Guest Column

Aftermath of abuse: When is it okay to share another's story?

2018-05-27 12:47
Babes Wodumo. Picture: Jabulani Langa

Babes Wodumo. Picture: Jabulani Langa

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Andiswa Makanda: Burden to be brave placed on survivors

Many times we demand survivors of abuse fit into the Perfect Victims doctrine that places certain expectations on them. They must fight against the perpetrator, leave visible scars on their bodies, scream “No” so the neighbours can hear and, if they are unlucky, report the crime to the police. The Perfect Victim is expected to walk out of an abusive relationship and, in the case of Babes Wodumo, speak publicly of the violence, so other survivors can come forth.

However, the human experience of abuse and trauma is a subjective experience that differs from individual to individual. Sometimes you make breakfast for the rapist the morning after, as the author of the comic story, Trigger Warning: Breakfast, shared.

A lot on social media focused on Masechaba Ndlovu’s conduct in her interview with Bongekile Simelane, also known as Babes Wodumo, last Friday and a lot of emphasis placed on her body language during the “ambush”. Even Mampintsha on Metro FM, the Monday after, alluded to her abilities to speak of her abuse without the help of Masechaba Ndlovu and Mo Flava, hinting there never was an assault, for she would never be cagey about it.

In a perfect world survivors can easily come forward and share their stories without the fear of shame and retribution. Media could simply print their names with the peace of knowing there would be no consequences. But we don’t live in a perfect world and media journalists are bound by rules and codes of conduct. And, as witnessed last week, the anonymity of survivors is not a guarantee. But who governs the actions and inactions of survivors? What if a survivor rebels against the social codes of the Perfect Victim?

Many congratulated Masechaba for ousting Mampintsha amid growing calls to break the silence. The argument often advanced, albeit not new, and undoubtedly a compelling one is Women Are Dying; Silence = Death. And who can forget the chilling warning of black feminist Audre Lorde: “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.”

In the hullabaloo of criticism and praise for Masechaba and the question of when is it appropriate to share publicly somebody else’s story, what are the natural responses of a traumatised person? How can we better understand the behaviour of survivors after an assault?

For many centuries the behaviour of man in a dangerous situation and how they dealt with fear was explained by the fight-and-flight response. But recently a new explanation has been proffered that best explains why women defy the codes of the Perfect Victim. An evolutionary driven defence system centred on freeze, appease, tend and befriend, introduced by University of California social psychologist Shelley Taylor.

In this defence system women can express an affiliative social behaviour, befriend or bond with the assaulter or seek social support from family members or friends, because of a hormone known as oxytocin. Women, it is argued, will do whatever is needed to survive a dangerous situation and the fight-flight response is thus replaced with freeze, appease, tend and befriend. Film producer Jade Blair said sometimes the instinctive response for women is to de-escalate the situation by appeasing the abuser, even going as far as taking the blame for his action. It explains why women often do not remember the full details of the assault and why it becomes difficult to think and act rationally it. It’s a woman in conflict with biological means to survive and the evolutionary response that involves nurturing.

And so the rape survivor makes breakfast for her rapist – eggs, nicely done, bacon crisply, fried just the way he likes them – because she wants to pretend the rape never happened. And when we look at events through this lens, then we understand why Fezekile Khuzwayo slept in the same house in which she was raped, why Jennifer Ferguson took a shower before taking a long walk after she was violated, why Karabo Mokoena stayed in an abusive relationship. We cannot look at the Babes Wodumo incident devoid of the power struggles between herself and Mapintsha. A lot is at stake and we should give her the benefit of the doubt that she was negotiating her freedom, by tend and befriend. She had already left him.

We live in a society that places on survivors the burden to be brave. We cheer them on when they speak out publicly. We want survivors to share their experiences simply to educate misogynists and abusive men about the plight of women and those oppressed by patriarchy. We want to consume the pain of those inflicted, share in their struggles and triumphs, rehumanise the victims … and, voila, the tyranny of rape and domestic abuse will end. Because sharing forces society to empathise and empathy is what moves us to action.

But can empathy alone save lives? What will it take for empathy to make a meaningful change? Will it take the witnessing of pain and suffering of others, as digital activist Sherronda J Brown suggests? How do we identify the pain of others in a way that locates their pain with our own feelings of suffering? Many have questioned the ability of empathy to solve all the world’s problems.

When we ask survivors to speak out, what are we asking of them if not to do the emotional labour on our behalf? Then why do we insist on partaking in trauma porn, if not for the sake of trauma porn itself? To what end are we asking of victims to share their stories, when we do not take meaningful action against the culture of rape or domestic abuse?

Alisa of Healing Honestly, a survivor herself, painfully remarks that trauma porn is not only unhelpful to survivors, but can actually be harmful to them because it can trigger so many things. Trauma porn can be inappropriate at times and, at worst, futile. Danny Jordaan is still running for Safa president, Mduduzi Manana is still in office, Arthur Mofokate is still doing business, reviving 999, and come the weekend, we will be dancing to Mampintsha and Babes’ Amaketanga, and bopping our heads to Jiva Phez’kombhede in our cars. We won’t boycott the radio stations that play any track linked to Mampintsha.

