Power and women abuse: South Africa’s unspoken disgrace
Happy Women’s Month. If you have a vagina, you might be lucky enough to receive little sacks of potpourri at shopping malls and discount vouchers for spa treatments via email. Politicians will be weaving messages on empowerment of women and condemnation of women abuse into their speeches. And yet, two of our country’s most powerful leaders have been accused of rape but society is unable to delve into the correlation between power and entitlement to women’s bodies. So we participate in the charade of Women’s Month, using the Anene Booysens and Dudu Zozos as the pinups, while shielding the powerful from scrutiny.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is still in a dilemma about how to deal with its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi being accused of rape by a staff member, and the subsequent withdrawal of the complaint. It was meant to speak on the matter on Tuesday, explaining what happened during the internal hearing that led to the accuser withdrawing her complaint. But Cosatu is unusually tardy in responding to what has happened and spokesman Patrick Craven said he does not know when the federation will be able to issue a statement on the matter.
There is of course a myriad of complex issues rotating around the matter, including Vavi’s embattled position in the federation and the fact that both he and the woman still work at Cosatu House.
The woman made the complaint to the federation in July, alleging that Vavi had raped her in her office in January. Vavi denied this and laid a complaint of extortion with the police last week after the woman and her husband allegedly demanded R2-million for their silence on the matter.
When the issue exploded in the media, South Africa was in shock that once again, one of its most prominent leaders has been accused of such a vile act, the scourge of our society. And discussions in every stratum of society has been consumed with the time lapse between the act and the complaint; the failure to report the matter to the police; the alleged extortion; the conspiracy against Vavi; the morality of him cheating on his wife; and the wrongness of him having sex in the workplace with a subordinate.
Vavi has positioned himself as one of the few leaders with integrity who is not afraid to speak out against corruption and government failures, even though it involves his comrades. The scandal has dented his image and there is now uncertainty as to what this means for his political career.
We have yet to grapple with why this happened, as it did with President Jacob Zuma in 2005. In political circles, there has been caution about being openly judgmental about the scandal around Vavi because extramarital affairs and sexual relationships between senior leaders and those who work for them are commonplace. In Cosatu, there is a strong lobby backed by powerful figures in the ANC and South African Communist Party who want nothing more than to see Vavi crushed and extracted from the commanding position he has occupied for the past 14 years.
Even without the rape charge, the combination of a possible misconduct disciplinary hearing and the other matters he is already accused of, including impropriety and fraud, could be enough to argue that he has brought Cosatu into disrepute and no longer has the moral authority to hold the position.
But the reason there is hesitation within Cosatu and in the alliance is because they all hold the secrets of each other private lives. They were comrades and friends before they retreated into factions, and the network of relationships within the movement means very little can be kept hidden. Prying open the door to one leader’s private life could lead to the whole house of cards coming down and all the secrets being exposed.
There has been an undercurrent to the Vavi scandal this week, with some political leaders expressing concerns that they now feel vulnerable about women exploiting them and being susceptible to false allegations of sexual assault. There have been discussions about how rape has become a political weapon in factional battles.
There have been much fewer discussions about how politicians exploit the imbalance in power relations to take advantage of women. It is an area where even the women in the ANC and government fear to tread.
Disproportionate power in relationships leads to women being abused, assaulted, raped and killed. It happens in different contexts throughout our society, from the gang rape and disembowelment of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen to the corrective rape of lesbian Dudu Zozo and the torture and rape of Ina Bonnette at the hands of her former husband.
The imbalance in power relations in such instances is easier to define, perhaps because of the extreme forms of violence involved. But when women do not protest or fight back, do not report the incidents to the police because they are intimidated by the personality they are up against, or simply surrender to what their superiors want, it is much more difficult to contend with and define as abuse.
It is also difficult to summarise on a Women’s Month poster.
Positions of political power in South Africa come with many perks – luxury houses and cars at state expense, overseas travel, blue light convoys and invitations to high society events. For male political leaders, their prominent positions in society have led to many of them feeling entitled to take advantage of women they have access to. Sometimes the women are willing to comply with their desires but others are not. In workplaces, some women are prejudiced by failing to accede to sexual overtures. And those who do, sometimes have advantage over others.
Of course this is not unique to political office as such situations are prevalent in any place where there is a hierarchy. This week the University of Witwatersrand dismissed two employees who were guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct. One of them was also found guilty of indecent assault.
South Africa has in fact very stringent laws and regulations dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. But it is not always easy to classify incidents of inappropriate behaviour and pursue the course of prescribed action against the offender, especially if it is a superior. It is virtually impossible and completely undesirable if it is a political leader involved because of the massive scrutiny that will no doubt ensue.
The ANC’s insistence on 50-50 gender parity and government’s resolve to ensure that women serve at the highest levels of the state and the private sector is supposed to boost the status of women in society and help others to aspire to greater heights. However, it is very rare that women in Cabinet and senior positions in the ANC challenge their male counterparts about their conduct towards women. It is one of the many things that undermine the campaign to empower women and stop abuse – when women in power do not speak up for those who cannot and still feel subservient to male power.
Nobody with any seriousness of mind can still believe that the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana and her department can make any headway in tackling the big issue of violence against women. She has been a leech on government’s budget, achieved nothing of substance in her time in the portfolio and has been shown to tolerate abuse of women in her own family. This week, Xingwana was even sanctioned by the parliamentary portfolio committee overseeing her department’s work because of the shameful state and working conditions in her department.
However, there are other women in Cabinet and other senior positions in government who do take their jobs seriously and prove they are worthy of being there. But even they keep up the conspiracy of silence and turn away when their male counterparts take advantage of women.
With South Africa's horrific levels of sexual violence, it is difficult to fathom why our society is still caught in a non-debate about extenuating circumstances, rather than demanding agreement that all forms of exploitation of women are wrong. There can be no handbook that prescribes what exactly qualifies as sexual assault and how exactly a woman is meant to react. If Women’s Month is to proceed beyond the platitudes, it must drive home a common understanding of what is right and wrong – irrespective of a person’s status in society.
And for those who still believe their cases are exceptional, that the woman they are taking advantage of is also enthralled with them or that an imbalance in power relations can still lead to a relationship of equals, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace should be prescribed reading. In the novel, which won the Booker Prize, Coetzee writes of the reaction of a university student when her professor acts on his impulses to violate her:
“She does not resist. All she does is avert herself: avert her lips, avert her eyes. She lets him lay her out on the bed and undress her: she even helps him, raising her arms and then her hips. Little shivers of cold run through her; as soon as she is bare, she slips under the quilted counterpane like a mole burrowing, and turns her back on him.
“Not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core. As though she had desired to go slack, dies within herself for the duration, like a rabbit when the jaws of the fox close on its neck. So that everything done to her might be done, as it were, far away.”
Not rape, but undesired … Let’s see Women’s Month deal with that. DM
Photo by Greg Nicolson.