Mapping the unrapeability of white and black womxn

This week an article that I wrote was published by Agenda . Here is an extract from it:

Khwezi is politics – a symbol of the arduous fight against political and patriarchal power (Redi Thlabi 2017:7).

Redi Thlabi’s book Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, published in September 2017, recalled national attention to the 2006 Jacob Zuma rape trial. The book details the enormous cost incurred by a womxn who accused a powerful man of rape. More than ten years on, Thlabi asks us to reflect on our complicity as “part of a society that had at worst allowed and at best observed [Khwezi’s] lynching” (Thlabi, 2017:4).

Khwezi (meaning ‘star’) was the name given to Fezekile during the trial, to protect her identity. The trial represents a deep scar on the body of our democracy. As others have argued, the fact that Zuma went on to become president despite what was revealed at the trial, demonstrated a failure to take seriously the issue of sexual violence in post-1994 South Africa (Coetzee and du Toit, 2017). Within the book Thlabi draws us back to
key moments of the trial. For example, Zuma’s lawyer, Advocate Kemp’s questioning
of Fezekile’s sexual history:

She is then asked to recall and write down the names of other men with whom she
had consensual sex. The next question –
“Did you know them well?” – goes unanswered, initially.
“Are you thinking, is it so difficult to tell
whether you knew them well?”
“I knew them,” she responds
“You knew them?”
“Yes.”
“Did you know them well that was the
question?”
“I knew them is enough I think” (Thlabi, 2017:118-120).

Thlabi argues that through the above questioning, Zuma’s defence sought to render Fezekile as “a wanton woman who has regular sex with men she does not know well” (2017:122). This construction, rooted in colonial notions of black womxn as licentious, perverse and sexually promiscuous, serves to position Fezekile as ‘unrapeable’. As Gqola (2015:4) has argued, Fezekile, by virtue of her sexual history, is “safe to rape” in that her rape is not regarded as harm. Fezekile’s ability to consent to sex with Jacob Zuma must be read in relation to a colonial power matrix which denied black people will and selfownership, thereby denying them control over their own bodies, productive and sexual/reproductive labour (Gqola, 2015). Within this context, in which black womxn are unable to withhold consent, they are rendered unrapeable. This complex notion of ‘rapeability’ is central to understanding contemporary sexual violence in South Africa.

Despite the disparaging indictment on our failure as a society to support, protect and honour Fezekile that Thlabi’s book brings, I read the publication (and wide reading) of the book as a potentially positive development. The reflection on our failure to support Fezekile, which did not happen at the time of the trial, is perhaps indicative of a changing social and political context in which (more) meaningful conversations about sexual violence have become possible. In attempting to broaden and deepen discussions about contemporary sexual violence it is necessary to carefully and critically examine the ways in which recent instances of rape are rooted in colonial constructions of race and gender. In this article I use two examples of recent sexual violence to highlight the ways in which formations of coloniality continue to render certain womxn ‘unrapeable’ (Gqola, 2015). In particular, I show how formations of coloniality which positioned both black and white womxn (along with black men) as the property of white men have produced unequal possibilities for claiming status as ‘legitimate’ victims/survivors of rape in South Africa today. I use ‘land’, both to refer to the physical territory that was conquered during colonial invasions, as well as a metaphor for the establishment of a particular national order.

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#DontLookAway: What men can learn from campaigns like #MeToo and #MenAreTrash

– Rebecca Helman & Kopano Ratele 

Sexual violence has an effect of shaming, often into silence, the very people who are violated.

Other effects of shame include self-blame and self-destructive behaviours. Instead of shame attaching to the perpetrators of sexual violence, who according to statistics are overwhelmingly men, the shame becomes the burden of the survivor.

In no other crime (eg robbery or murder) does shame become the problem of the victims or survivors.

The debilitating aspect about shame is that it disrupts the sense of self, and threatens the core of who you are. Many survivors of sexual violence experience shame because they feel that they have been irreparably damaged by their sexual violation.

