Much has been written about the high levels of gender-based violence (GBV) and the brutally visceral manifestations of patriarchy in South Africa. The statistics indicate what has been referred to as unacknowledged gender civil war. A rape survivor who reports incidents of sexual violence has a mere 8.6% chance of seeing the perpetrator convicted (and is most likely to be retraumatised by police and lawyers who often treat her like the criminal).
A pioneering study by the South African Medical Research council concluded that our criminal justice system is highly inefficient and requires a major overhaul, and especially so for GBV crimes. Rachel Jewkes, one of the study’s 8 researchers, says ‘rape is supposed to be a priority crime’ but when you look at all the ways in which it is being investigated and the resources allocated to its investigation and prevention, it’s really hard to see what the priority part of this is.
‘Raped and killed’ is a phrase that is all too common for black women in South Africa. So much so that to be black and a womxn is to be more likely to be raped and killed. The violence inflicted on black bodies is disproportionately different to the violence inflicted on white counterparts. Historically speaking, the rape of white women has been used as justification for racist violence the world over. And I focus in this piece on black womxn because I am a black womxn – I humbly submit that I cannot, therefore, write about the experiences from any other perspective.
There are very clear manifestations of gender-based violence through the epochs in our history. The most brutal beginning with slavery, followed by colonialism, then Apartheid (which is colonialism par excellance) and now post-apartheid-yet-still-unequal South Africa. During slavery, colonialism, and Apartheid, the brutal and systematic violence wrought upon the body of the black womxn was such that to not violate the black womxn was to be abnormal, was to go against the grain. The violence was so pervasive that it became invisible. The Slave Lodge in Cape Town was, for the duration of both slavery and colonialism, the unofficial brothel of the colony where men could trade (in power) to demand gratification at costs to womxn. For two centuries the raping and killing of indigenous womxn were not only institutionalised but went largely unpunished. It is little wonder that this historical violence and trauma has led to a post-Apartheid democratic South African inability to adequately deal with this long-standing, unacknowledged gender civil war. And it is with this lack of acknowledgement that the man who holds the highest office in the land, could still be elected into this position, despite Khwezi.
In short, perhaps womxn in SA are at war. A war not of our making but one we are expected to battle just by virtue of being womxn.
Gabeba Baderoon of Penn State University noted at a recent gender conference how the 2015/2016 hashtag student movements brought about a specific articulation of feminist praxis that was crucially different to those before it. For the first time gender was not pushed aside in the name of black solidarity. The unwillingness to bear the historical costs of revolutionary participation as black womxn, was in Baderoon’s view, embodied in the #FeesMustFall slogan ‘this revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.’ This slogan reflects the acknowledgement that anti-rape campaigns that combat sexual violence has historically been used to perpetuate racism in the construction of the ‘violent black rapist’ that makes impure the pure white woman; and because of this anti rape agendas have been viewed with suspicion in the black community. The slogan also speaks to the fact that silence of black womxn who participate in the black struggle for the sake of black solidarity is no longer an acceptable condition. Indeed, it is explicitly rejected.
This leads to a more nuanced understanding that gender is no longer considered by womxn as secondary to the “primary” issue of race; that gender-based violence, violent patriarchy, fragile masculinity and all its complex permutations must be addressed – specifically within the black community itself – along with the need to collectively deal with anti-blackness in our society. The neutral language of black solidarity requires the silence of black womxn. And it is the neutrality of that language that makes it problematic as it manufactures a black solidarity at the expense of minimising the pain and abuse inflicted on black womxn in the quest to unify against an oppressor. An unequivocal rejection of the silencing that black solidarity requires of black womxn; practising the importance of intersectionality and the privileging of gender-based issues within the struggle are exemplified by #TransCollective, #PatriarchyMustFall, #RuReferenceList, #EndRapeCulture & #RememberKhwezi.
We will no longer put our bodies on the line because our numbers are needed to show up for a generic, homogenous ‘black cause’ that ultimately prefaces men over us. If womxn, femmes and queer folk are to accept that patriarchy and its conduits have waged war on our bodies explicitly since the time of slavery; if we are to accept that we are at war then we need to urgently and swiftly change the game. We need to reimagine a society where patriarchy is discarded, where hate for womxn is replaced by authentic egalitarianism. Where the ultimate goal of feminism – that womxn are people, not objects – is OF society. Not to be weaved in, not to be taught, not to be fought for. A gender-peaceful society that just…IS. Where black solidarity doesn’t elide black womxn’s pain. Where true black solidarity expects of black men to show up for black womxn. Where black womxn demand not just a seat at a table but a table built by us; with the help of black men working alongside black womxn for womxn’s interests which ultimately are the interests of the entire black community.
Ashanti Kunene is a former Intern for the Sustained Dialogue programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and an International Studies Masters student at Stellenbosch University