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The ones who walk away from Omelas – the victimhood of women


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

So, why is rape and the abuse of women and children not dissipating in our country? One has to ask the question, is it because our men have suffered trauma over many decades? Are they just misogynous pigs that cannot control their urges towards women and young girls?

According to author Ursula Le Guin, the Utopia called Omelas was a beautiful city with a passionate and sophisticated people. The mountains and valleys as well as the snow, with just the right amount of wind, make it utterly majestic. Happy people and a beautiful city, what more would one wish for?

Like Omelas, all is supposedly well in our land too. Zuma is gone, the Guptas are on the run, Eskom is partly sorted and there are indications of measures to come with regards to other State-owned Enterprises. Hell, we even observe that the crime stats are satisfactory at this point, except for rape.

Le Guin continues, though, that in a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of the spacious homes, there is a room. It has one locked door and no window. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. He or she looks about six, but is actually nearly 10.

The child is feeble-minded, perhaps born defective, or perhaps he or she has become an imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. The child picks its nose and occasionally fumbles with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops.

The door is always locked and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes (the child has no understanding of time or interval) the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, and the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks.

I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good.”

They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs, its belly protrudes and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas.

So, why is rape and the abuse of women and children not dissipating in our country? In fact, this cowardice and brutal criminal act continues to increase over the years. One has to ask the question, is it because our men have suffered trauma over many decades? Are they just misogynous pigs that cannot control their urges towards women and young girls?

Is it because perhaps we still have to deal with a festering wound. Did apartheid create these monsters that now wage war in the house. Like the little child in the tool room, women and young girls are being kicked, mistreated, belittled and raped. Her self-worth must be destroyed, her humanity killed. Spit in her general direction, sies, she is a worthless piece of nothingness.

The anger of the black man, from where does it cometh?

Anger of what, I hear some of you ask? Is it anger for having been victims? Is it anger for having allowed to be dominated by a small minority? Is it anger because the festering wound is still full of pus and never receives the attention it deserves?

It is never cleaned out, does not get proper medical care and is certainly never bandaged, so that it can heal. Instead, it is allowed to fester, to be a reminder of the humiliation, sub human and degrading attitudes shown towards the black man. The pus or cloudy fluid draining from the wound like a pimple or yellow crust forming is a constant reminder to black people of the wound that will not heal. Where whites say, I don’t remember, and blacks say, I can’t forget.

Martin Luther King Jr while in jail in Birmingham (USA), in response to an open letter written to him by eight white Alabama clergymen on the issue of them saying that he and his kind must wait and be patient, for change will occur in time, wrote:

For years now I have heard the word Wait! It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This Wait has almost always meant ‘Never’. It has been a tranquillising thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’.

We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed towards the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy pace towards the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait’.

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim, when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalise and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity, when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society, when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to coloured children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness towards white people, when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonising pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat coloured people so mean?’”.

Dr King ends with,

I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

And so the question becomes, is it this dehumanising fact that makes black men such misogynous pigs? That turn their homes into war zones, I cannot still fight the white man, my wound is still festering, I do not have closure, and so this woman and girl child becomes the recipient of my anger. I am after all a man, not a boy, and in my house I demand respect and I will be treated as a king.

Le Guin concludes: they all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers. Even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weather of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

But there is one more thing to tell, says Le Guin, at times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Victimhood of women is real, it is unrelenting and it is continuing at an alarming pace. It remains the underbelly that is eroding our society, one girl child at a time.

Shall we all continue like the citizens of the city of Omelas or are there indeed those among us that will walk away from Omelas? DM


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