Both Helman, a young white woman, and Ratele, an older black man, have struggled with the feeling of shame. Both came to understand at an intellectual level that they ought not to be ashamed for being violated, although the emotional burden of shame is hard to shake.

As people who get paid to think about sexual violence, the differences between how we respond to our experiences are striking and instructive.

Helman has chosen to speak out, on various platforms, about her experience. Speaking out is an attempt to disrupt both her own shame and the shame of other survivors.

This is the first time Ratele has publicly spoken about his experience, outside of his intimate circles. Like many men, the fact that Ratele has not spoken out is because he feels rape does not happen to men like him.

A lot of people who have been sexually violated struggle with speaking out or even disclosing to those close to them because of feelings of shame.

We see campaigns such as #MeToo and #MenAreTrash as attempts to disrupt and redirect the shame of sexual violence. The #MeToo movement, which was initiated in 2007 by Tarana Burke and went viral in 2017 after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ in reply to this”, drew international attention to the prevalence of sexual violence.

Similarly #MenAreTrash, which called out problematic masculinity, gained increasing online popularity in South Africa in 2016 and 2017.

While these campaigns are ostensibly about encouraging the voicing of sexual trauma and challenging the acceptability of men’s violence, they are also about shifting the shame from the survivors to the perpetrators.

Many men have responded to these campaigns with anger and denial.

They claim that they are not trash and that they have never sexually violated anybody.

What anger, denial and other negative responses inhibit is an empathetic engagement with the shame-inducing and humiliation that men’s violence, abuse and sexual harassment are intended to produce.

There are at least two consequences of this refusal to engage.

Firstly, by refusing to engage with the experiences being presented by campaigns against sexual violence, men deny survivors the ability to transfer their shame to where it properly belongs: to the violators.

Secondly, men’s refusal to empathise with survivors prevents them, as men, from expressing their own traumas.

We know that young men experience sexual abuse from other men.

The recent case at Parktown Boys’ High and the events detailed in the book  The Lost Boys of Bird Island are just two examples of this.

We think that there are at least three important lessons men can learn from campaigns such as #MeToo and #MenAreTrash:

1. A well-developed sense of empathy. Empathy allows men to understand women’s fear of sexual violence, particularly in a context like South Africa where rates of violence are high.

Developing enhanced empathy means men are more likely to have meaningful and richer relationships with women and children.

Developing this empathy will also enable men to see, and hopefully challenge, problematic masculinities and disrupt violent tendencies.

2. Speaking about their trauma. What men can learn from women who refuse to be silent is that speaking out about pain and trauma disrupts shame. By speaking about sexual violation, survivors are able refute that they should be ashamed of being violated. We have seen this with Cheryl Zondi. Her refusal to be shamed allowed us to see that the shame belongs to the pastor who raped her and the male lawyer who badgered her in court.

3. Showing vulnerability is not weakness. Men’s speaking out makes it easier for other men to come forward, just as Milano’s tweet opened up space for other women (and some men) to come forward and speak their pain.

One of the things that prevents men from speaking out about sexual violation is the association of masculinity with invulnerability.

An admission that we are all vulnerable to violence does not diminish men, but makes them human.

– This article was originally published by IOL: https://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/news/dontlookaway-what-men-can-learn-from-campaigns-like-metoo-and-menaretrash-18325968

The story of another

I sit across for her. Before I even ask she begins to tell, an old story. A story I have heard many times before. A story like mine. She leaves after an hour, the story still pouring out. She writes to me afterwards. This is what she writes:

It happened about 27 years ago, before freedom came, before the rainbow, before the isms that hold our space. In a land that was safe, holy, in a “safe space”.

 They penetrated me beyond my intact hymen, that I was saving for “my husband”, they penetrated my world, my future and stole my innocence, my worth, the very essence of my being.

