Don’t simplify the many forms of our suffering

2015-02-17 10:00

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As part of a discussion with Sam Cowen on her Talk Radio 702 show, I said my new year’s resolution for South Africa was for us to “make it complicated”.

This sounds as if I want to make things more difficult – but dealing with nuance does create complexity, as I’ve said many times.

The need for complexity couldn’t have been more obvious than in the reported rape of a high school mixed-race boy by four white schoolmates in the Northern Cape during what seemed to have started as an initiation before becoming a kind of disciplining for the race of his parents.

Initially, reports focused clumsily on the “racist attack” and incorrectly referred to his rape as “sodomy”. After a quick 101 on the Sexual Offences Act, the dominant discourse largely focused on “Was it rape or racism?” or “initiation or racism?” as if it couldn’t be an act of violent heteromasculinity and racism at the same time. Consequently, we did a significant injustice to the sexual violence suffered.

An understanding of apartheid informs much of the understanding of our contemporary challenges, but even that context is often lacking. Apartheid has had many other instances of systemic violence – outside of those which are explicitly racist – that we ignore.

Among other things, apartheid was homophobic, Islamophobic and sexist. It was a methodical heterosexual, patriarchal, Christian, capitalist, white supremacist project.

Fast-forward to 2015 and we are dealing with the consequences of a system with many layers, in new settings, in ways we have not even properly named.

Yet we think if we deal with race we’ve dealt with “the issue”, not realising we are actually looking at several issues at once.

Northern Cape Education MEC Grizelda Cjiekella-Lecholo responded to the attack by saying: “This type of behaviour is unAfrican and inhumane.”

This raises the question: What does “unAfrican” mean in an African country with staggeringly high rates of sexual and domestic violence from which men and boys are not safe?

What does “unAfrican” mean when we know sexual violence is used as a tool for “punishment”, and that’s how we came to the (still problematic) phrase “corrective rape”, which recognises the particular kind of sexual violence suffered by queer individuals.

Similarly, the presence of violent masculinity, one of the foundations of “schoolboy initiation”, is more than just about white boys. There is a “making of men” – because masculinity is a cultural process of “becoming a man”, which contributes to staggering violence by boys and men.

So talking about “unAfricanness” becomes rhetoric that means little when the violence is happening to “Africans” by other “Africans”.

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