/ 5 December 2015

(Im)perfect wedding outrage has a silver lining

A taxi driver's boast made it to the TV screen
A taxi driver's boast made it to the TV screen

If you spend any time on Twitter on a Sunday evening, you would know one thing about South Africans: Our Perfect Wedding, the television show, is a pretty big deal.

Some have slammed it as a caricature of black lives and culture. Columns have been devoted to the altar kisses as messy or authentic – depending on where you stand. But no matter what its loyal base of viewers think, they’re glued to it every Sunday. The tag #OPW trends on Twitter nearly every Sunday thanks to users offering their take on everything from the dress to the mother-in-law.

Which meant that the fallout from Sunday’s episode was rapid – and gratifying.

The groom in last week’s episode was one Fani Mkhwanazi, a taxi driver who, in his 20s, made a habit of preying on schoolgirls, boasting that he would wait outside schools and bed three to four a day.

Viewers found this out in response to a question about how he met his bride, 23-year-old Bavelile. She was 14 at the time and he was 28.

“I’d go back to work after school rush was over and take a schoolgirl home with me,” boasted Mkhwanazi, a slight grin playing on his face as he relaxed into his chair. “At the end of the day, I’d take another woman home with me. I had a target of three to four a day.”

The disturbing part of Mkhwanazi’s brag was how normal it seemed to him. He had the air of one who had related this particular story before and was used to eliciting laughs and hearty approvals. He had no idea how serious the implications were: that he was essentially confessing to statutory rape.

Mkhwanazi implied that the sex was consensual, but the age of consent in South Africa is 16. At 14, Bavelile was still a child – as were most of the other schoolgirls he bedded. Beyond the legal implications, there is the moral horror of his exploitation of young women.

It seems that Mkhwanazi is a product of his society: where subtle and obvious violence against women is not only the norm, it’s expected and encouraged. “I honestly don’t see what the fuss is about,” said one woman on Facebook. “The man was sharing how he used to live before he decided to settle down.”

This response would have been depressing if it wasn’t for what happened afterwards. The public outcry from those who knew better was immediate. And those who resisted quickly realised that South Africans were starting to expect better for their women.

Thanks to the pressure, the official response was swift: Absa withdrew its sponsorship of the show “with immediate effect”. The channel, Mzansi Magic, issued an apology a day after the episode was aired and shortly afterwards the show’s producer, Basetsana Kumalo, assured fans she was taking the incident seriously.

It seems that a sea change has finally taken place in our country: where there is enough of a mass of people – men and women – who are starting to push back against an ingrained culture of sexual violence in South Africa.

The woman who didn’t “see what the fuss was about” was commenting on Kumalo’s Facebook page. Her dismissive attitude received 28 likes. But she also received about eight responses explaining why her attitude was problematic, with many more likes for those.

It is still startling to think that none of the dozens of people involved in the production thought to flag Mkhwanazi’s comment. Did they think it was entertaining? That it added colour or context? What could possibly have gone through the heads of those who had filmed it, edited it, and passed the final product?

Ironically, the incident happened during our annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children.

It is an exhausting time for activists and those interested in these issues. We must sing the same song, beat the same drum and beg people to care. Horrific and brutal rapes are the only ones that get attention, but even the Anene Booysens fade from memory and justice goes unserved.

But the public reaction to Mkhwanazi’s comments prove that all those years of campaigning, raising awareness and challenging our country’s culture of rape and everyday sexism is finally adding up to something: a growing sense of what is right and wrong where women and sex are concerned. The pushback was not led by activists. It was led by South African citizens. We’re finally starting to wake up.