No it was not coloured or black men that stole from me that which should be freely given, it was white men from a foreign country in a foreign land.

 And before you read my story or no let’s wait till after, after all my race does not matter, my story does.

 I was twenty, enjoying a beach party with about fifty  other young people, from all the world,  dancing celebrating life, on a beach fifty thousand miles away from beautiful Cape Town.  Two men followed me as I danced in the moonlight and raped me, violated me or as my thesaurus says ‘ravished’ me…. is that the same word I have read in some romantic novels?

 I was stupid to dance away from the crowd but Oh I was enjoying the music, the freedom of being in a different country with different people. I thought I was safe.

 Then they came …. and held me down and did their thing, that very thing. Oh she is a virgin I heard one say as I struggled with him… pleaded with him, the alcohol helped me to move in and out of my body I thought, not satisfied after they had their way they used a broken bottle……

I still have bright shiny scars to remind me of them, of that ….

 It is not the act itself … but the lingering effects of the act, the effects that I cannot shake, the fear that stays like an uninvited guest with me … in my quiet spaces, the fear that pervades my being, even though I have been for counselling, trauma counselling, attending rape crisis, etc … the effects of rape lingers like a bad smell.

 It tinged my life, unable to completely embrace sex in its normal form, I had to consume alcohol or smoke dope, to make me forget the invasion of me.  The fear enters my dreams, and even my life, when I am alone, I hear every sound, every creak, every footstep.

 I made a rash decision and continued to travel, allowing the rape to enter the back spaces of my mind, where it, the memories  lay dormant, until I met what I thought was the man of my dreams. Being 24 it was expected that I now as women of the world, would not be a newcomer to the world of sexual pleasure …. and yet it could not happen, my brain might not remember but my body did…and oh how it revealed secrets that I wanted to remain hidden.

 After trying for a while my partner asked what was going on. Did I not find him attractive? Was I repulsed? Was I gay?  What was going on? And one night high on something or other I confessed – I shared my shame, my sorrow, my broken story  – I waited for the but why? Are you lying ? What where you thinking? And instead he urged me to find help… help to heal my broken body and soul.

 So you might think my story has a happy ending, that I found help and hey was whole again… sorry no, there is no happy ending.

 The violation continues, I cannot just be at the doctors, I am not able to have an internal examination my vagina remembers the trauma, a tampon it will not accept, and child birth it baulked at the  very idea, my vagina would not dilate… my waters broke on the  Monday .. by the Wednesday the doctor said we cannot wait any more .. A C Section for her.

 I clearly remember a nurse walking into the room and wanting to check, my partner asked her to please leave the room, she ignored him, tried to examine me and my feet kicked her to the other side of the room. She was angry and my partner shared with her what had happened to me. I will never ever forget what she said, ‘Oh but you where okay when you had to open your legs to him’…

if only she knew my journey to being a whole woman!!

 Those senseless words that she uttered, violated me again, my distress written on my face, my partner breathing like a dragon, demanded that she leave the room…

 Like a bad acid trip, the flashbacks revisit you …it tinges your life your memories, it makes you  freeze, run, fight, flee…. from its memory, and yes, at times I fight. I remind them that I have conquered, but I mourn for the lost years, the years between fleeing and fighting ,the years I struggled with alcohol to bring me release from the memories, from the pain, self-medicating and ruining what was left of me. The bad decisions. And as I rise back up from the ashes, fighting for my sanity – sobriety – the right to make a decision with a sober mind.

 The thought of when I enter into a new relationship should I tell him now, will he run, will he think it is a story, will he stay, will he accept me, my broken soul, my broken body, my story that I whisper in the dark…….

 I celebrate and mourn, I dance and weep and I am Woman, I am Alive, and I am fighting for my own Freedom.

 My colour, does it matter …..

Share your experience

As you may know from reading my blog, I am using my experience of being raped and my own process of making sense of this experience as part of my PhD study. I also want to talk to other rape survivors about their experiences.

