I am a very lucky woman. After almost 14 years of living outside South Africa I’ve come back in the nicest way possible, landing feet first into a job at a wonderful university whose history has always inspired me. But I’m also a very conflicted woman, because my brilliant new post is as a senior lecturer at Wits, and it’s a strange time to be joining this institution.
As reported in Daily Maverick and elsewhere (not least its own student newspaper, which broke the story), Wits has recently been rocked by a series of allegations of sexual harassment involving male academics and female students. I am not, of course, going to comment on the investigations, as I have no right to, either legally or ethically. I barely know the people involved, haven’t been party to the content of the complaints and know only as much as other newspaper readers. Whatever the investigations conclude, the fact that these allegations have been made on campus is in itself shocking, and has darkened my initial experience of working here. Gender and gender violence seem to be all I talk about since I’ve moved back to South Africa. The news is like some dystopian horror film in which women are being eaten alive.
That said, I’ve had a lot of trouble reconciling the allegations with what I see on campus every day. A large proportion of our student body is female. Braamfontein is bursting with confident, opinionated, creative young black women. This is a wonderful experience for me; these were not the sort of people you saw when I was growing up in the Jo’burg suburbs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The black women that I encountered as an adolescent were mostly domestic workers, and they didn’t change into glamorous outfits when they took off their aprons. The young black women I encountered were their daughters, and they didn’t look much different from their mothers. But these girls I see on campus are lovely and brassy and loud and beautiful and worldly, and it makes me incredibly happy to see them strutting around in their Mr Price couture.
And yet, and yet. These same young women are the ones who face daily threats and groping on taxis and on the street, who’re attacked for wearing mini-skirts, who know that their walks home are always, on some level, a risk. These are the young women who’re at high risk of contracting HIV from older male lovers who have no interest in using protection, or of being attacked and worse if they’re openly gay. These students of mine, no matter how much they might look like they’re comfortably entering the global middle class, are at constant risk of violence and violation in a way I can’t even begin to imagine, with my car and my rented house in Melville with the ADT guys over the road.
At a recent symptom at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), which asked the impossible question, ‘How do we theorise rape?’, one of the speakers told a story about a township group made up of disaffected comrades, young lions who’d been pushed aside when the ANC took over and whose anticipated status in the democratised South Africa had failed to materialise. These men were angry. They’d been let down. Nothing had worked out for them. And so they pooled their resources and started their own organisation, called SARA: the South African Rapists’ Association. They organised themselves so they could ‘punish’ women who were ‘snobbish’ (SARA is documented in the TRC hearings, among other places, if you don’t believe me). A training course, perhaps, for what we now know as corrective rape: using rape to ‘teach’ women to be heterosexual, subservient, silent, available, and not at all the way I see my students look and act every day. We’re talking about angry, disempowered, disenfranchised young men, desperate to claim a piece of the future they’d been promised, or if not to make someone else suffer for their own lack of status; and we’re also talking about young women who are doing their best to grasp those futures.
The contrast and difference between the SARA cadres and our modernising female student body are stark; but they don’t explain the incidents of on-campus rape that are endemic in university residences across this country.
In the week after Anene Booysens was left to die alone, on the same day that Reeva Steenkamp was murdered, I went to an event at the Women’s Prison at Constitution Hill, part of the One Billion Rising movement started by American playwright Eve Ensler. Amongst the speakers, poetry and music, the thing that struck me the most was how very female it felt, as though this was an event organised for and by women. I found myself wondering why I was at a protest against sexual violence that was aimed at women when really what we need to be doing is talking to, with and about men. Sexual violence is a not a ‘women’s issue’. It is a social issue. Anything that adversely affects half the population is a national crisis, not a special interest.
There is something about the young women on the Wits campus that seems to make men want to punish them; but whatever that is, it isn’t their fault. We need to find out what’s gone wrong in this culture. Something is rotten in South Africa, and it’s something that’s making us raise male children who are incapable of thinking of their female contemporaries as full human beings. All the poetry in the world won’t make a difference unless we change the conversation. As many speakers at the WISER event suggested, we need to talk about perpetrators. The people engaging in sexual violence aren’t lone monsters; they’re our friends, neighbours, teachers, colleagues, brothers, fathers, sons. Unless we can look that, and them, in the face, my students will never be safe on campus, on the streets or in this country. DM