Warning: This article contains words that convey the brutality of rape
She left the bar that night in the company of a man she had a crush on. He offered to walk her home, even though she lived just a few blocks away from the popular night spot where they had been drinking and dancing. They stopped at a construction site en route to her house and kissed. Hours later she’s found on the ground, clinging to life with a broken glass bottle thrust into her vagina; her stomach ripped open. She succumbed to death, but not before naming her killers.
This is the story of 17-year-old Anene Booysen. At least, this is how her story resonates with me. I vividly remember the morning the news broke. I was preparing to present the weekend current affairs talk show and as I skimmed through the news updates, the words bounded off the screen, “Rape-Mutilate”. I read the script, paused, and read it again.
I have worked in the newsroom for many years. I have covered stories that often kept me awake at night. Some of these stories are so deeply etched in my subconscious that the names of the victims still cross my mind in quiet moments. I knew this was going to be one of them. I had to step away from the studio, make myself a cup of coffee and say a prayer. My mind was unable to conceive the savagery of the act.
Rape in itself is the most ruthless of crimes. It violates the soul of a woman. But Anene’s murder was an evil I could not comprehend. It was as if her killers could not see any humanity in her. She was nothing more than a thing to be used to satisfy their sickening desires and then toss away like trash.
How could they bear the blood, I wondered? It must have gushed from her gaping wounds. How could they tolerate her gut-wrenching cries? She must have begged them to stop. I lay in bed that night and wondered if her pleas haunted the beasts that ravaged her.
At the trial, one of the men she named was convicted. The other released due to insufficient evidence. Women branches of political parties took the lead in protesting at court. Many donned their party colours and cried for justice. The United Nations condemned the act and even former President Jacob Zuma mentioned the incident in his State of the Nation Address with a promise to wage war on violence against women.
Five years later and there have been many more Anenes. Many more court cases where politically affiliated women raise placards demanding action against perpetrators. Gender rights experts and advocacy groups spit venom across all media when these heinous crimes are committed and when the hype dwindles, silence ensues. Silence at least until the next case is headlined. It is in these times I find myself asking; where are the feminists? Where are the bra-burning, clenched-fisted advocates of gender rights? Do they only emerge during women’s month and the 16 Days of Activism campaign? Shouldn’t this be their perpetual fight?
When the first wave of feminism emerged (Brunell & Burkett: 2018), the general call was for women to have basic control of their lives, the right to own property and engage in commerce, to make decisions regarding their children and most significantly – the vote.
The Seneca Falls Convention in the US in 1848 consolidated these ideals. It took more than 70 years before the power of the vote (albeit limited) was granted to them. However the feminist movement for all its intents and purposes was an elitist movement, marginalising the poor and black communities. It was middle class and suburban.
By the 60s, the second wave of feminism erupted. This was an era noted for awakened sexuality and expression, and it was during this time that feminists advocated for the use of birth control, anti-sex discrimination laws and the right to abortion. Issues such as equal pay and legal equality also took centre stage. However, like the first wave of feminism, African-American women were sidelined and on a whole, feminism was largely confined to Europe and the US.
However, by the 20th Century, the feminist movement globalised with the idea to essentially break the patriarchal mould that women were forced to fit into. Feminism sought to free women to think and act for on their own behalf, without dictating a checklist by which they should live. It told women whether in the bedroom or the boardroom that they had the right to control what happens to them.
Now we are in what is considered the third wave of feminism and in this phase it seems as if women are given an either-or scenario in a narrative largely defined by the West. This American narrative, as explained in a video by The Blaze.com (2017), aims to force women to fit into a set ideological mould, something the matriarchs of feminism initially resisted.
It dictates that all women must have the same moral framework, in that a woman, who is pro-choice on abortion as a case in point, is considered a feminist but a woman who is pro-life in her belief is not. It seems inconceivable to some hardliners that a woman can have her own convictions, but still hold fast to the universal goals of women empowerment and gender equality. Are we missing the point? Allowing women the space to think and decide their own world views is freedom!
But why should the US and Europe set the feminist ideology to begin with? Women in Africa face their own unique challenges. At the forefront of these challenges is the access to basic human rights such as water and healthcare. Young girls in rural areas are unable to go to school because they cannot afford sanitary pads. Young women are still being forced to marry older men. The cultural and ethnic differences between African women (and yes, women across the demographics in Africa) and the West are glaring, therefore a one-size-fits-all-solution is not tenable.
The horror that Anene faced is a symptom of a deep disease gripping South Africa. According to Statistics South Africa, one in every five women in the country has experienced violence at the hands of their partners. Cases like that of Reeva Steenkamp, Karabo Mokoena and Anni Dewani are jarring reminders of the rot within communities. The cold hard fact is that women in South Africa are in perpetual danger, not just from strange men lurking in dark corners, but also from the open arms of a lover, husband or son.
Shouldn’t this be the agenda for a new breed of African feminists? Yes, the mass action earlier this month has been lauded as a step in the right direction, but did it really include the battered woman living on the fringes of society who rocks her baby to sleep in bruised arms, while hoping her drunken husband will be in a better mood by the evening? In all honesty, an African feminism needs to delve into the basic bread-and-butter issues of women across all demographics. It needs to go beyond elitist suburban ideology. It must become a war cry against rape and sexual abuse, as much as it must campaign for equality in politics and economics. It cannot be politically aligned. It cannot have knee-jerk reactions. It cannot be silent.