The kanga, womanhood and how Zuma’s 2006 rape trial changed the meaning of the fabric

During the 2006 rape trial in which President Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape, there wasn’t much in common in Zuma or Khwezi’s testimonies. But one thing that was consistent is that Khwezi wore a kanga at the time. The garment – one that exists with respect and dignity in African womanhood and politics – became as popular as the showerhead at the time.

On Saturday evening, when four young women protested in front of Zuma as he spoke at the election results ceremony, one of them held a placard that in bold red strokes formed one word: “Khanga”. Although many present at the ceremony knew what a kanga is, some were confused about what it meant in the protest.

When Khwezi, a pseudonym to protect her identity, responded to the backlash against her accusation against Zuma, one of her most well-remembered responses was a poem:

“I am Khanga

I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa

I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights

The ideal attire for household chores

I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs

Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike

Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women

I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman

But no no no make no mistake …

I am not here to please a man

And I certainly am not a seductress

Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape

Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse…” – Khwezi

The garment is not uniquely South African, and although there are many stories about its exact origin, researchers agree that the kanga comes from Swahili culture in East Africa. Its functions were largely practical: it is affordable, and it can be used as clothing both indoors and outdoors, to carry babies, or as a head scarf. In many families around the continent, a kanga will be the first material a baby is wrapped in, and in East Africa, the Swahili proverbs on the boarder of the material have been seen as a language women use to communicate both among themselves and with people around them.

Despite the many different women who wear the garment, its familiarity brings people together, which is why political or civic groups “use kanga prints as a means of creating a common feeling of belonging among their female backers” as researchers at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands write.

Zuma’s testimony
But during the rape trial in 2006, Zuma testified that Khwezi was wearing a kanga and he interpreted her dress as an invitation. From that remark, Zuma’s supporters appeared throughout the trial, undermining Khwezi’s accusation because of the way she was dressed.

“’But she was wearing a kanga, m’lud’ has been the scandalised refrain throughout the trial,” wrote journalist Nicole Johnston at the time for the Mail & Guardian

Though Zuma was found not guilty, on the day of the judgment anti-rape activists protested outside the court and built a wall of shame made from posters and a khanga.

“This kanga is not an invitation [to sex],” was written on one poster.

Members of People Against Women Abuse (Powa), an NGO which prioritises gender-based violence, wore kangas in protest to, as Johnston observed, “re-appropriate their right to wear the kanga — anywhere, any time”.

In the early 19th century, the rectangular cotton material was traded and paraded during a time of slavery. It spread throughout the continent and became a staple in households and at political rallies. The ANC kanga is itself decorated in green, black and gold, and draped upon the bodies and heads of the party’s supporters. 

But during 2006, the word ‘kanga’ emerged in headlines just as showerheads did when there was mention of Zuma or the case .

In his judgment, Judge Willem Van Der Merwe ordered that Khwezi’s kanga be returned to her – she had asked for it to be given back as she gave evidence.

When she was granted asylum in the Netherlands after the trial, she appeared at an exhibition where she recited her poem. Even after the trial, the garment was one of the last things she publicly spoke on in relation to the case.

Many women still wear kangas wherever they go, but the silent protest on Saturday brought the fabric, and its importance back into public consciousness as a reminder that even a traditional cloth is made to be complicit in the country’s rape culture. 

Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.
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