 My PhD explores how rape affects individual womxn (include people who identify as femme, female, women, or trans) and how those who have been raped make sense of their experience. The study is interested in comparing the experiences of different womxn to try and understand how the social context of South Africa shapes experiences and understandings of rape.

Participating in this study will involve being interviewed on at least two occasions (for about an hour each time), a month apart. The interviews will take place at a time and place convenient for you.

There will be no compensation for participating in the study (I will compensate you for any travelling costs). However, you may find sharing your experience helps you to understand, engage with, and processes your rape. Your participation in this study will also contribute to the development of interventions to support survivors of sexual violence.

If you are interested in participating or would like some more information please contact me:

rebeccahelman90@gmail.com

 

The shame is not ours

Yesterday marked three years since I was raped. As with the previous years, I was not sure how to commemorate the day. Should I celebrate the fact that I survived? Should I relieve the trauma and pain of that day? Should I carry on as ‘normal’?

I ended up spending the day thinking about shame.

The Gigaba ‘sex video’ which went viral over the weekend has highlighted how a society we are both ashamed and shaming in relation to sex and sexuality.

The shame of being raped is heightened in a context in which we cannot even express healthy, consensual sexuality. With sex as a deeply uncomfortable topic, the shame of being sexually violated becomes almost unbearable. As survivors we are shamed for ‘allowing’ ourselves to be raped and then for ‘daring’ to talk about it afterwards.

This shame contaminates both us, as survivors, and those around us. The shame is reflected back at me when I say that I have been raped. I still have to force myself to look back at this shame, to stare it down, to not allow it to take hold of me. I am not always successful.

This shame belongs to a history of Calvinist colonialism. Shame, which is always directed inwards, was used to control and coerce colonised subjects. Black men and womxn were shamed for being ‘less-than-human’, for being ‘bizarre’ and ‘barbaric’. Black womxn, in particular, were shamed for being ‘perverse’ and ‘sexually aggressive’. These views of African womxn has legitimised their rape by white men for many hundreds of years.  As Pumla Gqola has argued, black womxn are ‘safe to rape’, in that their rapes are not regarded as harm.

Colonial parameters of femininity have also produced shame for white womxn. They have been shamed by their failure to be ‘respectable’ and ‘chaste’. They have been shamed for engaging in sex outside the confines of their marriages to white men.

This shame remains. It is deeply ingrained in our collective psyche. We carry it in our bodies and our souls. A national panic is produced by a video of a man masturbating or a womxn accidentally sending a picture of her vagina to a whatsapp group.

Cheryl Zondi has reminded us that this shame is misplaced. She has refused to be shamed. When Peter Daubermann, Omotos’s defence lawyer, said to her “you are making this difficult”, she replied: “I am not here to make things easy for you”.

Shame makes it easy for us to blame ourselves and for others to blame us for being raped. It makes it easy for perpetrators to escape accountability and punishment. It makes it easy for structural inequalities to persist.

This shame is not ours. We must continue to resist it.

Why we should talk more about race in relation to #DrosRape

Rebecca Helman and Kopano Ratele 
An article that Rebecca wrote on the 2nd of October (Why the #DrosRape shouldn’t shock us) generated a number of hostile responses.
Aubrey comment
Roy comment
The comment about “a severe identity crisis” seems to be directed to Rebecca as a white woman. Both comments are aggressive and seem particularly angered by her remarks about white men. In short, these comments are responding to Rebecca’s attempt to engage with the racial dimensions of the Dros rape. The responses are curious because they deny the racial dimensions of the incident.
 
In a radio interview we did on SAfm about the Dros incident, a caller, Peter, similarly denied the importance of race. He said: ‘Why do we have to point white black white black. I thought we should be all a rainbow nation’. 
 
A number of other radio callers have echoed Peter’s concern and said ‘why we are making it about race’? 
 
