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Lisa Vetten: An actively engaged researcher with a well-developed contrarian streak

Lisa Vetten. For almost 30 years, Vetten has been immersed in the field of violence against women in so many different roles that it has given an unusual depth and scope to her understanding of social attitudes towards violence in general — and the many forms of violence against women in particular. (Photo: Chris Collingridge)

Lisa Vetten wanted a life that entailed only reading. She ended up a foremost scholar on violence against women.

Lisa Vetten doesn’t seem to like to talk about herself. Her reluctance doesn’t read as false modesty, shyness or avoidance. She just appears to be far more interested in talking about the things that occupy her mind.

In a stimulating hour-and-a-half interview, she covers — with surprising dexterity and depth — complex social topics: the structural violence underpinning the exploitation of women providing care services in non-governmental organisations; the harmfully gendered narratives around violence in this country and who we think of as “vulnerable”; benign versus hostile sexism; the new Puritanism; the disturbing repetition of decades-old debates instead of progress; patriarchal governance.

Vetten is one of a number of women whose history of actively working to recognise the deep problem of violence against women is about as long as the country’s public admission that it has a problem.

Before Nelson Mandela became the president, domestic violence, femicide, gender-based violence and rape were not concepts that were part of a national political agenda, and while the problem of violence against women because they are women, persists, it is easy to forget that the past 30 years saw changes in laws and attitudes that were unthinkable before the 1990s.

For almost 30 years, Vetten has been immersed in the field of violence against women in so many different roles that it has given an unusual depth and scope to her understanding of social attitudes towards violence in general and the many forms of violence against women in particular.

She didn’t set out to make this her area of expertise. As a child, she only had the vaguest idea of what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“I mostly wondered if you could get a job reading.”

She also wondered if she could be a communist because she had what she calls a “well-developed contrarian streak”.

“Being a communist sounded like it would annoy many people, especially the kind of people who annoyed me. You can see I had no real grasp of communism as theory and practice.”

I was starting to nurse homicidal fantasies towards some of the customers I had the misfortune to serve, when I spotted two advertisements: one for trainee journalists at Mail & Guardian and the other for volunteers at POWA.

After school, she waitressed, worked in bookshops, and made and sold clothes at flea markets.

“I was starting to nurse homicidal fantasies towards some of the customers I had the misfortune to serve, when I spotted two advertisements: one for trainee journalists at Mail & Guardian and the other for volunteers at POWA.”

People Opposing Women Abuse accepted her as a trainee. The fit was right:

“My late teens and very early twenties were marked by some hard, painful and difficult experiences, and when I accidently stumbled into working at POWA, I found a way to make sense of those experiences and live beyond them. I often think about how contingent and unexpected life is.”

Vetten is a PhD candidate in the Psychology Department at the University of the Witwatersrand where, seven years ago, she obtained a master’s degree in Political Studies. Her current studies examine “how rape has become an object of governance in South Africa”. What this means, she explains, is what the circumstances are that result in government displaying an interest in rape, what form that interest takes, how it manifests and where government puts its energy in addressing it. What, in other words, are the social and political conditions that mean government response takes form X and not form Y?

She outlines our government’s responses since democracy: how Nelson Mandela put women on the agenda, and the solid and useful work in the second half of the 1990s that elicited foundational legislation like the Domestic Violence Act of 1998 and, less directly, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007. She pauses at the mystery of what happened in 2012 that saw the steadily decreasing numbers of violent deaths suddenly start to rise again. She puzzles over the “wasteland” of the Jacob Zuma years and, now, the perplexing replay of old conversations during Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency.

Vetten started research for a PhD because she had a sense that the same ground was being covered in gender-based violence discussions all the time.

“I found I was becoming glib. I was starting to bore even myself, saying the same old hackneyed things. Far too much of the work around gender-based violence has lapsed into the formulaic and has become less effective. I wanted to study in order to challenge myself, to think outside my comfort zones and what I had started to take for granted.  Some of the reading has been quite destabilising and disorienting, but it has expanded my own thinking.”

When Vetten speaks, she references numerous fields of study, from technology, to history, to law, to police practice. She presents as a polymath, one whose curiosity will remain forever unsated. What sort of a child was she?

Her “big” interests when she was young were archaeology, astronomy, history, geology, poetry, ballet and “reading, reading, reading”. Even now, when it comes to reading — though a conversation with her makes one think it might extend to everything in her life — “the line between what’s work and study, and what’s leisure is also not a tidy one”.

My grandmother was also one of the first white women to qualify as an anaesthetist. She came from an era when girls’ education was discouraged, although obviously not by her parents, and she had to persist before being allowed into medical school. She and my father always encouraged my interests.

