This land is built on sex and power

Sarah Baartman's remains and a cast of her body were on display in a Paris museum for more than a century and half, before being returned to the Cape for burial in 2002. (Museum of Man)

Sarah Baartman's remains and a cast of her body were on display in a Paris museum for more than a century and half, before being returned to the Cape for burial in 2002. (Museum of Man)

NEWS ANALYSIS

Everything in the world is about sex, except sex itself. Sex is always about power.

This adage is credited to Oscar Wilde. Supposing the Irish scribe does own it, I suspect he was not aware of how the libido has shaped some epochal moments in the making of South Africa. These stretch from the colonists’ first encounter with Sarah Baartman’s monumental posterior through to Jacob Zuma’s rape trial.

Hence, when researcher and avowed feminist Nomboniso Gasa charged Andile Mngxitama, an Economic Freedom Fighters MP, with misogynistic sexual tendencies, she was adding to a long list of spectacular events concerning the South African libido and politics.

Gasa’s offensive consisted of a 10-point Twitter salvo that included the following tweet: “Andile, do you state here and now that you have never sexually abused and/or exploited young women? Yes or no, bhuti.” It was retweeted 53 times within 24 hours. Mngxitama did not respond directly to her tirade, but tweeted separately that he did not know why she was angry with him and that she should explain where her allegations of abuse come from.

No longer just a social media quarrel, the whole thing had epochal potential. The clash coincides with rumours of a plot within the EFF to isolate the Fanonist element in their holy ideological trinity: Marxist-Leninist-Fanonist.

Corridor chatter suggests that, by discrediting the vocal Mngxitama, the largely ANC-drawn cadres can easily cement their Freedom Charter-based interests in the EFF. It’s an outlook whose politics are often dismissed for lacking a proper radical understanding of the national question. The idea is that, once devoid of a Fanonist thrust, the EFF would be nothing more than a better version of the South African Communist Party and hence an easier sell to the more liberal slice of the electorate. It would command a larger share of the national vote and put the Charterists closer to their dream of returning to the bosom of state power. The implications for our changing political economy are obvious.

So, regardless of whether Gasa’s imputation alluded to this struggle for power, her charge could affect more than the privacy of Mngxitama’s sexual propriety or lack thereof. In the land of apartheid and vuvuzelas, the libido is seldom far behind when power is contested.

Shall we consider the departed figure of right-wing macho man Eugene Terre’Blanche, leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging? His dance with power was marked by issues of libido, too. In fact, his last public performance was said to be a fatal sex act: hacked to death, Terre’Blanche was found with his pants pulled down and his genitals exposed. One of his killers argued in court that he was acting in self-defence after being raped by the supremacist leader, a contention rejected by the judge.

Given that the second suspect, who was acquitted, was a young black man of only 15, it’s easy to deduce a thickly layered power relation between a racist patriarch and his alleged partner in coitus. Even though the allegations were never tested in court, the militant right wing has never recovered from what allegedly happened in their leader’s farm bedroom that day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to go further back. It’s circa 1810 and two white men, Hendrik Cezar and Alexander Dunlop, visit a slave farm where they encounter the anatomical gifts of Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman barely past her teens. They are sent into lustful passions. Dunlop, a military surgeon, moonlights by supplying showgirls, animal specimens and curios to Britain.

Baartman is sent to London and this sets in motion one of the greatest scandals of all time involving an African woman’s body and the male European gaze. It’s a fixation that continues past Baartman’s death in December 1815. The remains of her dissected body were put on display for more than a century and a half. Visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her genitalia until her remains were returned to the Cape to be buried in 2002.

The kind of force the libido of Baartman and other black, brown and beige women is rumoured to have over white males must have been at work in Excelsior, a town in the then Orange Free State, in 1971. About 14 black women and five white farmers were arrested for violating the Immorality Act. Here, the libido and the swart gevaar (black peril) were one. The case attracted international media attention to the sexual habits of apartheid’s powerful white men: supposedly God-fearing Christian nationalists caught in the act of illicit interracial lovemaking. In this way, glorious coitus was registered as an unofficial symbol of protest against the absurdity of racism.

Official management of the libido was also at the heart of how the Zulu nation was formed. By deferring the circumcision of young men, King Shaka kaSenzangakhona reined in their rite of passage to marriage. This way, they remained available to his army until his mission of conquest was complete. The discontent this bred among young men was central to Shaka’s ultimate undoing.

In postcolonial times, another Zulu man’s trail to power was blemished by his heady libido. It was 2005, just five months after being released from his duties as the country’s deputy president, that Zuma (then 64) was charged with raping the 31-year-old daughter of a late friend. The details of the trial shored up notions of culture and gender roles, and Zuma emerged as a sexually deviant patriarch. It’s a tag that has persisted beyond his acquittal.

More recently, Zwelinzima Vavi, the general secretary of Cosatu and arguably the most powerful politician outside the ruling party, had his political fortunes ruined by activism of the libidinous sort. He was accused of sexual harassment and rape by a junior employee. The sex was consensual, he argued. Though the legal complaint was withdrawn, Vavi was politically defused by his opponents.

The event continued a long-standing nexus of power, politics and sex as a central feature of public life in the land of the fallen rand. Hence, in the epoch of social media and the profitability of scandal, the personal will increasingly shape the political.

Percy Mabandu is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg.

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