The answer, we think, is quite simple we are talking about race because race is central to the way in which we understand ourselves and other people in this country. Therefore, it is central to how we understand and respond to the Dros incident.
 
Here we do not mean simply skin colour. We mean, among other things, the way in which processes of power position certain bodies as more injurable than others, based on their perceived belonging to categories such as “black” and “white”. The processes of racialized power intersect with other heirarchies (such as gender, sexuality and class). 
 
Talking about race is uncomfortable. It gets under our skin, as is evident in the comments from Roy, Aubrey and others. This is even more reason, we feel, for us to talk openly and sensitively about race. Although many of us have bought into the idea of ‘the rainbow nation’ and South Africa as a ‘non-racial society’, it is impossible to argue that race has vanished from life in South Africa.
 
As the #RhodesMustFall protests have shown, many cross-culturally valuable spaces such as the University of Cape Town remain dominated by white values and practices. 
 
We do not talk about race “to exacerbate racial tension” as Aubrey argues. Neither do we do it as a because we have been “smoking” something. We do it to further the development of a decolonised and egalitarian society. We do it to acknowledge the pain that continues to be caused and silenced by racism.
 
It is no coincidence that the rape of a child in the predominantly white area of Silvertown, Pretoria has spurred a moral panic. We know that the rapes that happen in black townships get far less attention in the media, that they are often portrayed as normal and unsensational, and that it is only the extremely violent and gruesome ones (for example cases such as Anene Booysen) that garner significant media and public attention.
 
Rapes by white men are however not exceptions, even though historically they have been exceptionalised. For example, very few white men were prosecuted for raping black women under both colonialism and apartheid.
 
In the past few months we have seen both in South Africa (the Parktown water polo coach and the Boys of Bird Island) and abroad (Brett Kavanaugh) that white men commit sexual crimes. We have also seen how other white men protect their compatriots from being held responsible for these crimes. Frameworks of white privilege and racism remain firmly in place, to the benefit of white men and the detriment of everyone else. 
 
We do not challenge and dismantle these structures of power by not talking about them. We have to call them by their names repeatedly, until things shift. 
 
We think it is important to talk about the racial dynamics of interracial rape. Rape across race produces high levels of discomfort. But race does not only operate across categories but also within them. For example, the rape of white women by white men, which predominantly goes unreported, suggests to us that whiteness weighs heavily on white women. 
 
We acknowledge that race is only one factor in the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa. Rape is so pervasive, perpetrated by men of all races and bound up with other social inequalities, including gender inequality, and structural factors, such as witnessing violence in the home or the community. 
 
Of course we all want to live in a non-racist, non-sexist and non-violent society. But we are not there yet. In the interim we have to find ways, no matter how uncomfortable, to talk about race as a key component of sexual violence. 

We are shocked but we shouldn’t be

The rape of a six-year-old girl by a man in the toilet of the Dros restaurant in Pretoria has produced widespread shock waves across South Africa. The shock seems to be related to the fact that the victim was a child. As Deborah Posel argued more than 10 years ago, the rape of babies and children who are regarded as “morally innocent and defenseless” has become “a national obsession, and the focus of overt public anguish and political alarm”.

Responses to the rape of the six-year-old demonstrate that most South African regard child rape as a distinct category of violation; the most abhorrent act that someone can commit. This is reflected in Facebook comments:

* This is so sick if I was personally there I would have chopped his private parts out no doubt about that then he wouldn’t hurt another child ever again.
* His soul is black pitch black… Leave our innocent child alone.
* Love for the death penalty to come back for fuckkers who hurt kids and animals…

Of course the violation of a child is unacceptable. This is because, as Pumla Gqola says, “rape is always unacceptable”. This is one of the contradictions at the heart of our rape culture: that some people deserve to be raped and others don’t. It should not take the rape of a child in a bathroom at a restaurant for us to be appalled by rape. We should always be appalled.