Her fascination with Russia and the Soviet Union is fed by dipping in and out of the Nobel prize-winning Svetlana Alexievich’s journalism. She reads South African history and memoirs in general, and has recently been interested in reading about Japan, and non-fiction works on the topic of truth, science and fake news. She is currently reading Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and James Forman Junior’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

“My great-grandmother was a woman who should have been allowed to go to university but wasn’t, and so she taught herself about what interested her and she collected things: arrowheads, tools, shells, fossils. Part of her collection is now at the Wits Origins Museum. She had a cabinet of collectables we would explore whenever we went to my father’s parents.

“My grandmother was also one of the first white women to qualify as an anaesthetist. She came from an era when girls’ education was discouraged, although obviously not by her parents, and she had to persist before being allowed into medical school. She and my father always encouraged my interests.”

Vetten says she’s ambivalent about the term ‘activist’, preferring to think of herself as “a researcher actively engaged in, and with, the world”. She credits a few good teachers at school who found her books that interested her, allowed her to work ahead of the class and encouraged her to write.

Vetten’s parents didn’t have money to pay university fees, so she’s been “self-supporting” since finishing school. She dropped out of university twice because she struggled to study and work at the same time. Until she found the discipline to do both later in life, her strategy was to read what she could and work with people she could learn from.

When asked about highlights in her own three-decade struggle in the field of gender-based violence, she says: “Hmm. You know, I always see this work as ‘unhorizoned’. There’s always something waiting behind the thing you’ve just done. I don’t hold with the idea that you’re ever going to finally achieve something. We live in a dynamic world. You make one change and it sets off a different chain reaction, which then produces something else you never anticipated.”

She is also adamant that the work she feels was useful was not all hers, and involved the sweat and expertise of “many, many, many good women”.

We all make mistakes and do things that have profoundly harmful consequences. If you can’t live with mistakes in other people, to what extent do you live with mistakes within yourself? How do people learn and become different if we cannot allow for fallibility?

Have there been any times when it has all felt too much?

“Sometimes the current moment feels that way,” she says, after a thoughtful pause. “To see the government doing things they’ve already done; to see them pushing through, in an enormous hurry, stuff that’s not thoughtful — it feels like it’s playing to popular outrage.”

She understands people’s exasperation with violence against women, but ramming adjustments to legislation through in a great rush simply repeats past mistakes, she fears.

What’s problematic, too, is the generational gap in feminist activism. 

“I’ve heard younger women say, ‘You people have failed, therefore you have nothing to say and nothing more to contribute’.

“What I also find difficult about this moment are the echoes and traces of historical social purity movements. There’s this intense moralism that borders on religiosity. It reminds me of church. The content is different, but the form is the same: the sense that people preach to the converted — and they do preach — and that the language is the language of testimony and religious conversion. That if you just stand up and speak the truth, people will be struck in their hearts and change will come.

“And that I find frustrating, because, with all due respect, it’s not new and it’s not effective at all. In fact, I find it off-putting, because moralising splits the world into these completely simplistic categories of good people versus evil people; right versus wrong. It shuts down conversation.

“Concerns with rape can be very conservative. Rape has exercised people throughout history and public outrage about rape has been used in ways that are incredibly racist, or incredibly classist. A concern with rape is not inherently progressive.

“I think there are new inequalities emerging in South Africa that are being fuelled by social media. Inequalities of attention: who becomes the national subject with whom we can identify? Who is it we think represents us, who do we see ourselves reflected in? Who is the other on to whom we project our outrage and anger?”

Vetten dwells, like a true knowledge-seeker, very comfortably in the realm of nuance and complexity.

“When you preach any doctrine, you lose contact with your own inner complexity and conflicts. You don’t learn to manage them very well, and you just end up enacting them on others.

“I take the position that people are fundamentally conflicted. When you become so intensely moralistic, your emotion register is between outrage, shock and horror. There’s nothing in between, there’s nothing subtle, and your solutions are punishment and prohibition, ban, expulsion and exclusion.

“We all make mistakes and do things that have profoundly harmful consequences. If you can’t live with mistakes in other people, to what extent do you live with mistakes within yourself? How do people learn and become different if we cannot allow for fallibility?”

Does Vetten have an “If-I-win-the-lottery fantasy?”

Yes. She would renovate her unit — much more light, more plants, less clutter — she would travel periodically and she would employ an assistant.

“And, don’t laugh, I would put together a research team to study homicide trends in South Africa over the past 30 years. I freely acknowledge that most people would think that is a very sad waste of money. The rest would go towards women’s services.” DM/MC

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