The rape allegation that Zwelinzima Vavi has faced throws into sharp relief SA's muddled conceptions of rape and morality, writes Verashni Pillay.
In the 2011 political thriller Ides of March, Ryan Gosling's character loses it with the US presidential candidate, played by George Clooney. "You broke the first rule of politics," he shouts at the man he is campaigning for. "You can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars, but you don't fuck the intern."
There was an echo of that same betrayal in South Africa this week over the rape allegation facing union boss Zwelinzima Vavi.
Yet the betrayal itself has been conflicted. As Gosling's character acknowledges – "you can bankrupt a nation, you can start unnecessary wars" – the nature of our outrage is largely arbitrary: a moral hysteria that assumes more than it rationalises. The detail of our collective outrage has been largely unexplained by the various screaming headlines since the story broke on Saturday, many of which assumed a certain moral highground. We know that Vavi has admitted to a rather seedy sexual liaison in a locked Cosatu office. He says it was consensual. She says it wasn't.
The spectre of rape versus the idea of a legitimate sexual liaison being used to frame an innocent man poses major difficulties. As always, the issue of rape in South Africa is addressed in sensational ways that can't do justice to the sensitivities and nuances of the larger epidemic facing South Africa. Indeed, Vavi's wife, Noluthando Vavi, pointed to the infamous SMS exchange between the woman and her husband as evidence of his innocence, saying: "Everything was so abnormal from a 'raped' woman." Her contention, with its echoes and assumptions of how a rape survivor should behave, has gone largely unchallenged.
We may never know what really happened, given that the woman in question withdrew from an internal hearing on Monday and there was no indication she would press charges within a court of law.
But what we do know, what he has acknowledged, is enough to make us flinch: a powerful, married man of 50, who has broad appeal and support, having a quickie in an office standing up with a married woman nearly half his age, who he personally hired.
Are we upset that he was unfaithful to his wife? That he was older, more powerful and she a hapless, helpless younger woman? That a man who posts photos of his children and his newborn twins on Twitter did something like that? That it was office hours, that she was his subordinate, that he has spoken out about women's rights before and now stands accused of rape? That the sex was possibly unprotected? Or perhaps that the middle class identified Vavi as their own, imposing their liberal values on him, and when he failed to conform in this area, we wonder where else our differences with this perceived champion may lie?
The morality argument becomes slippery by nature of its subjectivity. Ultimately we are outraged because Vavi transgressed our own moral code. "I am no saint," he said in the fall out, while still asking for pardon as his wife acknowledged the pain she felt.
To quote a pastor I once heard, it is not our job to moralise the unconverted. If someone doesn't share your values, can you expect them to conform to them and judge them if they don't?
And yet we do have shared values as South Africans and Vavi, who has endeared himself to many with his no-nonsense manner and anti-corruption crusade, has transgressed those. For a political leader, that's a no-no. As a country we largely buy into the values of fidelity and the idea of older men protecting younger woman, even if some feminists may find the notion patronising.
So Vavi's admission of a sordid sexual liaison in the Cosatu offices was jarring and didn't sit well with the image of one dedicated to transparency and accountability in government. The public-private divide is ever tenuous, even more so for politicians, and he is right to worry about the damage this incident will do to his credibility. Many South Africans were probably unaware of his previous sexual indiscretions that have made headlines before, but they've all come back to haunt him as he battles for his political survival in the midst of other attacks on his leadership.
Indeed the highly politicised space the drama has played itself makes it extremely difficult to pick apart our response to Vavi's actions.
Vavi has been pitted against politically moderate Cosatu president S'dumo Dlamini for some time and has been seen as too critical of the Jacob Zuma-led government. His vocal stance is discomforting for the alliance ahead of an election year. Vavi's supporters claim the rape allegation is the latest in a number of attacks to topple the popular leader. Indeed he has been fighting to keep his job over the past few months as his rivals within the union federation have pushed for an investigation into his role in the sale and purchase of buildings for Cosatu, as well as a probe into whether he is still ideologically suitable to lead, according to reports.
The political conspiracy theory was given credence when the ANC Women's League released a furious press statement within minutes of the rape grievance being withdrawn. Slamming Cosatu's internal process and the lack of support to the woman in question, the league's deputy president wrote: "We are extremely concerned that this case will result in an immense setback for our national fight against the rape epidemic in our country and the persistent harassment of women in the workplace."
Yet the strongly Zuma-aligned league was notoriously less critical during the ANC president's rape allegations in 2006. After the then Johannesburg High Court found Zuma not guilty of rape, the women's league's statement then read: "We respect and accept the finding of the court."
It seems in the murky world of politics, all justice processes are equal, just some are more equal than others, to misquote Orwell.
Other responses to the incident and its implied conception of rape have jarred me personally. My fellow columnist Khaya Dlanga* tweeted: "The lesson here is not to be brief, it may piss her off", while media personality Kay Sexwale said: "By default I'm programmed to believe a rape accuser before an accused. I'm a woman, bite me. Guilty until proven innocent." Our unhelpful jocular or extremist positions reveal an aversion to the difficult task of working through the tangled knots of belief and perception the incident revealed, and how it adversely permeates our society in less sensational but still damaging ways.
As the episode winds down, the biggest loser may be Vavi as his credibility and career take near-fatal knocks. But in the end we all lose as South Africans: Not only in losing our respect for a man we once believed in, but in the impoverished ways we have processed and discussed this incident.
* Dlanga later retracted his tweet.