The sex scandal encircling Zwelinzima Vavi is shocking in its own right but becomes even more problematic when viewed alongside the weak and offensive reactions from Cosatu and Numsa. It’s not just a story about sex; it’s about the objectification of women and the effects of deep disparities in power. And unfortunately, it’s a story heard all too often.
This sordid Vavi business is giving me a nasty case of déjà Zuma. The sex, the entitlement, the power, the politics – it’s such a toxic South African cocktail, and there is the unpleasant feeling it has all happened before.
Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu, met a young woman at OR Tambo airport. He was so impressed by her efficiency that he organised her a girl-pal job at Cosatu House. This part of the story makes Cosatu House seem like the sexually charged and sexist offices of Mad Men in which the needs secretaries service stretch well beyond shorthand and typing. But flaky employment rules and a Cosatu gender-equity policy that seems harder to track down than the Holy Grail are not the reason this story made headlines. As we all now know, Vavi and the young woman he plucked from behind an SAA counter had sex. At the office.
What that sex was, what it meant and how it happened lie at the heart of this scandal. Whether there was consent or not, we do not know. The first “she said” was shocking: accusations of rape. Within hours the woman was named and shamed. There were dark hints at political conspiracies. It looked and sounded like a witch-hunt and the déjà Zuma feeling was strong, but in the end the woman made no formal charges against Vavi.
This was followed very quickly by the “he said”. Denials in the form of mea culpa statements in which the familiar phrase “consensual sex” appeared often.
The woman did lodge a complaint with her employer, Cosatu. This resulted in a closed internal hearing at which Vavi was present. The complainant retracted her accusation.
After two hours.
That is a long time to take to change your mind. I have tried to imagine what this young woman might have gone through at that table at which she was never an equal. I can picture the scenario: general secretary Vavi is present and with him is a group of powerful older men, grilling her on her sexual conduct. What she did. What she said. When she said it. Where she did it. When and how and where she gave her consent.
Two hours seems like a long time to hold out. Such a little word, but so hard to agree on what “consent” might mean when a powerful older man moves in on and takes a much younger woman who depends on his favour for her job. This is such a common situation in the offices and schools of South Africa that it appears increasingly like the contemporary variation of the droit du seigneur, the putative right of the lord of a feudal estate to sexual access to his serfs’ daughters.
The déjà Zuma effect is hard to dismiss, especially in light of the chilling statement issued by the Numsa in immediate support of Vavi, filled with a deadly animus against the woman. This closing of male ranks to hound and shame a woman who begged to differ on the definition of a sexual encounter evokes the appalling scenes when chanting crowds threatened to “burn the bitch” outside the court where Jacob Zuma’s rape trial was held. There cannot be one woman in South Africa who does not have those images in mind. It is an extremely powerful spectre with which to silence uppity women. The ones who refuse the status of object. The ones who speak.
This man-sex-power cocktail seems to be the South African political drink du jour but, if this is any comfort, we are not alone in being subjected to this kind of priapic politics.
There is Silvio Berlusconi with his dyed hair, orgies and underage prostitutes in Italy. There is that ever-ready generator of lurid sexual violence copy Dominique Strauss Kahn, who had serious sexual misconduct charges levelled at him in France after weaselling out of a charge of raping a chambermaid in a hotel in New York.
The US has produced its own fine sexploitation scandals. There were John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton who performed the role of gropers-in-chief admirably at the White House. And currently, one cannot look at a US newspaper without seeing every girl’s best penis-pal, Anthony Weiner, who sends off endless selfies of his erect and presumably impressive privates.
These are (usually ageing) men who exercise their power to gain sexual access. They are able to do so because of the inequality of age, status and income that results from the skewing of a society in which men have more money and more power than women do. It is an old and familiar pattern that covers the spectrum of rape through sexual coercion and harassment to the unseemly manipulation of employment rules evident in the Vavi scandal. Much of this behaviour is so common that it has become, apart from the most extreme cases, normalised. But this brazen entitlement objectifies women.
The “objectification of women” is a phrase used so often that it’s become cliché. But the objectification of women has profound implications for the fundamental human rights we are meant to share. An object can be bought, sold, discarded. A human object – a woman – is viewed in the same way. It never talks back. It never argues about the terms of a sexual encounter. It simply takes what comes.
This is particularly dangerous in South Africa where the sense of an entitlement to women is so pervasive in the public and political realm, and in private. It often manifests in extreme sexual violence. Here I am thinking of rape, particularly the so-called corrective rape of lesbian women. All too often it is justified by the perpetrators’ comments and threats before, during and after the act that it is his right to teach a brutal lesson about consent and subjugation to women who define themselves as off-limits.
Human sexuality is complex and unpredictable. But this Vavi business, and my acute and lingering sense of déjà Zuma, is different because these men are powerful public figures. It is the evocation, once again, of gross disparities of power between (older) men and younger women. This is a structural economic part of the society we live in. On the surface it seems to be about the erotic, but it is not. It is about power and it is curdled with misogyny, hatred of women, and the blame and rage that women are the cause of trouble either by being there and being sexually attractive, or by objecting to the limited terms of engagement on offer.
It is tawdry and brutal and, quite frankly, I would prefer to re-script our politicians. Give them an alternative story line, one in which there is space for the erotic and for power from women too. DM
The article was first published in the Sunday Times on 4 August.