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.