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22 August 2017 11:17 (South Africa)
Opinionista ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

The deadly power of patriarchy

  • ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER
    Robyn-Wolfson-Vorster-Bio-pic-01.jpg
    ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

    A dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting, Robyn opted out of corporate life recently to become a children’s rights activist.  As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy, and she now uses her “many words” to educate about children’s issues and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at www.becomingamom.co.za

In the few short weeks of 2017, the world has taken a lumbering step backwards in the battle against patriarchy, thanks largely to America’s new president and his unlikely ally, Russia. But here in South Africa, despite a female presidential aspirant (or two), and the president’s undertakings to advocate for women, the situation re patriarchy is pretty much “same as it ever was”. So, just what would it take for someone in power to face the largely hidden but nonetheless devastating consequences of patriarchy, and start strategising to challenge its stranglehold on our society?

You can say one thing about Donald J. Trump, he has certainly got people talking: foreign policy, immigration, economics, trade relations, armed conflict, global warming, the independence of media, abortion and patriarchy, you name the topic and Trump will provide the perfect segue into the conversation.

South Africa is no exception. Our own presidential aspirant ended her stay as AU commission chairperson with a public warning about Trump’s policies on climate change and women’s rights. She stopped short of challenging his patriarchal approach though, which is not surprising; patriarchy is an unmentionable topic here at home. Perhaps we can conclude that as much as the issue needs airtime, among key government officials, patriarchy is like Fight Club, and everyone knows the first rule…

The notable exception is Dlamini-Zuma’s colleague and fellow diner at the AU send-off, Bathabile Dlamini, who has spoken and written extensively about the subject, most recently in a forthright and challenging article first published on ANC Today. It seems fitting, given her dual role as Minister of Social Development and Head of the ANC Women’s League. But, what is perplexing is that the woman tasked with developing strategy, policy and education frameworks for social development chose to address the issue through what is effectively an opinion piece to her party. Equally perplexing is the minister’s unwavering support for the ultimate patriarch, while lamenting patriarchy’s power in our society and the family.

So, I wonder what (if anything) would persuade these powerful women to actively, practically and credibly address the topic. My own tipping point wasn’t Trump, it was an appalling child murder, a startling yet largely ignored study on child rape, a comedian’s revealing story and a rather telling Russian parliamentary ruling.

Patriarchy is defined as a social organisation (a family, clan or country) where males are the “supreme authority” (think Jacob Zuma or Donald J), and where power is held by men through cultural norms and customs that favour them and withhold favour from women. Patriarchy is evident not only in the subjugation of women, but also in men feeling entitled to respect, to sex, and to be in control (over households, businesses, political systems or even countries). Crucially, patriarchy results in men exercising power (sometimes physically), over both women and children.

Here at home, patriarchy needs little explanation. For the majority of South Africans, it is a lived experience. But, in other countries, patriarchy seems to be on the upsurge. To quote Newsweek about America in 2017:

Now that women are more independent and working mothers have pushed men a little into the drudgery of domestic work, some men are confronting an existential crisis. As much as any lost factory job or fading national whiteness, putting Dad back in charge is the ‘great’ part of Trump’s ‘again'.”

And then there is Russia, (originator of the infamous proverb “if he beats you, it means he loves you”), which at the end of January voted overwhelmingly to decriminalise domestic violence in cases where it does not cause “substantial bodily harm”, and does not occur more than once a year (I say overwhelmingly, because only three people voted against the bill). Commenting on the bill, the Kremlin spokesperson told journalists, “family conflicts do not necessarily constitute domestic violence”.

Although South Africa is unlikely to use legislation to tacitly endorse domestic abuse, the sentiment underlying the Russian bill appears prominent in our government too – it would certainly explain why patriarchy consistently fails to find its way onto the agenda of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.