Makanda is an award-winning producer on the 702 breakfast show and commentator

Khadija Magardie: Abuse thrives in a culture of silence

Imagine, if you will, a dystopian nightmare scenario where one in five black South Africans are currently experiencing violence of varying degrees at the hands of white men.

Imagine a South Africa where on average, every eight hours a black man or woman is killed by a white person.

Imagine if 34% – nearly half of all young black schoolchildren have been victims of violence perpetrated by whites.

Imagine that racially motivated hate crime is the leading cause of death among blacks in South Africa today.

All of the above scenarios are impossible to imagine because they simply wouldn’t happen; they wouldn’t be allowed to happen in any civilised society.

There would be an international outcry. Debates would be held at the UN. Sanctions would be imposed. Civil society would be mobilised to stage a rebellion. Police and even armies would be on the streets. Politicians would lose their jobs. Governments would be toppled.

And yet this is the grim, nasty, brutish reality of 51.3% of South Africa’s population.

Women are dying in the streets. We are being raped, beaten, stabbed, shot and killed by men – of all races.

For those lucky enough to escape this fate, we lead lives of perpetual uncertainty and fear; not knowing when it is safe to walk the streets alone and, after dark, get into a taxi alone, wear a short skirt, or simply say or do the wrong thing.

Beating, raping and murdering women – a more realistic categorisation than the neutral and neutered term “gender-based violence” – has reached endemic proportions in a country with one of the most progressive Constitutions, and with some of the most advanced policies and programmes to protect women from discrimination and victimisation on account of our gender.

When violence is being perpetrated against a sector of the population on a scale more akin to a country at war, there cannot be any space for platitudes and euphemism – nor can we afford to be lost in quasi-bureaucratic debates around the “context” in which we raise our voices to condemn categorically the abuse of women as and when we see it.

Such was the obfuscation on social media last week when Metro FM DJ Masechaba Ndlovu was accused of “outing” and “exposing” gqom superstar Babes Wodumo live on air during an interview.

It is illogical – bordering on farcical – that to ask a woman (whether she is a friend, acquaintance or a public figure) what she is wearing, what she is reading, or for the details of her sex life constitutes normal conversation, but asking her outright if she is being beaten by an intimate partner, particularly when one has first-hand knowledge thereof, would be intruding on her privacy.

It has since been established that far from an ambush, the two DJs discussed with Babes during the off-air break that they would ask her about the matter, to which she consented.

The ensuing controversy that erupted, which saw Ndlovu attacked for being unsisterly for bringing up the subject, raises interesting questions on a number of levels. Chief among them being whether the outraged listeners were in fact outraged because the host had thrown a curveball, or whether it was because she had thrown that curveball. So it would be right perhaps to ask who she is sleeping with, but not if she is getting her nose bloodied and her legs broken by a boyfriend.

Numerous studies show that the beating, raping and killing of women thrives in a culture of silence. It is a culture of silence that countless numbers of women in this country implicitly observe when a man’s fist is raised against us or our daughters.

It is a silence I too have observed when I heard my grandmother’s muffled screams as she was beaten by the man in her life and I, a child, powerless to act, covered my head with a pillow.

It is a silence I drove in at the dead of night to pick up a friend, bloodied and bruised, from the streets outside Hillbrow Police Station after she fled, screaming and barefoot, from her home with her infant in her arms. It is a silence I walked with into the hospital room of another friend, her back in traction from being flung down the stairs in front of her children. It was in silence that I listened to her overexplain in detail about how she slipped a disc overexerting herself at the gym.

It is this silence that perpetuates a shameful cover-up of crimes against women because we don’t want to invade the victim’s privacy or intrude, or because we don’t want to meddle in other people’s business. The truth though is we are just secretly relieved it isn’t us.

As one social media user put it – many women who are victims of violence suffer from abantu bazothini syndrome: and suffer in silence for fear of not only the perpetrator, but out of fear of whether they will be believed, whether they will shame themselves or their families and, perhaps most damagingly, whether they haven’t somehow brought it upon themselves.

It is regrettable that in the ensuing condemnation Ndlovu received from social-media users for asking her guest to clarify rumours that she was beaten by a former boyfriend, what was lost was a fundamental question – namely whether there is in fact a time and a place “to talk about it”. There is no “time and place” to talk about violence against women. It is also questionable whether it is more courteous to sit quietly by, hands in laps, until a victim decides to speak – because maybe they are too terrified or ashamed to do so.

When it comes to hearing or seeing a woman being beaten, it is time to up-end the age-old myth that being a good friend and neighbour means minding your own business.

Men who abuse women also care about abantu bazothini. If they knew the neighbours would intervene, or call the police, maybe they would think twice first.

Our country needs more women like Ndlovu, not fewer. Taking action on behalf of abused women is not about taking away their agency. The pseudo-feminism on display last week was little more than postulating; its arguments weak and overly academic in a climate where women and girls are being beaten, raped and killed on a scale that calls into serious question our claim to being an enlightened democracy.

If more of us were a little less reticent about “getting involved” when they hear or see a woman being abused – or even suspect it is the case – perhaps fewer lives would be lost.

Magardie is a writer and feminist

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Read more on:    abuse  |  gender based violence  |  domestic violence
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