Guest Column

3 women and what they tell us about South Africa's economy of public sympathy

2019-03-12 05:00
Babes Wodumo at the South African premiere of Black Panther

Babes Wodumo at the South African premiere of Black Panther

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Lisa Vetten

Over the past week or so three women – Elizabeth Koue, Babes Wodumo and Karima Brown – have provided a glimpse into the economy of public sympathy in South Africa. By that I mean the ways in which public feeling acts as a kind of resource, such that we invest value and meaning in some lives but reserve our responses to others.

In July 2016 Elizabeth Koue was found dead in her lover Johnson Mashigo's shack. According to her family he was routinely abusive towards her, evident from the protection orders in their possession. Even so, he was acquitted on 19 February 2019 of stabbing her to death.

READ: On Babes Wodumo and the good men who abdicate responsibility

On 3 March her family was reported to have made a formal complaint to the South Gauteng National Prosecuting Authority about the way the prosecutor handled the case. Koue clearly mattered a great deal to her family. But, as a middle-aged woman who lived in a shack, her life was not the glossy, aspirational stuff of which Instagram or Twitter followings are made. This made her socially and politically peripheral and ensured that her death left no more than a passing impression on the surface of public opinion.

As a young celebrity Babes Wodumo is more central to public life than Elizabeth Koue. When the Instagram video of Mandla "Mampintsha" Maphumulo's clear and unambiguous violence towards her started circulating on 4 March it shocked many. His act could not be explained away in terms of that classic abusers' excuse – a mere little slap blown grossly out of proportion. 

A display of manly protectionism

Political parties fell over themselves to condemn the assault. By 11:00 of the same day Vusi Khoza, chairperson of the EFF in KwaZulu-Natal, was championing Wodumo's cause by laying criminal charges against Mampintsha at the Umlazi police station. Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, in a quaint display of manly protectionism challenged Mampintsha to three rounds in a boxing ring. Later that same day the Young Women's Desk of the ANC Women's League accompanied Wodumo to the Westville police station to report the matter.

But the police were already one step ahead and had opened an inquiry docket even before Wodumo laid charges. Mampintsha was arrested and on Tuesday appeared in court to apply for bail. The police's rush to be seen performing their duties is in contrast to how they deal with other domestic violence matters.

To provide a particularly egregious example: In 2016 the Western Cape High Court condemned the Kuilsriver police's handling of a domestic violence complaint. Uretta Nicholas had been kidnapped, assaulted and raped by her estranged partner Bennie Adams. She had escaped and run to the police for help who, because they could not tell the difference between extreme traumatisation and drunkenness, refused to intervene.

When she finally obtained assistance and returned to the house it was to find that Adams had raped and murdered her 2-year-old son in the interim.

This is far from being the only case illustrating the police's refusal to act in support of domestic violence complainants. The Civilian Secretariat for Police has also reported that not one of the police stations they monitored between 2016 and March 2018 complied with the Domestic Violence Act.

Sympathy for Wodumo not unlimited

But even if Wodumo was able to compel a police response in ways that other women have not, public sympathy towards her has not been unlimited. Indeed, many have suggested that she is not entirely deserving of support, given her decision to continue living with Mampintsha in the face of his violence towards her. Mampintsha, for his part, has been attempting to attract public sympathy and distract attention from his violence by focusing on Wodumo's supposed provocations and deficiencies.

A different illustration of how selective public responses to violence are is provided by journalist Karima Brown. To appreciate this we need to revisit EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi's press release of 4 March which stated: "Women deserve to live full and healthy lives, free of all forms of violence against their bodies and emotions."

Yet, on 5 March the party's supporters began threatening Brown with rape, murder and skinning. She had accidentally sent a watching brief intended for eNCA colleagues to an EFF WhatsApp media group. This advised journalists to report on the age and gender of those attending an EFF breakfast.

While Julius Malema may have subsequently distanced himself from the threats against Brown this does not change the fact that he effectively declared an open hunting season on her by posting her message and telephone number on his Twitter timeline.

Looking at this economy more closely says something about the conditions under which we either extend or withhold sympathetic identification with others. In Brown's case it was advice around reporting on the EFF that suddenly made her sub-human and deserving of no protection. For Babes Wodumo it was the decision to remain with Mampintsha that made her suspect in some eyes.

Where Elizabeth Koue is concerned it is her marginal social status that deprives her from full inclusion within this economy of public feeling.

These three women ask us to critically reflect on how and who we pay attention to in our public responses to violence.

- Lisa Vetten is a Mellon Doctoral Candidate based at the Wits City Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    babes wodumo  |  karima brown  |  sexual abuse  |  domestic violence
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