The fact that we are angry and horrified about the little girl’s rape does not protect others who are raped. In fact, when the physically violent rapes of “morally innocent” victims becomes the standard by which we measure rape, the grip of rape culture tightens. The children (and adults) who are raped in their homes by people they know are left out and silenced. Those whose rapes do not leave them covered in blood, bruises and broken bones are ignored.

We are shocked that the rapist denied the rape, despite being caught covered in blood and locked in a toilet cubicle with the child. He said that he was just helping the child, not raping her. We should not be shocked. Every day men get away with rape. They become presidents. They are nominated as Justices of the Supreme Court. They are not held accountable. In this context, why are we surprised that a man thinks he can rape a child in the bathroom and get away with it?

Part of the shock also seems to be related to the fact that the rapist is white. A number of racists perspectives have been posted on social media.

The idea that rape is part of “black culture” but not part of “white culture” disguises the harm caused by white men. The legacy of colonialism and apartheid in our country is the legacy of white men’s violence, including the mass rape of black women and murder of black men. By perpetuating the stereotype of the “black rapist” white men have distracted us from the violence that they commit. While black men are regarded as “inherently violent”, when white men commit violence, it is often seen as an exception.

@FLWhitehorn, whose tweets are protected, tweeted: “For all we know the man had some mental breakdown. Ridiculous that he was assaulted.”

As we have seen in the cases of Oscar Pistorius and Brock Turner, the American swimmer, white men receive less severe sentences for committing acts of violence, compared to black men. This normalises white men’s violence and makes it harder for victims of this violence to come forward. This allows white men’s violence to continue. It is possible that the Dros rapist thought he was more likely to get away with the rape because he is white.

We are all shocked about what happened to a six-year-old girl at the Dros restaurant on the 22nd of September, but we shouldn’t be. What happened to her is a product of rape culture. It is a product of a society in which men feel entitled to the bodies of girls, women and people of other genders. It is a product of racism, which dismisses violence perpetrated by white men. It is a product of our failure to act in all instances of rape.

We should offer support to the six-year old and her family, we should be angry at the man who raped her and we should demand justice and punishment. But we should not do these things in isolation. We should offer support to all survivors. We should hold all perpetrators accountable, regardless of their race. We should make all rape unacceptable.

This article was published by IOL on 2 October 2018:

https://www.iol.co.za/capeargus/opinion/why-the-drosrape-shouldnt-shock-us-1730978

What life is possible?

The death of Khensani Maseko feels like being dunked in cold water – first painfully cold and then numbing. This pain and numbness is both for Khensani as a person and for her as a symbol of the endless violation of womxn in our society.

Khensani’s suicide is yet another reminder of the enormous cost of rape. As Pumla Gqola so poignantly writes:

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.

How many more reminders do we need?

Khensani wrote on her final Instagram post, NO ONE DESERVES TO BE RAPED.  Here she highlights the pain of being raped; so deep, so destructive, so overwhelming.

But I also read this as her final attempt to challenge the pain, shame and blame of being raped. As she types in bold capitals, she proclaims that it was not her fault, that she did not deserve what she was subjected to at the hands of a man she presumably trusted.

We, who have been raped, must battle every day against the pain of our deep wounds, pain caused by dehumanisation, by being made into things, by being stripped of our autonomy over our own bodies and selves. We must battle not to be overwhelmed by shame and blame.

Our wounds are gouged at by a society that does not recognise our loss of autonomy, a society that deepens our feelings of shame and blame. We are told that we must have done something to bring rape upon ourselves, that we “deserved to be raped”, both explicitly and subtly.

In Rape: A South African nightmare Pumla Gqola documents an incident where a young man is pursuing a young womxn in a shop She refuse his advances, first by ignoring him and avoiding eye contact, then more actively by saying she is not interested. To this he says: “this is why we rape you”.

