On Saturday night, as President Zuma announced the final results of the local government elections, a group of women stood up and staged a silent disruption. The focus of their protest was the commemoration of 10 years since the rape trial of Jacob Zuma. While Zuma was acquitted, the trial came to be seen by many women in my generation as emblematic of misogyny and rape culture. The trial, of course, also represented a staging ground for Zuma’s comeback.
Out in the cold, having been dismissed by Thabo Mbeki, the trial was an arena and Zuma was a gladiator. The crowds that gathered to support him were loud – those who felt excluded by the imperiousness of Mbeki. And so when Zuma was acquitted those in his camp – and there were many – portrayed the win as a triumph over his adversaries. The trial was not simply about a young woman and her rights. It was about vanquishing Zuma’s enemies: those who would set him up and paint him as a rapist in order to stop his inevitable rise to power. The woman who was both at the centre of the case, and completely sidelined from it, was the child of his cellmate on Robben Island. She went by the pseudonym Khwezi.
In response to the protest at the IEC on Saturday evening, there are some people who have been fixated on the fact that Jacob Zuma was acquitted. If this is what you understand the story to be about, then you have not understood the full import of the standing up and the silence and the look in those women’s eyes. You have also not understood that there is no better time to talk about rape than when the theatre and pretense of democracy is at its height. If you are obsessed with acquittal as the only measure of morality and as a basis of leadership, then we need to talk.
If you are obsessed with Zuma’s acquittal and choose to ignore the way he drew strength from the violent sexist noise of his supporters in those horrible days in 2006, then you have not understood the problem and you are probably making noise now, standing on the wrong side of justice and defending the indefensible.
Perhaps you were not there, and so you didn’t hear the drums of war beating and so you do not know that it was all a performance designed to intimidate, to put women in their place. Perhaps you simply do not know what Zuma’s defenders called her and the women who gathered around her. Perhaps you have never been called those names simply because you are a woman.
This is what I remember. I remember what he admitted to and what he said and so I remember that time and I will not forget it. I remember too that many terrible things had been done to her and that no one contested this and that the facts are very clear about what happens to all of us every day. So I remember that I knew even then that the law is of limited moral value.
There are men who are falsely accused – of course, because patriarchy is a system that maims and damages in ways that are not always straightforward. So, let’s run with that then. There are still many questions I want to ask. I want to ask about the conduct of a man who is falsely accused. A man who is falsely accused will be broken and yes, of course he will be angry and personally affronted. He will be hurt. But I wonder, what kind of man sets his dogs on a child. I wonder whether a man who is falsely accused loses the very humanity he claims to have by unleashing a torrent of hatred on his accuser. Does he refuse to rein in his people, regardless of the damage their witch hunt wreaks? Is such a man – one who places vengeance before honour – really fit to lead a movement that claims historical glory?
Only Zuma knows the answers to these questions, but it is important that they are asked.
The actions of men in our political parties on the left and on the right and in between are deeply problematic because men – constructed in this world as it is now stands – are so often violent and problematic. So if women waited and held their tongues or defended men not on the basis of any sort of principle or genuine belief but on the basis that he is a leader and that he was acquitted, when we know all the problems that he created in the course of that acquittal, then we would be stuck. We would simply lie there stroking our glorious past; masturbating on memories.
The women who stood up in front of Jacob Zuma that night may be members of the EFF but they were brave enough to know that there comes a time when we must all speak for ourselves, and the men be damned. And it doesn’t actually matter who those women are – which party or what they have done before or even what they will do tomorrow.
It doesn’t matter because they are stand-ins; proxies for a courage that is as timeless as the hills and as new as an iPhone. In the time it takes to send a tweet, and without saying a word, those women reminded South Africa of a story too old to be forgotten. They stood in protest against the many ways in which women are silenced. And did you see how they never even looked at him? Watch them. They are telling us that Jacob Zuma is a dead man walking. DM