Two short years ago, Raymond Suttner wrote a very insightful article highlighting the reluctance of the Ministry of Women in the Presidency to focus on patriarchy during the event. Suttner described how in a meeting to plan the 2014 campaign: “the Minister called on Mpumalanga chief Moses Mahlangu, who advised women to be submissive to their husbands... Princess Dineo, from the North West Province, then characterised feminism as “un-African” and “encouraged the minister to cut all funds to centres for abused women and children, as they should be dealing with these issues at home. Both speakers received nods from the minister on the dais and applause from the audience. Others followed, decrying women’s abuse of men and women’s aggression as the biggest challenges (!).”

It echoes Trevor Noah’s experience growing up in South Africa, articulated in his autobiography: Born a Crime. In the book, Noah explains: “Women held the community together. “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!” was the chant they would rally to during the freedom struggle. “When you strike a woman, you strike a rock.” As a nation, we recognised the power of women, but in the home they were expected to submit and obey.”

For Noah, patriarchy is personal. Despite Noah’s mother being one of the most independent, dynamic and unsubservient black women of her generation, her husband still beat her. The abuse (by Noah’s stepfather Abel) was tellingly preceded by the words, “You don’t respect me”. To quote Noah: “Abel wanted a traditional marriage with a traditional wife. For a long time I wondered why he ever married a woman like my mom in the first place, as she was the opposite of that in every way. If he wanted a woman to bow to him, there were plenty of girls back in Tzaneen being raised solely for that purpose. The way my mother always explained it, the traditional man wants a woman to be subservient, but he never falls in love with subservient women. He’s attracted to independent women. ‘He’s like an exotic bird collector,’ she said. ‘He only wants a woman who is free because his dream is to put her in a cage.’”

Of course, it was only a matter of time before he targeted her son too.

Two things struck home about Noah’s story. The first was that every time her husband hit her, his mother went to the police station to file charges, and every time, the police refused to press charges, saying that it was a domestic incident and should be resolved at home. The second was her reason for not leaving Abel. She told Noah that if she did, he would kill them. She was right, she did eventually leave, and barring what Noah (somewhat reluctantly) described as a miracle, his mother would have died at the hands of her abuser (and perhaps Noah and his brothers too).

But troublingly, the man who shot Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah in the back, and the head, while their youngest son Isaac (then 4) cried: “Daddy, please do not shoot mommy”, was given three years of probation. He didn’t spend a single day in prison for the attempted murder and is back living in the same suburb as her. The reason is simple. The active unwillingness to police his prior “indiscretions” rendered this shooting a first offence.

Noah’s story illustrates what those authorities who tacitly or openly endorse patriarchy seem to be ignoring, which is that it seldom stops at “family conflict”. Structural patriarchy and trivialising the abuse of women and children is (unintentionally, or not) resulting in even more devastating crimes.

One of the most disturbing pieces of research on the matter passed almost unnoticed when it was presented at the end of 2015. Focusing on the sexual abuse of small children, the study was conducted over eight correctional institutions in three provinces. The 27 men interviewed (aged between 15 and 86) were all imprisoned for the sexual abuse of children, and all 33 of their victims were between the ages of 18 months and seven years old. The study critically debunked the notion that the rape of a minor is related to HIV or “virginal cleansing”. Instead, this research found that there were two main factors in the rape of children: history of abuse (the perpetrator’s own cycle of violence), and behaviour control.

The abusers specifically confessed to pro-abusive attitudes towards infants, including raping children, to control the behaviour of the children’s mother or “punish” her for bad behaviour. The researchers found that the perpetrators “used child rape as a tool for revenge. It was seen as most effective tool to humiliate or punish women who: wrong men and/or reject men’s sexual advances, because a “no” by women is unacceptable to men. These men believe in a sense of entitlement to sex. Therefore, they use force as a way to maintain their position of dominance over women and children who resist male power and authority. And to put women in their place.

This belief in the use of force to maintain dominance over women and children and “put women in their place” leads not only to “corrective rape”, but also, shockingly (although not surprisingly), to murder. The horrific murder of a little boy last year should leave us in no doubt about the deadly power of patriarchy.

