Stereotypes don’t break in a day

We write in dialogue with last week’s piece by Meg Rickards, Petticoat protester’s long walk. We stress “dialogue” because, given the scale of the gender-based violence in our city and country, dialogue among all of us involved in seeking strategic and powerful solutions is essential.

As anyone who follows the local news will know, five sex workers have been murdered in Cape Town in as many weeks. At the start of Women’s Month on August 3, Anita, a sex worker, activist and paralegal at a local women’s organisation, was robbed of her cellphone by a 19-year-old boy, who pushed her down and assaulted her.

A day earlier, the body of a 19-year-old sex worker was found in a Kenilworth parking lot. Gender-based violence against women, girls and boys is all-pervasive in South Africa. Women’s Month reminds us of this.

Much publicity was paid to a white, privileged woman, dressed up in her undergarments, with made-up, painted-on bruises, who walked from Cape Town city to Muizenberg on August 1. Her courageous initiative was undertaken to raise funds for Whiplash, a film she is directing based on the Tracy Farren novel. The artist noted that she was not presenting herself as a “prostitute” on the day; she said she was walking for the “real victims”.

There is little doubt that Rickards’s intentions were good: she wanted to raise awareness. What feels horribly like déjà vu is a white woman’s (powerful) initiative that at no point recognises her racial and class privilege.

Since 1991, white South African women activists have been publicly challenged for their assumption that they have the right to represent others without engagement regarding their own positioning.

White women’s good intentions have been, with justification, subject to radical challenge – not from patriarchal interlocutors but from myriad black feminist thinkers, activists and artists. This is no time to reintroduce those discussions to our struggles: it must simply be taken on board that, whereas to acknowledge privilege is never enough to undo it, this is a fundamentally critical, analytic step. Without it, nothing will ever shift in this terrain.

As Rickards walked, it seemed the filmmaker was a caricature of a victim of violence – and was noted as such in some media spaces. A sex worker commented on Facebook, on the day of her walk, that if the filmmaker walked the streets in a skimpy outfit at night and was black, “there would have been a problem already”. Being black, on the streets, at night, in a suburb where you don’t live, is an invitation for a fine or arrest from Cape Town’s metro police.

It is also an invitation to become invisible. The sex worker killed in Kenilworth was a drug user. She had run away from home. She was working in a neighbourhood that, not long before her murder, had initiated a campaign against sex work called Krap (Kenilworth Residents Against Prostitution).

These residents, and indeed a ward councillor, saw Kleintjie, as she was known, as invisible at best and, at worst, a pest they wanted off their streets. No one saw her as “courageous”. No one saved her life.

On Sunday August 9, at the conclusion of the 12th Nelson Mandela Lecture, organised by the African Gender Institute and the Mandela Foundation and attended by hundreds of Cape Town-based feminist activists, Ma Graça Machel said that our rage and discomfort are important in helping us to focus our actions.

Violence in South Africa has layers and layers of complexity. Bruises are real – and much of the time not visible. And, though violence affects us all, it is black and brown women and girls who struggle the most to gain access to services, because their situations are compounded by economic disadvantage.

Rickards knows this and we invite dialogue with her; we are also white women, and very far from figuring out what our own relationships to privilege and violence entail.

Responses to the realities of the gender-based violence faced by sex workers and many others need to be rooted in deep understanding of who we are – and how to interact with one another in ways that do not rehearse old racisms, stereotypes and, in the end, doom vital energies to irrelevance.

Jane Bennett is a professor in the African Gender Institute, UCT, and Marion Stevens is the co-ordinator of Wish (Women in Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health) Associates

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