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?”
“Did you know them well that was the
“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.