It was winter when Kutlwano died. I often think about his tiny red gloves balled into brave fists as he tried to beat off the man who attacked his mother; and then about Thabiso, his eight-year-old brother, holding those same gloved hands moments later as Kutlwano took his last breath, and uttered his final words: “Mama, please kiss me”.

Perhaps it is easier to think about those gloves, rather than the distraught mother who tried to hold her son’s entrails in place as she gave him that final kiss, or his traumatised brother who took off his shirt and jacket in the middle of a Northern Cape winter to try to cover him up; or why he died: for want of R2, and in the desperate attempt to prevent his mother from being raped.

The thing I want to think about least is that Kutlwano was only six years old on the day that he died.

Kutlwano’s death is the stuff of nightmares, but it began (like most stories do) with the familiar: a family walk to school and a chance encounter with the local “trolley pusher” who asked for R2. It is hard to tell what precipitated the attack, but it quickly progressed from the thwarted request for money to an angry wrestle with Segomotsi (Kutlwano’s mother), to a broken bottle and his terrifying attempts to stab and rape her.

What is clear is that he was furious that Segomotsi dismissed him, and even more furious that her son tried to resist his attempts to pull up her denim skirt. With tears in his eyes, Kutlwano kept struggling to fend off the attacker, wrestling, kicking and slapping him, screaming: “This is my mother! Leave my mother!” When he fly-kicked the man, Segomotsi’s attacker finally turned his attentions to the child. “You are stubborn, I can see! You are stubborn, neh?” he repeated as Kutlwano continued bravely: “This is my mom!”

It was over in moments. No match for a grown man, the attacker threw Kutlwano in the air, throttled him and then, when the small boy was losing his strength, stabbed and disembowelled him with the broken bottle. Not yet content, he repeatedly gouged at the child’s open wound with a tree branch. Then he finally left him to die.

Through the lens of patriarchy, this man, already relegated by society to the lowly role of trolley pusher and collector of small change, was rejected, thwarted, and (he felt) contemptuously disrespected by a woman and (worse still), by her young child. Whether he killed Kutlwano in rage, or to punish his mother is uncertain. But either way, he apparently felt entitled to put them in their place.

This story earned one line in Minister Dlamini’s article on patriarchy. But for me, Kutlwano’s death is a searing wound. I have a son, who, like Kutlwano, is fuelled by love for his mom, dreams of the exploits of fictional heroes and delusions of invincibility. No little boy should die for believing he is stronger than he is, or for fighting as hard as he could to try to protect his beloved Mama. And no one should be allowed to label that resistance: a lack of “due” respect. As a mother, I find the fact that Kutlwano’s selfless act cost him his life incomprehensible.

I’m not alone. When News24 published Segomotsi’s traumatic story during last year’s 16 days of Activism, they were moved to ask readers to honour Kutlwano. I hope that among the responses were offers to pay for counselling and victim support for his shattered mom and Thabiso, who still faces the horror of trial.

But, Kutlwano, like the child rape victims, will only truly be honoured (and the acts against them redressed) if someone powerful speaks out against patriarchy at both a structural and family level, and strategises to address it.

This is not a time for academic treatise, this is a time for policy change, for education, for positive role models, and ultimately, for outrage: perhaps by the aforementioned minister, or the presidential aspirant, or even her male opponent.

As the world slides deeper into the mire of patriarchal policy, someone with authority needs to be brave and act. And not even very brave, just a little brave. About as brave as a six-year-old boy. DM

  • ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER
    Robyn-Wolfson-Vorster-Bio-pic-01.jpg
    ROBYN WOLFSON VORSTER

    A dedicated wordsmith with a background in social sciences, learning and strategic consulting, Robyn opted out of corporate life recently to become a children’s rights activist.  As an adoptive mom to a beautiful daughter, she has a special interest in adoption advocacy, and she now uses her “many words” to educate about children’s issues and motivate for changes in policy. You can find her at www.becomingamom.co.za

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