A culture of fear is used to control women

2018-05-06 06:01
Sandile Mantsoe was on Thursday jailed for 32 years for killing Karabo Mokoena. PHOTO: Themba Makofane

Sandile Mantsoe was on Thursday jailed for 32 years for killing Karabo Mokoena. PHOTO: Themba Makofane

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Conversations around consent are, at their core, conversations about power, or rather who is perceived as having the power to consent or not consent. Dialogue about sexual assaults needs to pay attention to the violations which have become part of the daily interactions that South African women suffer in silence. The spectularisation of alleged public breaches of consent by men such as Khalo Matabane, Vernon Naidoo, Thabane Mzolo, Sandile Mantsoe and Jacob Zuma are but one end of a spectrum of acts of violation women are subjected to. If we are to have a significant impact on rape culture in South Africa, we have to tackle and interrupt and render visible what author and feminist Pumla Gqola calls the female fear factory. The female fear factory not only renders women vulnerable, but violates their fundamental constitutional rights to life, human dignity, bodily autonomy and equal protection by the law.

It has become a new normal for family and friends to issue “missing” notices on social media. Before concerned family and friends head to the police, they resort to seeking assistance on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This phenomenon speaks to how the South African criminal justice system has failed victims and survivors of sexual violence. As Gqola writes in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, there exists a culture of fear which has been used to transmit the message to women that they cannot not consent and that their no’s will be met with greater physical violence. Through daily interactions, a culture of control through fear has been inculcated.

It is this fear we must interrogate. The fear of the ordinary which creates an unconscious daily anxiety in women – particularly black South African women – and deprives them of economic mobility and freedom. Consent is not only the freedom to say yes or no, but it animates various constitutional freedoms and guarantees. South African women are deprived of their constitutional freedoms daily through a culture of fear which tells them that they are violable, they are rapeable and they are disposable.

South African women know that every step they take outside – steps to do ordinary things: a walk to the shops, a taxi to work, an Uber from a party – becomes a negotiation with death. Consent becomes the primary currency through which we can negotiate the violence of toxic masculinity. Our movement in public and private areas becomes a constant dance of mitigation of violence.

Daily, women have to find ways to mitigate the violations they will experience on South African streets. The levels of violence one experiences as a woman in South Africa are directly proportional to the multiple positions of marginalisation they occupy – thus black lesbian women experience violence that is linked to their womanhood, their blackness and their economic status.

In the wake of Matabane, and Grant Thornton’s perceived cover-up of allegations against alleged sexual predator Vernon Naidoo, I am interested in the conversations we are not having, particularly around consent and how women go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate the ever-present threat of violence through passive consent. South African women have had to forgo their constitutional right to bodily autonomy through passively consenting to everyday sexual harassment as a way to mitigate a greater threat of physical violence should they refuse sexual advances. Simply put, women are coerced, through daily interactions, to acquiesce to sexual harassment in order to be able to access public spaces.

In order to address the Matabanes and Naidoos in South African streets and workplaces, we have to deal with the persistent denial of women of their rights to bodily autonomy, dignity, equality and life. The behaviours of these men are normalised through complex social systems which tell women that in order to access economic mobility and the attendant right to human dignity and equality, they have to passively consent to unwanted sexual advances.

Women constantly have to invest mental and emotional space in mitigating persistent acts of violence they know they will be subjected to. The threat of violence is never obvious, it is there, in thinly veiled catcalls and verbal remarks such as “umuhle yazi”, “ngicela ama’number akho”, “nzok’hlafuna njenge chappies”, “you’re my size” or “hello nice nice”. These public approaches are always backed by the threat of violence; they are in fact threats. Between the threat and a women’s response is the realisation that if we do not consent to their advances or do not reciprocate their attention, explicit violence will, in all likelihood, follow. Thus women often “consent” or are coerced into “consenting” to sexual harassment as a means of mitigating a greater threat of physical violence.

What happens now? Dialogue around consent culture in South Africa must begin outside the egregious acts of sexual harassment reported in the media. The student movement of #RUReferencelist made significant inroads in bringing to the fore the importance of addressing rape culture. The ubiquitous nature of rape culture shrouds itself in a blanket of normality. We have come to accept as normal the daily violations we experience because “amadoda zinzinja” or #MenAreTrash. Men have not been called to account for the daily terror they enact on women.

Rape, murder and sexual violation cases which have proliferated in the media are part of a bigger animal, rape culture. We must look into the ways in which women are deprived of the simple right to live in peace through daily interactions of fear and control. It begins by men realising that they are violating the constitutional rights of women and taking measures to hold each other accountable. Karabo Mokoena, Zolile Khumalo and Nerisha Singh did not suffer in vain. The female fear factory will be dismantled.

- Deyi is a gender and social justice activist. She was a law researcher to Justice Edwin Cameron and is currently an independent legal researcher

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Read more on:    women's rights  |  violence  |  gender equality

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