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Gender-based violence and the return to KwaMuhle


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

Unfortunately, in free South Africa today, there are men who have assumed the role of KwaMuhle apparatchiks, humiliating women sexually, physically, economically and psychologically.

There was a time in colonial and apartheid South Africa when a variety of bigoted measures such as the Group Areas Act and the Natives Administration Act were used to control the movement of Africans and all aspects of their being.

During this time of oppression, African men in particular would be demeaned by being stripped naked so that white men could inspect their genitalia to check for venereal diseases. “Reception” places like KwaMuhle in Durban were notorious for this emasculation of African men who migrated to the cities in search of livelihoods. They would present themselves at KwaMuhle for special permits and health clearance to live and work in the city.

It was well understood that places like KwaMuhle represented invasion of privacy, harassment and dismemberment from the human race. Men left these places without dignity, even if with permits and passbooks in hand.

Unfortunately, in free South Africa today, there are men who have assumed the role of those KwaMuhle apparatchiks.

These are men who are turning our streets into no-go areas. The humiliation which visited our grandfathers under colonialism and apartheid is now being experienced by their granddaughters today, who are humiliated through rape and sexual harassment, often in the course of gruesome ordeals that end in murder.

As the police special branch did to our grandfathers (wantonly killing them), there are men in an assumedly free society who do the same to women, humiliating and dismembering them.

Our streets have become KwaMuhle for many women who fear men who feel entitled to their being as worthless possessions; men who believe they own women’s bodies.

Maybe one is stretching this.

Maybe the men who turn our streets into no-go areas for women are too young to have been humiliated by the white boys fondling their genitalia at KwaMuhle. Maybe the parallels aren’t too obvious to them. Thus, as the apartheid system did, they in turn dismember women through sexual violence, assault and murder.

KwaMuhle is back, in different manifestations.

The symbolism is the same: strip women of their dignity and reduce their being into male-occupied territories patrolled by modern-day Oqonda (apartheid-era street level enforcers of order and “correct behaviour”) who commit gender-based violence with impunity.

Yes, at KwaMuhle men would line up, naked, waiting for white pseudo-doctors to test their genitalia for signs of sexually transmitted infections.

Today there are men who dissect women, using their private parts as experimental dolls, non-humans, the insignificant other.

Places like KwaMuhle and attendant influx control and Bantu administration laws were tools of emasculation, of humiliation. They consolidated the idea of Africans as belonging to the zone of non-being.

The laws we have today symbolise the nation’s aspiration for full human freedoms, equality and equity. Yet in reality women are humiliated sexually, physically, economically and psychologically by those whose historical experience ought to construct a meta-consciousness of fellowship and protection of those who suffered the triple oppression.

In the same way that men couldn’t just walk the streets of SA without permits, so do women today, their freedom of movement curtailed for fear of their lives.

My bothers, perhaps next time you visit Durban, make sure to visit KwaMuhle, now a museum a block away from the Chief Albert Luthuli convention centre. You will experience what women go through in their households and the streets of South Africa today. It will make you rethink your indifference and apathetic attitude towards the scourge of gender-based violence.

Just maybe. DM

Ngcaweni’s books are available


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