Melanie Verwoerd

If Michelle Obama gave the Trump speech about Zuma

2016-10-19 07:44

Melanie Verwoerd

On Thursday I watched Michelle Obama’s speech on Donald Trump’s boasts about groping women. Her speech was brilliant and it moved me to tears. A few days later my tears welled up again as I watched the coverage of Fezikile Kuzwayo’s funeral.

Fezikile, or “Khwezi” as she was called during the 2006 rape trial of Jacob Zuma, died last week at the age of 42. After facing terrible abuse during the trial she had to flee the country and had only recently come home. Her moving poem, “Kanga” which was read at her funeral, reminded us of Jacob Zuma’s shocking claim that the Kanga (an African dress) she had worn, indicated that she had invited and consented to sex with him.

Of course this was not the only time Zuma’s comments had exposed his troubling beliefs about women. In 2013, he said to a public meeting in Impendle that if he was not already married to his four wives, he would marry a Venda woman “because they even lie down to show respect for other people”. In 2009 he suggested that single mothers should be separated from their babies and sent to “Robben Island or any other island, (to) sit there, (and) study until they are qualified to come back and work to look after their kids.”

In a TV interview in 2012 he said: “I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society ... Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother”. Earlier this year, he shocked female journalists when he told them: “But when men compliment you innocently, you say it’s harassment. You will miss out on good men and marriage.”

There are many more examples.

I believe that the majority of men and women of all races in this country find these actions and words totally unacceptable, yet we have been silenced for fear of appearing culturally insensitive. Over time, we have come to believe that if we are modern, sensitive South Africans, “culture” trumps (sic) everything and that we should preferably keep quiet to show our political correctness. But listening to Michelle Obama it struck me that while we are horrified when Trump exposes his sexist disrespect for women, we are not really shocked anymore when our President says and does things that are arguably worse.

This made me wonder: “If Michelle Obama was South African and were to give that same speech here, what would it have sounded like?” Would it have the same impact? So I took a transcript of her speech, adjusted it slightly (changes are in italics) and to shorten it, omitted parts (indicated by...). Below is the result:

“Recently...we celebrated the International Day of the Girl and Let Girls Learn, and it was a wonderful celebration... So I thought it would be important to remind...young women how valuable and precious they are. I wanted them to understand that the measure of any society is how it treats its women and girls...I told them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I told them that they should disregard anyone who demeans or devalues them, and that they should make their voices heard in the world...

And now, here I am, in South Africa, where we have consistently been hearing hurtful, hateful language about women — language that has been painful for so many of us, not just as women, but as parents trying to protect our children and raise them to be caring, respectful adults, and as citizens who think that our nation's leaders should meet basic standards of human decency.

The fact is that in this country, we have a ...president who, over the course of his lifetime, has said things about and done things to women that are so shocking, so demeaning that I simply will not repeat anything here today...

And I have to tell you that I can't stop thinking about this. It has shaken me to my core in a way that I couldn't have predicted. So while I'd love nothing more than to pretend like this isn't happening..., it would be dishonest and disingenuous to me to just move on to the next thing like this was all just a bad dream.

This is not something that we can ignore. It's not something we can just sweep under the rug as just another disturbing footnote...

And I have to tell you that ... I feel it so personally, and I'm sure that many of you do too, particularly the women. The shameful comments about our bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman.

It is cruel. It's frightening. And the truth is, it hurts. It hurts. It's like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out vulgar words about your body. Or when you see that guy at work that stands just a little too close, stares a little too long, and makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.

It's that feeling of terror and violation that too many women have felt when someone has grabbed them, or forced himself on them and they've said no but he didn't listen — something that we know happens on college campuses and countless other places every single day. It reminds us of stories we heard from our mothers and grandmothers about how, back in their day, the boss could say and do whatever he pleased to the women in the office, and even though they worked so hard, jumped over every hurdle to prove themselves, it was never enough.

We thought all of that was ancient history, didn't we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are in 2016 and we're hearing these exact same things...We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We're trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn't really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.

Maybe we're afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we've grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we've seen that people often won't take our word over his. Or maybe we don't want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day's headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.

But, South Africa, be clear: This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful. It is intolerable. And it doesn't matter what party you belong to —ANC, DA, EFF— no woman deserves to be treated this way. None of us deserves this kind of abuse...This isn't about politics or culture. It's about basic human decency. It's about right and wrong. And we simply cannot endure this, or expose our children to this any longer — not for another minute... Now is the time for all of us to stand up and say enough is enough. This has got to stop right now.

Because consider this: If all of this is painful to us as grown women, what do you think this is doing to our children? What message are our little girls hearing about who they should look like, how they should act? What lessons are they learning about their value as professionals, as human beings, about their dreams and aspirations? And how is this affecting men and boys in this country? Because I can tell you that the men in my life do not talk about women like this. And I know that my family is not unusual. And to dismiss this as culture is an insult to decent men everywhere.

The men that you and I know don't treat women this way. They are loving fathers who are sickened by the thought of their daughters being exposed to this kind of ... language about and treatment of women. They are husbands and brothers and sons who don't tolerate women being treated and demeaned and disrespected. And like us, these men are worried about the impact this ... is having on our boys who are looking for role models of what it means to be a man…

Let's be very clear: Strong men — men who are truly role models — don't need to put down women to make themselves feel powerful. People who are truly strong lift others up. People who are truly powerful bring others together. And that is what we need in our ... President. We need someone who is a uniting force in this country. We need someone who will heal the wounds that divide us, someone who truly cares about us and our children, someone with strength and compassion to lead this country forward.”

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland.

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