It’s barely Tuesday, and South Africa’s high-drama news diet has already served up Higher Education Deputy Minister, Mduduzi Manana, allegedly assaulting Mandisa Duma for calling him gay. Yet, subsequent discussions and apologies have unpacked neither the homophobia in her using the word as a slur, nor his frame of reference for clearly agreeing it was an insult.
I’ve shared before that in high school, I, too, stumbled upon that girl who used the taunt, “But you are gay” as a weapon. Such is intended to emasculate you among male bystanders. If you don’t aggressively (read: violently) disprove it, her gender be damned, you’re seen as allowing the taunter to get away with it. This is as good as saying it’s true – you’re gay.
Gayness is seen as letting others wield power over you (by calling you gay, for example); the idea of being dominated this way has sexual connotations I won’t go into. Femininity is framed as weakness before others’ insults, which carries the same connotations as gayness is thought to. The only way a man can shift being feminised (or made gay) off of himself at that point is by feminising others back. Ergo, violence.
Verbal bullying is more complex than that, of course: the accused is belittled simply in being put on the defensive because he’s likely to become defensive. The defensiveness is self-evident weakness, making this an instantaneous vicious cycle — a perfect political trap. The insulted is caught off-guard and already on the back-foot. Without violence, denialism arouses suspicion amongst bystanders until it’s vindicated through violence.
Is there a choice, besides violence? Yes, there are two. One can enter a spiral of helplessness and shame leading to suicide. Bottled frustration corrodes and putrefies from within. The other choice takes not so much inner strength as it does patience; so much so I’m convinced it comes from a higher power.
For after the antidepressants, psychotherapists and good friends have held you back from the pit, and pulled you back again when the depersonalisation, the dissociation and the disjointedness become part of your being, or non-being, this self-exile coming from being convinced your body’s impulses are so much more evil than “normal” teenagers’ that though they still get to date, have first kisses and Matric Dances, you don’t, can’t and shouldn’t. It all starts blending into the same muffled, colourless procession of events happening on the other side of a kilometre-thick glass separating you from anything and anyone else.
And all you can really do from there is map out the socio-political terrain that produced the teenage quadrilemma of bully/be bullied/kill/be killed. You calmly, clinically do a post-mortem of who you used to be, the imaginary being who was willed out of existence by years of self-hate, and share the reports as opinion articles for others to read and scrutinise. You bisect yourself, and invite others to take a look, all the while wondering whether they can really hear you since you’re having some sort of permanent out-of-body experience.
You tell them that the Donald Trump who asserts his masculinity by threatening to bomb everyone is no different from the Donald Trump who brags about molesting women, is no different from the Trump who disparages gay and transgender rights after flip-flopping on them. The Jacob Zuma who asserts his masculinity through tribalistic othering is not an innocent bystander from the Jacob Zuma who showers after possibly non-consensual sex (otherwise known as rape) with his friend’s daughter, and that this Zuma is not surprised at another Zuma, alien to himself, who goes off-script with gay rights.
Still, the society that made “gay” a slur trusts individuals whose modus operandi is domination to willingly hand over their tax returns and account for their homestead upgrades; it trusts them to do the “honourable thing”. And you know, you wonder if you’re changing anything or if your sense of disconnectedness derives from society’s paralysis; if your trauma is an expression of theirs. Except you know about it, and they don’t.
The ANC makes room for Manana’s and Zuma’s behaviour. If its MPs vote against Zuma in today’s motion of no confidence, it won’t be because of the party’s commitment to respecting the Constitutional Court’s say-so on their parliamentary oath. Likewise, if the ANC finally caught up on Nkandla, it wasn’t because it respected the Public Protector’s constitutional mandate. If it’s horrified by State Capture it isn’t because it respects the Constitution’s view of South Africa as a sovereign state whose integrity must be upheld by its office bearers. If the ANC seemingly champions gay or women’s rights, it isn’t because its president or its deputy ministers fundamentally believe in these causes. Come to think of it, the ANC doesn’t seem to believe much in the supremacy of the Constitution or the inviolability of human rights.
“When someone shows you who they are,” Dr Maya Angelou said, “believe them the first time.” When we hear of people in the ANC behaving as Deputy Minister Mduduzi Manana did, we should certainly be shocked and outraged; we should do everything we can to shield their victims from further harm.
But be surprised? If we’re still surprised, then the emotional putridness has corroded and decayed the last bit of sense from within us. DM
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.