We are told what “good girls” do (dress modestly, don’t drink too much, don’t walk alone, don’t go home with men you don’t know) and that if we are “good” we can keep ourselves safe from predatory strangers. When we are raped by these strangers we are asked which of the precautionary steps we did not take. Not only are we made to feel the shame of being raped but we are also made to feel blame and guilt for our failure to protect ourselves.

Of course these precautions are patriarchal disciplining techniques to keep womxn “in check” and to keep some men safe from being called rapists.  They serve to disguise and dismiss the rapes that happen in intimate relationships, rapes like Khensani’s.

Panic and warnings about rape “out there” distracts us from talking about coercion that takes forms besides physical violence. It distracts us from the power imbalances inherent in relationships (and society) that make it difficult for womxn to negotiate (safe) sex. In the absence of these conversations, rape by a partner/family member/acquaintance becomes even more difficult to make sense of, to talk about, to challenge.

Khensani’s death raises the question what kind of life is possible for womxn who have been raped? Do we expect them to live without dignity? Without justice? Without being believed? Without being supported?

#RIPKhensani. We have failed you. How many others will we fail?

To do better we need to pay attention to the multi-faceted trauma that rape produces. It is not only the rape itself that wounds us, it is also living in a society that fails to recognise and respond adequately to these wounds.  We need to show womxn like Khensani that they do not deserve to be raped, that they are not responsible for being raped and that the men who rape them will be called to justice, not only before the law, but before society – THESE MEN WILL BE CALLED OUT AND SPURNED, THEY WILL NO LONGER BE EXCUSED AND SHIELDED.

Healing is possible. But it requires care, love and support. It also requires anger. We need to be angry about what is happening. We need to be angry about what happened to Khensani and every other person who is raped. Only once we recognise that the current state of things is unacceptable, that it makes rape possible, while making healing from rape difficult, can we do better.

If you’d like to speak to a counsellor at any time here are some resources:

Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust: 021 447 9762

Childline South Africa: 0800 55 555

GRIP: 083 310 1321

LifeLine South Africa : 0800 150 150

Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce: 0800 60 60 60

TEARS SMS Helpline: *134*7355#

Triangle Project: 021 712 6699

TVEP: 015 964 2310 or 015 963 6791

Writing from (t)here

I have just returned from a six month period of living (and working on my PhD) in Scotland. I am still grappling with what it means to write about South Africa from somewhere else. Here are some thoughts:

I am sitting in my “new” office at the University of Edinburgh. I have been away from home for three weeks now. I am slowly acclimatising to the freezing weather. I have also enjoyed a few delighted minutes in fresh snow.

More complex, is acclimatising to a different way of moving and being in this space; one which is not seeped in fear.

I can walk to and from the train station by myself but I still feel a sense of panic as I walk up the narrow alley between two main streets. I cannot help but look over my shoulder, I avoid eye contact with men who walk past me.

On days that I do not come into the office, I am jolted by small noises in my aunt and uncle’s house, even though they have not had a break-in in all 25 years that they have lived here. This space is safe to them. They hardly ever lock the front door. I walk to one end of the village by myself and try to brush off the sense that I am putting myself in danger.

It is here, far away from the things that I am afraid of, that my fear begins to feel strange.

Of course, there is no such thing as total safety and I could be attacked here as I have been at home.

I am also not free from the dismissal of certain instances of violence. There is a highly-publicised rape case unfolding in Northern Ireland as I write. One of the defense lawyers, Frank O’Donoghue, asked why the young woman didn’t scream the house down as she was being raped. He said “a lot of very middle-class girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that”.

I am not free from rape culture which blames womxn for “getting raped” or not “trying hard enough to prevent themselves getting raped”. I am not free of beliefs that it is only certain womxn who “get raped”.

But cases like the one in Belfast seem somewhat exceptional here. Not only are far fewer instances of sexual violence documented, but when perpetrators of sexual violence are acquitted (as in the Belfast case) there is mass outrage. Thousands of people protest the acquittal (both online and in the streets) stating #IBelieveHer.

