The lady’s not for burning

Gwen Ansell

About 55 000 rapes were reported in South Africa in 2005/06, along with close to 10 000 indecent assaults. Many of the latter may also have been rapes: of men, or with bottles, knives or guns — prevailing legal definitions did not permit the “rape” label for those. If you are part of the majority population (according to Statistics South Africa, 51% of us are female), South Africa is a dangerous place to live.

Just how dangerous, was highlighted by events inside and outside the court where one particularly well-publicised rape case was heard in March last year. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, deputy president of the ANC and former deputy president of the country, was on trial for the rape of a young woman identified as “Khwezi”. The court acquitted him. But, throughout the trial, mobs of supporters, many of them bussed in from Zuma’s base in rural KwaZulu-Natal, menaced the complainant, her family, legal team and supporters. Their chant — reproduced on a particularly ill-judged Sowetan front page that the photo-burning mobs then brandished as a placard — was “Burn the bitch!”

Women and men picketing for a fair trial faced a barrage of abuse. It sometimes seemed as if every passing hand was making gestures of throat-slitting or pistol-firing in their direction. The verbal and ideological violence continued long after the verdict. (Rapes, of course, had never stopped.) Calls for South Africa’s next president to be a woman met such gender-specific vitriol that Thenjiwe Mtintso, South African ambassador to Cuba, coined the term vrou-gevaar (women peril), in parallel to the swart-gevaar (black peril) psychosis infecting the supporters of apartheid.

The Zuma trial let loose the stink of some odious aspects of life. But it also highlighted a still-unsecured front in our liberation war: the struggle for gender equality. And if “Burn the bitch” was the literary expression of the enemy, Mmatshilo Motsei’s book sounds the clarion call back to battle.

It’s a battle of ideas and behaviour; a battle against, not of, violence. In 200 meticulously researched and passionately (but also wittily) written pages, Motsei examines the gender images and self-images men and women create and hold, where these images come from, and how they are expressed in behaviour.

Though the Zuma trial is the anchor for her argument, she considers many broader issues, including patriarchy in religion and popular culture, and the impact of globalisation and militarisation. She debunks — tragic that it must be done so repeatedly — the myth that women “ask for it”. And she kills the canard that African cultures are inherently sexist, drawing on authorities to the contrary from gender studies academic Molara Ogundipe to traditional healer Credo Mutwa and veteran Alexandra community leader Drake Koka.

The book’s eclecticism is both a weakness and a strength. Depth is occasionally sacrificed for breadth. Some debatable points (such as the distinction Mutwa draws between the man as “head” of a household and the woman as “heart”) are not contested.

Some gaps remain. A long history of democratic debate went into the development of ANC gender policy. From the 1985 Kabwe Conference, the movement formally ranked gender violence among the most serious disciplinary offences. Those debates (and not only great leaders such as OR Tambo, whom Motsei singles out) must form part of analysing what went wrong, then and now, in implementing and living that policy.

Because Motsei’s book is the first extended volley in the campaign, this matters less. Each section merits debates or research to come. And the multiplicity — and international nature — of quotations and references strengthens a key theme: the issues are the universal stuff of politics. Gender does not need “mainstreaming”; it is already mainstream. Gender politics are at least as significant in the choice of a party or leader as the “line” on relations with labour or big business (and are, actually, not separable from these).

Motsei’s book launch speech urged a campaign to “Bring Khwezi home”.

There was courage in that — and in writing the book, in a climate so poisonous that many gender activists, and Khwezi herself, received death threats. But it may not be practical, yet. Khwezi told an interviewer her experiences show “there is something very wrong with our world and our society”. And The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court is welcome most for opening the debate on how we can make real all the politics that shaped our Constitution, and make South African society safe enough for Khwezi’s return.

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

‘One strange but very interesting phenomenon about the human brain is its capacity to remember events and images selectively”.

This passage from page 85 of The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court best captures my impression of the book.

Motsei sacrifices insightful and flowing narrative just so that whoever she had identified as her core readership is interested. The result is a book that uses the Jacob Zuma trial as yet another forum to repeat views on gender, violence and justice that have been going on for a long time, without adding much that is new.

It is difficult to see how one can read the book and remain neutral. One is either uplifted by it or disappointed. Though it offers insights into some of the commonly held myths — such as women ask to be raped or men cannot help themselves but rape — the book on the whole left me unimpressed.

Motsei might have thought that some of the assertions she makes prove how radical she is, but on the whole that is not the case.

“While contemporary world culture condemns the exploitation and denigration of others on the basis of race, class and religion, it appears that the only group that is still being exploited and discriminated against is the female sex,” she writes.

This is obviously an outlandish claim. Ask any homosexual if they feel they are not being discriminated against and they’d probably laugh at you. It is one thing to argue that not enough is being done to correct this and yet another to say, as Motsei does, that women’s issues are the “only” issues that have yet to find popular voice.

I doubt if any sexist or any other person who discriminates on an irrational basis will see the error of their ways as a result of having read the book.

While it is, in many parts, scholarly and insightful, it falls into the same trap as other activist literature by opting to preach to the converted, rather than challenge some of the myths and half truths activists are prone to engage in to keep themselves motivated.

Speaking of myths, Motsei approvingly quotes Kalamu ya Salaam’s definition of myth as “traditional beliefs that are accepted uncritically”.

This would surely include cheap marketing lines such as that on the jacket blurb saying “her accusers and the judge concurred that having worn the kanga that evening, the complainant had, like many other women, ‘asked for it’ [to be raped]”.

If you are to make value judgements about the verdict, the least you can do is be a bit more nuanced than that.

Motsei also goes on a tangent about how the song Umshini’wam sends “an irresponsible message to a young democracy that is still struggling with issues of racial and gender reintegration, gun control and violent crime including the atrocious incidents of sexual assault of women and children”. The closest she comes to explaining why this is so is that “singing the song at a rape trial raises questions about the association of a gun with a penis”.

Given that the vast majority of struggle songs have something to say about guns, it implies that Zuma’s supporters would have been damned whatever song they chose to sing. Even allowing for the fusing of the weapon and the penis in warrior culture, attributing mshini’wam to a Zuma or his followers is both a historical and a cynical manipulation of facts.

I wish Motsei had taken the advice she says a friend gave her at some point: “We should never lose the voice of reason irrespective of our opposition to violence against women and children.”

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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