’s future generations and be accountable for the millions of dreams deferred.

Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and research chair in historical trauma and transformation at Stellenbosch University

Read more on:    anc  |  fezekile kuzwayo  |  rape

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