Post-rape subjectivities: A PhD study

Two rapes and murders that happened worlds apart have the same tragic thread that unites them. Both Sinoxolo Mafevuka and Franziska Blochliger were young women whose lives were cut short by senseless brutal violence. On either side of the divides of race, class and location, two families have experienced the sudden and unexpected loss of loved ones whose lives had barely just begun.

While many commentators have been quick to point out the glaring disparity between the media coverage, the difference in efficiency of policing and the progress made (or lack thereof in the case of Sinoxolo Mafevuka) in these two murders, one cannot weigh the life of one woman as more or less valuable than that of another. We should be angry in both cases and we should all pray for justice to prevail for both Sinoxolo and Franziska.

– Xego Melikhaya

There is a cost – a huge, devastating cost that comes with rape – an invisible wound that remains long after the physical scars (where they exist) have healed. And what a cost to us to have so many of our people walking wounded.

-Pumla Dineo Gqola

It is widely known that rates of sexual violence in South Africa are among the highest in the world. However, this kind of violence continues to be acknowledged in uneven ways.

Xego Melikhaya alludes to the ways in which race and class shape public responses to rape in significant ways. In particular, the rape of poor black women does not generate the same kind of public outrage as the rape of other women. Pumla Dineo Gqola, in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, argues that this is because, through colonial discourse and slavocratic social practices, black women have been hypersexualised and  constructed as “impossible to rape”. This means that when black women disclose that they have been raped they are either not believed or it is seen as a less ‘serious’ violation.

The endless portrayal of violated black bodies across the pages of various media also positions these instances of sexual violence as inevitable, and therefore unworthy of much response. And so people like Sinoxolo Mafevuka, who are ‘destined’ to have violence acted upon their bodies,  do not make the front page.

The disparate acknowledgement of sexual violence is also evident in responses to a number of rapes which occurred at the University of Cape Town (UCT) last year. The rape of several UCT students near the campus between November 2015 and March 2016 received wide media coverage, a R10 000 reward was offered by the university for information regarding the case and significant resources were directed towards capturing the perpetrator. However, as one student wrote on a blog intended to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus: “over the weekend, as the arrest of the suspected serial rapist dominated the news, we as UCT Survivors ask ‘What about all the perpetrators of sexual violence in their class rooms and residences that UCT has not offered a reward for?'”

It is within this context, where certain rapes are seen as more horrific and deserving of attention than others, that I entered a police station on the 30th of October 2015 to report that I had been raped at approximately 18h45 that evening.

Subsequently I have been trying to make sense not only what it means to have been raped, but what it means to have been raped in a context in which certain kinds of sexual violence are normalised, disregarded or omitted entirely.

As both a personal and political act, I have decided to make these questions the central focus on my PhD, which is entitled “post-rape subjectivities”.

Chris Weedon defines subjectivity as “the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to the world.

This project centers on my personal experience of being raped, my experiences of accessing services (including the police and the hospital) following the rape, as well as my relationships and subjectivities post-rape.

It aims to explore how these experiences, relationships and subjectivities are shaped by problematic understandings of what counts as rape, who can be raped and who can rape. It also aims to examine how my post-rape experiences, relationships and subjectivities are shaped by my intersecting position as a feminist, cis-gender, white, middle-class women.

Alongside my personal experience of rape, this project will also draw on the narratives of other women who have experienced sexual violence. This is in order to analyse what is common as well as what is distinct for different post-rape selves.

I hope that this work can help us as a society to understand better how those who have been sexually violated negotiate, integrate and challenge dominant discourses post-rape, as well as how we can better support these difficult processes.


#HerNameWasVovo and she was a human being

I am a middle-class, white, cis-gender woman who is perceived to be heterosexual. Because of this I am protected in many ways from the hate and violence that is levelled against poor, black queer people like Noluvo Swelindawo, who was kidnapped from her house in Driftsands and murdered because she is a lesbian. I am not sexualised and ‘deviant’ in the same way as Noluvo is. My body has not being transformed by hundreds of years of exploitation into something unhuman, like hers has.

But I am not as protected as I have always thought. On the 30th of October 2015 I was raped.

