#RememberKhwezi: who is really standing up for women's rights in South Africa?


It could hardly get more symbolic: four women in black standing silently in front of the president, four days after an election, right at the beginning of Women’s Month. And then they were removed forcefully by that president’s bodyguards, while the women of his party continued to protect him.

It’s impossible to watch the videos of activists Simamkele Dlakavu, Naledi Chirwu and two others without feeling a chill down your spine. There they stand, with Jacob Zuma framed between Chirwu and Dlakavu’s signs: Khanga. Remember Khwezi.

As Richard Poplak writes in Daily Maverick, “Five pieces of paper had worked like a car bomb, blowing the night apart.”

The Sunday Times reported that ministers Nomvula Mokonyane, Lindiwe Zulu and Bathabile Dlamini were apoplectic with rage; Zulu and Dlamini “had to be physically restrained” from attacking Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Mokonyane shouted: “You sold us out!”

In subsequent interviews, Dlamini, who is also president of the ANC Women’s League, said that the protest “trivialised” gender-based violence.

With respect, Minister, that is utter bull.

When Zuma’s (mostly female) supporters burned A4-sized photographs of Khwezi’s face with her name outside the court, shouting: “Burn this bitch!”; when the Women’s League said not a word about Khwezi’s rights during the trial, that trivialised gender-based violence.

After Zuma’s acquittal, Khwezi and her mother went to the Netherlands, where they were granted asylum in 2007. She literally went into exile. You do know that, Minister?

We can no longer seriously believe that the ANCWL are fighting for the rights of anyone other than Jacob Zuma. They are certainly not, in any significant practical sense, standing up for the rights of South African women.

In 2010, Minister Lulu Xingwana walked out of a Zanele Muholi exhibition featuring photographs of nude lesbian couples, which she called “immoral, offensive and going against nation-building”. The ANCWL did not object when Zuma nominated Mogoeng Mogoeng as chief justice in 2011. It defended their president after his sexist comments about women having children in 2012.

The Daily Vox has published a roundup of some of the ANCWL’s most unfeminist moments. A year ago, they rescinded their earlier calls to abolish cultural practices like ukuthwala and virginity testing, and in January they released a statement reiterating that Marius Fransman was innocent until proven guilty of charges of sexual harassment.

In October last year, thousands of Women’s League members marched to the Union Buildings “to defend Zuma’s dignity”, after a graphic painting by the artist Ayanda Mabulu. They held up signs reading “Hands off our President”.

It was a twisted echo of that other march to the Union Buildings, 60 years ago, when thousands of South African women showed the apartheid government that they would not be silenced.

It is painful to see these strong, powerful women twisting themselves into knots in defence of a man who has shown such contempt for his country’s mothers, sisters, daughters. Whoever they might be marching for this Women’s Day, they do not march for us.

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