As I write this I am conscious of reinscribing a view of home as inherently unsafe. I have heard, on previous trips to Scotland, numerous comments about how ‘dangerous’ South Africa is. I am angered by these decontextualised proclamations, which reduce my home, the place that I love deeply, to a frightening nightmare. The representation of South Africa as a ‘nightmare’ ignores the multiple layers of violence (including state-sanctioned violence, as well as enduring poverty, racism, homophobia, etc) that imbue the current context. These representations make it difficult to recognise sexual violence as a structural issue; not only one rooted in patriarchy, but constituted by multiple and intersecting inequalities.

My intention is not to reflect on whether Scotland is safer than South Africa but rather to engage with the different conceptualisations of ‘normal’ that exists in these spaces.

I have lived for a long time in a state of fear. Although my rape definitely complicated this fear, it was not the cause of it.

For as long as I can remember I have been acutely aware of my vulnerability and a (misdirected) sense that I am responsible for keeping myself safe. I have made many decisions based on a sense that I could mediate certain dangers. I have felt deep guilt reflecting on things I have done to ‘endanger’ myself. This fear has come to dictate the way I am in the world.

This way of being has been coagulated by living in a society which regards this lack of safety as normal and acceptable. My fear has been normalised by those around me (who are also afraid); by media which emits endless streams of violations without much thought; by a failure of our society to respond to this violence with adequate rage. In this context, where the causes of violence are not talked about, it becomes easy to attribute my rape to my individual behaviour. This is a place of paralyzing self-blame and shame.

This is part of the reason I have come here to write.

I believe that living in a state of constant normalised fear constrains how I am able to think and write about sexual violence.  By attempting to step outside of this fear, I hope I am making more space to deconstruct representations of sexual violence as “ordinary occurrences and in doing so make more space for a sense of injustice and necessary outrage; to, as Pumla Gqola says, “do better”.

 

Dear Fezekile

Dear Fezekile,

I was sixteen in 2006. At the time I was protected from what was happening to you by my self-involved naivety and my various layers of privilege.

In 2006 I did not yet have a close knowledge of rape. I knew it happened, but not that it could happen to me or the people that I love.

I did not know the feelings of shame and discomfort that would flood my body every time I said the words “I’ve been raped”.

I did not know the shock and pity and disbelief that would look back at me.

I did not know that I would feel that my body had been ruined and then returned to me empty and fragile.

I did not know that I would wake up in the night years after it had happened and recall the fear as clearly as I had in those terrifying moments.

I did not know that I would ask myself over and over why I had not done more to stop it from happening.

I did not know that when I heard about others who had been raped that it would burn deep inside me, as a desperate pain, mingled with an unquenchable anger.

I did not know that I would be weighed down by this pain and anger.

In 2006 I did not know the pain and violence that you were subjected to; as you were raped, in court, and afterwards.

I did not know the injustice, the hate, the continuous violation enacted upon your soul.

I did not know the power of men: judges, lawyers, deputy presidents, political leaders, and others, to overlook the harm that they cause.

I did not know that so many others could be complicit in rending this abuse of power acceptable and “normal”.

I did not know that so many could so easily move on from what had happened and ignore our failure to protect you and so many others who have been raped.

I did not know that after reading your remarkable story, I would feel so lost, so desperate and so full of rage.

In 2006, I did not know that your rape would play an integral part in my attempt to make sense of my own rape, as well as the rapes of others.

I did not know that you would give me courage to keep asking difficult questions about what it means to live in a context in which we do not respond (or respond equally) to rape, in which we cast womxn who have been raped as “sluts”, a context in which we do not have the difficult conversations about consent, coercion and violence.

I did not know that both our journeys to heal would be so complex, contradictory and challenging.

I know now.

With love,

Rebecca