I do not profess to know what Noluvo experienced as a queer black woman, but I have experienced what it means to have violence acted out on me, because of what I represent; that which is less than man, that which is woman. I know what it is to be grabbed, strangled, dragged, penetrated. I know what it is to look into the face of a man and fear that he will kill me and leave my broken body in a clump of bushes. I know what it is to fear that those I loved would find me like this. I know what it is to have my humanity ripped away from me, to feel that I am no longer myself.

The murder of Noluvo forced me to reflect on what it means to be a human being in South Africa, what it means to inhabit this precarious, fractured space. On reflecting on the murder of Noluvo, I am forced to mourn for all of us who can read this kind of story and then carry on with our lives, when the lives of so many are being ended, when so many are being stripped of their dignity, their freedom and their humanity.

The valuing of my life, over the lives of other women, was made clear when I attended a government clinic following my own rape. Here I was repeatedly asked who I was accompanying for treatment – because surely this well-dressed white girl could not be the one who was raped? The fact that I cannot comfortably be seen as a ‘rape survivor’ and  that so many people have wanted not to believe what has happened to me when they so easily believe and overlook when the same happens to other women, is deeply revealing of how dehumanisation has become a key social coping mechanism.

If I had been murdered, those of you, who feel that this can’t happen to people like us, would have cried and probably brought flowers, like you did for Franziska Blochliger. You might have raged and screamed. You might even have marched to ensure that this does not happen to another young woman, like me. You would have recognised my humanity and that it was unacceptable for this to be taken from me.

You will not, I fear, do the same for Noluvo.

I do not know how to go beyond this place of violence, to disrupt what has become normalised, through the endless masquerading of bodies across our Facebook feeds, our newspapers and our TV screens.

But I want to start by recognising the humanity of Noluvo, to recognise that her murder is a loss for all of us, and that her story is the story of so many others. If those of us who can afford to (or at least think we can) stay protected, sheltered and ‘safe’ refuse to recognise those who are refused this privilege, we will continue to be complicit in the reproduction of various forms of violence.

If we continue to separate what happens to people who are different from us, from our own lives and humanities, we not only dehumanise those that we refuse to recognise but we also dehumanise ourselves. As I have learnt the hard way I am not safe from violence, despite the electric fence around my house. I am not saved by telling myself that violence is something that happens elsewhere, something that happens to poor people, black people, other people.

If we continue to value the lives of some people more than others and to see some acts of violence as ‘normal’ we reproduce a social system of othering. We make it possible for men, like those who attacked and killed Noluvo to demarcate her as less, as unworthy of life, as not human.

So what can we do to reconnect with our own humanness and the humanness of others?

We rally outside the court in Khayelitsha to demand justice for Noluvo, just as we would if she was our sister, our daughter, our granddaughter, our friend.

We talk to our children about why we should not tease, label and hurt people that are different from us.

We recognise that our humanity is only realised in recognising the humanity of others.

#HerNameWasVovo and she was a human being.

This piece was published in the Cape Times on the 9th of December under the title “I know what it is to be grabbed, strangled, dragged, penetrated”


Perhaps I should begin, as is good practice in research, by making explicit my position.

I am Rebecca.

I am born female, although more and more I am wrestling with what this means.

I am ‘white’ South African, a child of privilege.

I, until about a month ago, considered myself heterosexual.

I am researcher; interested in gender, sexuality, violence, dehumanisation, intersectionality and a lot of other things.

I want to be activist.  I want to write about injustice and violation, but I want to do more than write. I want to think more, challenge more and reflect more.

I am counselor (although it has been a while since I occupied that particular chair) and have been privileged to bear witness to many stories of pain and survival. These stories have weighed me down, caused me nightmares, but most importantly have reinforced my commitment to try to listen differently, to think different and to be differently.

I am ‘rape survivor’, torn apart, tying to reconstitute self, safety and love.

I am frightened child. I am still often trapped by fear, of what might happen, of what might not.

I am almost PhD student. I am almost investigator of “post-rape subjectivities”. I am almost auto-ethnographer and interviewer of other women.

I am tired and frightened and excited.