Can we just not do Valentine’s Day this year, please? Just cancel the whole thing, return the red plastic hearts to the manufacturers and ditch the perfectly ordinary, sickly-sweet chocolate pimped up by a heart-shaped, red-painted tin.
Valentine’s Day is an import, anyway, an invasive alien that sprawls across the South African landscape like some puffed-up succulent from the American South-West. But this year, coming right on top of the ‘rape crisis’, it seems singularly inappropriate. (Look at the figures and you’ll know that we’ve been in rape-crisis for much of my adult life, mind you – it’s just that this one incident was particularly horrifying and brutal, so The Crisis raised its shaggy head from the swamp in which it usually malingers, unnoticed by the social media and the politicians. It’s shaking its gruesome locks while the camera flashes pop and the shock-mongers go “Ooh! Aah!”, but I’d be willing to bet it’ll be back under the mud and slime within a few weeks.)
Yes, I know Valentine’s Day is supposed to be equal opportunity, but let’s face it, it’s largely a day when men who don’t or can’t say it let some other dude do the talking for them, on a massive card with a pop-out satin heart that costs enough to feed a family for a week.
And one in four of them has raped. And half of them have committed multiple rapes.
These are not The Others, those cold-hearted bastards who lurk in the dark Jack-the-Ripper alleyways of our imagination. These are colleagues, bosses, brothers, sportsman, affable beer-drinkers. These men are woven into the tapestry of ordinary, day-to-day South Africa.
It’s far easier for most of us to picture a rapist as something outside of our lives. But not for me. Township or boardroom, they are men completely indistinguishable from those around them. The man who raped me decades ago was young, from a top school, and on the fast track to the executive level in a huge multi-national company. If you’d met this clean-shaven, well-dressed man in a dark alleyway, you’d have breathed a sigh of relief instead of feeling a frisson of fear. I’ve recently spent time interviewing a woman who was gang-raped by a group of sports stars at her middle-class school when she was not yet in Matric. I’ve seen pictures of those sportsmen – open faces, pleasant smiles, no sign of demonic possession in evidence.
In fact, as both counsellor and friend, I’ve met many women over the years who’ve been raped, and only a couple of them were raped by the classic stranger who comes out of the darkness, breaking into your house or grabbing you on the street. Most were raped by men they had – or should have had – reason to trust: family members, dates, colleagues, bosses.
And over the years I have grown sick, sick, sick of this being a ‘woman’s problem’, a ‘woman’s issue’. It’s always women out there marching, accompanied by a trickle of boyfriends and brothers. It’s women pulling together the funds and resources for counselling services. It’s women who are asked to ‘stand up for themselves’ and report rapes, so they can be shredded in a judicial process where, from start to finish, their experience is not taken seriously (the Medical Research Council reported that in a survey, 26% of the medical personnel – doctors and nurses – who treated rape cases didn’t think of them as a serious medical problem; and God knows, many, many police officers have a similar attitude); where they will be pilloried for what they wear, how they live and their previous sexual experience; where the Judaeo-Christian beliefs embedded in our society will rise to accuse them: “The woman did tempt me…”
Even the kindly comments some men make intending to support women are irritatingly demeaning and othering. I heard Dan Plato say, in response to Anene Booysen’s rape, “Women are not there to be raped and mutilated, women are there to be protected…” (or words to that effect). It is just as irritating and othering that women are bracketed together with children constantly, as though they are a special and vulnerable species, the Victorian image of the ‘little woman’ who should be shielded from life’s harsh realities.
The locus of this problem is not within me, within women. It’s within men. There is something badly wrong with the construct of manhood in this country. And it should be your responsibility as men – the three in four who don’t rape – to fix it. Because the way you live, the stereotypes you accept, the jokes you laugh at, your attitudes in the workplace, the way-of-being that you model to your children, support and sustain patriarchy. And patriarchy is the fertiliser that feeds rape.
“We live in a patriarchal society, a society dominated by men and largely structured to serve the interests of men,” wrote constitutional lawyer Pierre de Vos recently. “We live in a society in which men are often elevated in the social structure because of their presumed ‘natural’ gender roles as strong, decisive providers. It is often assumed that men (the more senior, the more powerful) have a right to exert control over women – whether through their cultural dominance or through violence or the threat of violence. Women are often devalued and assumed to need men’s supervision, protection, or control.”
These patriarchal attitudes, this shocking, mediaeval idea of manhood, were what feminism was fighting all those years ago when I was raped. And how far have we got since then? Has patriarchy been dismantled?
Nu-uh. Not even halfway. We’ve got tokens: more women in Parliament than most other countries, for example – but those women seem almost completely unable or willing to adopt and drive female causes. Did any ANC women MPs stand up and ask, when the news broke that Rape Crisis was likely to close its doors, what this government was doing to support services for survivors of rape? Did they do anything to help even to pick up the pieces that this sickening patriarchal system leaves in its wake, let alone do anything fundamental to challenge patriarchy?
Outside of government, we have a gender gap in pay, a glass ceiling that means when Cynthia Carroll leaves Anglo-American, the female CEOs on the JSE will drop by 25%. (Admittedly these are last year’s figures, but given that since 2004 we only had four women CEOs, it’s unlikely to have changed significantly.) “Why is it ‘ladies first’ when it comes to opening doors, but ‘ladies last’ when it comes to education levels, wages and job positions?” (Joy Emma Cundy, http://fourthwave.quora.com, 13 February 2013) Patriarchy is alive and well wherever men treat women to these little courtesies but accept a system that denies them equal pay and equal opportunities.
We have a Samsung FB ad which begins: “Have his favourite breakfast ready before you both race off to work.” (Now there’s a Valentine moment! Great Athena!) We have township girls told that their role at church-gatherings is to make the tea and washing up.
We have men who make babies and abandon them. Men who honestly think that hitting their female partners is an acceptable way to ‘discipline’ them. And rape, on and on and on, in growing numbers (reported rape has grown from 55,000 a year to 65,000 in less than a decade): men who rape, without conscience, without understanding, without a trace of human compassion for the women on whom they exercise their power and take out their frustrations. The figures tell me more than six million women in this country have endured a rape (not all of them can be called survivors, either). The human cost, the lifelong fallout, cannot be calculated.
This won’t change until the rotting frame of patriarchy has been dismantled. And men have to step up – in significant numbers – and take their share in doing that. Surely some of the 73% of you who don’t rape must understand that the manliness that uses patriarchal assumptions to stiffen its spine is no kind of manliness at all.
Instead of giving meaningless gifts on Valentine’s Day, why not make a gift to South Africa of your commitment to be a different kind of man, to teach your sons a different role, to be alert and opposed to the rubbish assumptions and stereotypes of matriarchy in the gym, at the bar, at work?
I’d rather have men working alongside me and my sisters to tear down this unfair, unjust and damaging system than all the plastic hearts in the world, piled up in an insincere, chocolate-drenched heap. DM
Mandi Smallhorne is a freelance journalist who writes about all kinds of damage, to our health, in our society and to the environment.