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19 December 2014 13:24 (South Africa)
Opinionista Paul Berkowitz

Living while female is the worst crime of all

  • Paul Berkowitz
South Africa is still reeling from the rape and murder of Anene Booysen. The anger, soul-searching and political posturing will achieve very little unless we are much more honest about the extent of the problem.

I know women who have been raped. I know poor women and rich women, friends, distant acquaintances, educated, uneducated, old and young. Most were raped by people they knew; some were date-raped and some were in relationships with their rapists. Most of these women are closer to me than they are distant.

There is rape in my culture, however narrowly or broadly you wish to define it. I am a South African, Jewish, white, thirty-something, university-educated man (and whatever other designations are out there). Rape has touched every one of those aspects of my identity.

Rape is a particularly abhorrent crime to the vast majority of us, and rightly so. It is right on the ugly end of the spectrum of violence, cruelty and abuse of power. On a purely physical level it is the grossest violation of a person’s integrity and privacy.

If we are honest with ourselves, we won’t draw an arbitrary line at the end of the spectrum and ignore all the other violence, cruelty and abuse of power that is committed by men – against both women and men. It’s incredibly tempting for the majority of men, who are actively non-murdering and non-raping all the women and men around them, to deny ownership of their own anger and violence.

I am angry and concerned about the rape and violence against women in South Africa. I am also angry about our failure to confront the real causes of the problem, to be brave enough to join the dots. I am scared because our outrage and blame is making us stupid and keeping us from finding solutions.

The violent rape and murder of a young woman has united the entire country. The particular brutality and barbarity of the crime has made it an easy touchstone for our anger and our judgement. We are quite easily fooled into believing that if we can banish the horror and violence to the train stations, taxi ranks, shebeens and tik houses, that if we can build enough prisons and start to kill hundreds, and then thousands, of men that this will magically fix our society.

There are characteristics of the rape epidemic in South Africa that are particularly concerning, such as the associated high levels of physical violence, the gang-rapes and a widespread attitude of parochialism and male chauvinism. They place us among the worst of the lot in terms of rape and violence against women but they certainly don’t make us unique.

There are many possible factors that exacerbate and aggravate these problems. There’s a high correlation with poverty, substance abuse and broken homes, but the problem cannot be confined to our physical and mental ghettoes. It is everywhere around me and it is everywhere around you, too.

Violence does not end with rape, assault and battery, a punch or even a slap. The words used to degrade and dehumanise are violence. Threats and coercion are often violence. Not acknowledging the rights of another person, ignoring their opinions, attaching no importance to their wishes and desires, these are all violence.

We celebrate violence in our society, right up to that point where we feel removed enough from its pitch that we can judge the very worst and wretched of us, and in doing so absolve the violence in us. We normalise, even valorise violence and we are particularly good at normalising violence against women in all of its forms.

We men do enough damage against each other and ourselves, with our love of road-rage and bar brawls. Policemen and criminals kill each other in high numbers; men self-detonate and take their immediate families with them as collateral damage. Miners, policemen and unionists kill each other at Marikana while young men from the township of Hatfield, Pretoria hospitalise each other and third parties with regularity.

South Africa is a violent country and the violence is part of everyone’s culture. Like almost all violence everywhere, it is committed by men.

I have never raped anyone or physically assaulted a woman, but I have committed violence against pretty much every woman I’ve been close to. I have fed my anger and allowed it to fill many relationships. I have taken out my own fears and inadequacies on my partners with harsh criticism and judgement, amplifying their shortcomings to avoid having to deal with mine.

I have belittled, ignored and silently judged instead of speaking openly and honestly. I have built a wall around my ego and spent more time strengthening its foundations than trying to broker an honest peace. I have made my moods, opinions, feelings and desires the only things that counted.

I have screamed and sworn. I used my position as the breadwinner to threaten and to silence. I have been too impatient to listen, too tired, too angry, too scared, too ashamed to talk.

I did those things, and still do some of those things, for many reasons. Some of it I learned from the men in my family, like all other men do. Some of it, hopefully, was done out of ignorance because I didn’t even try to empathise with the women in my life for a long time.

Mostly, basically, I did those things because I could. I still can, if I want to. Society allows me, like all men, to normalise physical, emotional, financial and structural violence against women. I commit my violence in my home, away from prying eyes, like most of the men who beat and rape women.

The women in my life learned to be lightning rods that could earth the anger, absorbing the damage for themselves. Much of their time in the relationship was spent appeasing and trying to please, leaving not much time for their needs.

I suffer from road rage. I can’t count how many other drivers I’ve sworn at, shown the finger, flashed brights, or hooted at. I’ve been involved in one physical altercation as a result. I am lucky that I haven’t been seriously injured or killed as a result of my stupidity.

The structures that allow me to act in the way I choose also allow most rapists and beaters enough leeway to do what they do with impunity, if they are rich enough or smart enough. Jub-Jub, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, Mel Gibson, Tommy Lee and Sean Penn have all been trouble with the law for various things but bashing the women in their lives hasn’t ended their careers.

The anger and violence in our society is toxic. As men we aren’t given many tools for effective communication and conflict resolution. Many men stumble through their lives half-aware, approaching every problem with a hammer made of stereotypes and indoctrination. I am struggling myself. The work is difficult and the results are gradual.

Quick fixes are so tempting when the problem is big and the process of self-reflection is painful, but there is no other way. If we want to stop violence against women then we must create a society that values women, not one that makes it harder to rape women.

Putting up adequate lighting in the Western Cape might be very effective in curbing violent rape by strangers but it does nothing to dismantle the structures that reward sexual prowess in men and punish it in women, that view women as worth less than men, that punish the victim, that normalise and discount women’s pain.

Whatever the DA does or does not do at the moment, at this point it’s still streets ahead of the Zuma administration. From building special homes to protect grannies in KwaZulu-Natal from rape to creating a department for women that sounds like a list of people denied the vote in ancient Greece, the current lot have it spectacularly wrong. The delusion that a new ministry could solve the problems of women everywhere by ticking a lot of employment equity boxes and also cunningly house useless ministers that can’t be demoted is a delusion on an epic scale.

Anyway, politicians will not cure rape. Finger pointing will not cure rape. Handing out Real Men badges will not cure rape.
Not committing the very worst abuses of power does not make me a real man. Real men take responsibility for their actions. Real men take ownership of their anger and their pain. Real men don’t confuse power with strength.

Some days I feel more real than others. I am trying really hard to keep real, and to keep it real. I try to see occupant of the car ahead of me as my neighbour and not my enemy. My partner is not my adversary; she is the woman who was brave enough and strong enough to help me through my worst.

The men who rape must be prosecuted and convicted but they cannot serve as the scapegoats for my own anger. As a society, we cannot pretend that this is a cancer we can sacrifice a limb for, because we will soon find that the cancer has metastasised. DM

  • Paul Berkowitz
PaulBerkowitzBW

Paul Berkowitz: studied economics, maths stats. Worked at Econometrix, FNB, Wits. Interested in South African politics, economics.

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