Not in my Xhosa culture

As I sat reading, my entire body convulsed in absolute revulsion. It was all too easy for me to imagine the 21-year-old woman’s agony as a flabby, balding man old enough to be her father lay half-naked on his bed and instructed her to come and “take care” of him. Unfortunately, I wasn’t reading a trashy paperback novel, which I could put aside without another thought: these were the Sunday papers, telling me that once again a horny old African man had used “culture” as a way to try to coerce a young woman into helping him get his groove back.
But what really insulted me was that when she spurned his request to act as a sperm receptacle, Mbulelo Goniwe allegedly told the object of his lust, “I thought you were a real Xhosa girl.”

Clearly surprised that the young administration assistant was not thrilled at being summoned like some kind of concubine, or bowled over by his fine physique or his fat wallet (perhaps from failing to pay child maintenance to his babies’ momma), Mbulelo decided to educate her on her cultural duty to service him as a Xhosa man. Rhaa! Which Xhosa culture is he referring to? Not mine! And yet, I am amazed that I still have the capacity to be shocked at the way powerful men in this country engage with women. Not too long ago we heard that Zuma culture, oops I mean Zulu culture, insists a man should never leave a Zulu woman sexually unfulfilled, for fear that she might accuse him of rape.

So far we’ve heard that Zulu “girls” are insatiable and Xhosa “girls” are always sexually available, so where does that leave Sotho and Venda “girls”? I wonder if they’re heart-broken not to be up there with the rest of us sex objects? Or are they also tired of South African men defending their lascivious behavior by hiding behind “culture”? Perhaps these esteemed gentlemen need to let us know exactly which cultural norms they are relying on, as this is news to most women in my culture. As a young Xhosa woman I have always experienced my culture as protecting me, respecting me and valuing me. And if these nasty lechers want to rely on culture, perhaps they can be reminded that tradition calls for older men to act as protectors of the vulnerable, particularly women and children. So, when an old man makes unwanted sexual advances to a young woman he should be treating as a daughter, it starts smelling a bit incestuous.

Mbulelo (and I am deliberately flouting culture by referring to him by his first name as I too have the right to interpret culture freely) epitomises the air of entitlement displayed by so many South African men. Judging by how full our maintenance courts are, they think it’s perfectly acceptable to make babies they have no intention of supporting, to have sex with any woman close to hand when the urge strikes, and to retreat into the masculine laager when anyone dares to challenge them on their constant need to objectify and control women’s bodies.

How wonderful to be a man in South Africa: they must be the envy of their counterparts in Switzerland, who don’t have this wonderful wall of culture to dodge behind every time their bad behaviour catches up with them.

This week Mbulelo said he couldn’t respond to the allegations until Parliament put them to him formally. Let’s not hold our breath: this is, after all, the same Parliament that appears to have shielded him from that pesky sheriff of the court, trying to serve him with a summons on his failure to pay maintenance for two children.

Unfortunately this behaviour and attitude are not the preserve of the rich and famous, but are practised by ordinary men too. For the past week my blood pressure has been raised by a daily newspaper, which splashed a picture of a young woman, Zanele Majola, over its pages, along with some truly libellous copy. She made the front page when she was snapped at a beach party, wearing a skimpy halter neck and displaying ample cleavage, and the paper used any excuse to run and rerun the picture.

A week after the picture first appeared, it was printed yet again under the headline “Zanele, half the men in the country are looking for you”. It told us how a reader had called in, demanding her number, saying, “I want her to be the first woman to sit in my new Hummer.” What makes me laugh is the assumption that Zanele is just sitting around like an apple on a tree, waiting to be picked; that she is available on command.

What makes me cry is the copy that runs down the length of her picture, telling us that studies show that men perceive women with large breasts as “unintelligent, immoral and immodest” and that “Majola’s photo depicts the sex slave of their fantasies”. Gee, she must feel really special now! I think she should reward them with an early Christmas gift of a defamation suit. Of course, they’d claim to be merely embracing cultural norms in appreciating voluptuous women instead of stick-insect Western models. What a pity respect isn’t higher up on their “cultural” agenda.

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