Opinion: On rape and 'being a man'

Protesters outside the Bredasdorp Magistrate's Court at the bail hearing of Anene Booysen's alleged attackers. (David Harrison, M&G)

Protesters outside the Bredasdorp Magistrate's Court at the bail hearing of Anene Booysen's alleged attackers. (David Harrison, M&G)

Masculinity is an interesting notion. Like femininity it often lends itself to even stranger notions and politics of the self that sometimes reveal the absurd when placed under scrutiny. A quick perusal of the dictionary (hardcopy or electronic) will give synonyms for masculinity; virility, manliness, machismo, manhood to name but a few. It is essentially the unwritten but guiding rubric under which ideas of "being a man" are constituted. In a country such as South Africa, where traditional and cultural practices hold strong sway, signifiers of the masculine are hard to miss. We have a president with a number of wives, whose constitutionally protected right to cultural practice ensures that his sense of manhood is something that should be tolerated if not at the very least respected.

But masculinity and femininity are but defining terms that have come about as a result of the human need to classify things, to make sense of what appears, in many respects, as the duality that characterises the lived world. We therefore accept without question that where there is man, there is woman and where there is light there is darkness et cetera. Of late however, the permutations of masculinity have left nothing but a sour taste in the mouth. This is not to say that these permutations are some sort of new phenomena because they are not.

In the past few months we have had to deal with news reports of gang-rapes resulting in the death of victims from India to South Africa with its most recent tragedy of Anele Booysens’ death. The responses to these tragedies are usually and rightfully dominated by outrage, as they should, but here and there one has had to endure the radically inconsiderate and foolish opinions of the few who hold the view that the victims contributed to their misfortune and that in the greater scheme of things, what befell them was inevitable.

Some have tried to offer deeper analysis on the abhorrent subject of rape and the abuse that women and children have to endure at the hands of men (not all men, it should be stressed). City Press editor Ferial Haffajee tried a different tact and was given a social network tongue-lashing with many accusing her of victim-blaming. In all honesty, I cannot say that I don’t understand the perspective that Haffajee was trying to bring to the table and I suspect that many who responded angrily understood it too.  

What became painfully clear was the sense that there is little public scrutiny of the constantly used trope of "being a man". This being a man is an invocation that is both confusing in many respects and borderline meaningless in others. I say confusing because nowadays the notion of being a man suffers far too many definitions and the result of this confusion can be seen everywhere and in every medium.

Being a man is invoked by activists and advocates against rape and gender violence just as they are invoked by the perpetrators of these crimes. The invocation obviously serves different purposes and needs. On the side of those against rape, it is in the hopes that it can somewhat provoke, among men, the feeling that any act that falls within the ambit of the aforementioned violations does not warrant being called a man.

Ironically on the side and certainly in the minds of those who perpetrate these violations the invocation of being a man is almost always inherent in their actions. It is their motivation. The men who rape lesbians for example believe that it is the experience of being with a "real man" that is missing in the minds of their victims.

With this kind of reality, who wouldn’t fear bringing a child into this world? I know I do. Still, I cannot help but believe that a different tact is necessary in order for us to create a practical mindset around the issue of rape. With all the issues and problems that the fight against it already face, should we perhaps not preach about the raising of boys to be more human instead of being more manly? This "being a man" or "manning up" against a scourge that predominantly affects women does not strike me as being particularly effective.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry. Read more from Mpho Moshe Matheolane

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