“South African men are trash, that’s who we are. If we don’t want to be called that, then let us change our behaviour.” This was said by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander in chief, Julius Malema, last week, addressing a crowd of supporters at an Africa Day rally at Joubert Park in Johannesburg.
The address ticked all the boxes of what we have now come to expect from a Malema speech: bluster and big man oratory, fused equally with incisiveness and humour.
This is not ANC Youth League Malema, where the hot air rose into the firmament with such regularity that, after a while, there wouldn’t be so much as a shift in the room when he opened his mouth — except maybe for a famously “tjatjarag” foreign journalist who was permanently shifted from his chair at Luthuli House.
Although one could argue that the spirit of the old Malema haunts the league’s current president, that rascal is largely buried. This Julius Malema has been a man apart for sometime now.
This is — it must be stressed in light of the old woodwork punchlines — the graduate Malema; a wider-reading Malema, one who has been known to carry around with him a copy of Rape, A South African Nightmare — Professor Pumla Gqola’s award-winning, lyrical and urgent rebuke of our rampant rape culture.
This is a Malema who — despite his history of a chronic lack of self-awareness and violent victim shaming during President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial — appears, for the most part, to be successfully navigating his evolving self through the most robust feminist filter of any political organisation in the country.
He has achieved this because, in spite of his many faults (I have come across one or two female “fighters” who are underwhelmed by all party political response to rape culture), one also gets a sense that he has become a listening Malema, one who is undoubtedly still self-assured, but knows he could never hold the monopoly on political insight or the peculiarities of gender parity.
As he spirited on at the Africa Day event, outlining the many obvious and nuanced ways in which men were trash, Malema received as much applause from comrades sitting behind him as the scores before him. How much either of these groups was internalising his message would make for an interesting study.
Joubert Park is next to the infamous Noord Taxi Rank, where in 2012 two young women were harassed and sexually assaulted by more than 60 men simply because one dared expose her bra strap and the other wore a miniskirt. It is not difficult to imagine some of the men in Malema’s audience as part of that gropey mob, because nothing can be put past South African men. A case in point is one-time justice minister Jeff Radebe.
In the aftermath of these assaults, Radebe joined the ANC Women’s League and hundreds of women in a “miniskirt march”. In his speech, he said: “The struggle for freedom has always been the struggle for human rights, the struggle for women’s empowerment.”
Perfectly fine, if somewhat unoriginal. But then, in a telling, tone-deaf moment, he went on to joke that he was also there because “I like miniskirts”. Given the recent leaks of the Minister’s salacious exchanges with a junior civil servant, we couldn’t possibly d.i.s.a.g.r.e.e. w.i.t.h. h.i.m. But the point is that, unlike Malema, who seems to be doing the necessary work to fix the life-long toxic masculinity inculcated in him, Radebe and the majority of South African men haven’t even begun.
I doubt it was my first, but certainly my most vivid public engagement with the war on women’s bodies was during a season in 2010 when a friend revealed she had been raped. This was closely followed by the Jules High School case, where underage boys raped an underage girl. Until that moment, rape had for me become this incessant background music, much like suicide bombings in all the countries United States President Donald Trump detests.
My friend’s story and the countless more she inspired shifted me.
“In the summer of 2010,” I wrote, more than seven years ago in a woman’s title, “I decided to wake up from my desensitised stupor and vowed to weigh in in defence of our women and children.”
In the next line, I acknowledged that I had “imperfections … peppered with inadequacy”, but I still chose to lend my voice in saying no to the “heavy silence, the early sexualisation of children, society’s tolerance for evil, the warped sense of manhood fed to young boys and the justice system.”
Reading these words so many years later, I am no less convinced of my sincerity, but somewhat amused at the youthful earnestness of it all. Most importantly, the irony of my use of the phrase “our women” — as if they were in the same category as our cuff links and record collections — is not lost on me. My inadequacies were in full view.
“Violation will not eat itself,” I persisted, “it will continue to chew into the fabric of our collective being. It will gnaw at your own heels or kick down your door when you least expect it.”
Anene Booysen was murdered the following year. Less than a decade later, our heels have been chewed down to the bone and the now shattered door is permanently ajar.
In that season of outrage and hashtags, I started galvanising and organising; I was up to the task. Or so I thought. I failed dismally, and the reasons were much deeper than the computer virus that wiped out a hard drive with a large database of other men who wanted to join me.
My campaign failed because outrage has limitations when you are a father, freelance writer/editor and entrepreneur. I came to learn that, as a newbie, you do not come bustling into a cause, disrespecting the work done before you, just because your words trended on Twitter.
I learned that many of the heroic men and women who have dedicated their lives to this cause are suspicious of pop-up activists who flow in and out, with the tides of outrage. I learned that, for all the calls for divine intervention, the gendered ways (and language) of religious dogma are counterproductive to combating gender-based violence.
Thankfully, all these lessons did not put paid to my efforts, I didn’t stop railing, raging, writing, joining radio panels and dedicating mentoring time to boys, girls and young men and women. I even launched a whole website dedicated to reflecting and supporting men who want to change the narrative. The most useful thing I have done, though, is listening.
I haven’t in my entire life done as much listening as I have done in the past few years, and one of the toughest demands has been manifesting the courage of my convictions, rousing the pluck to link my political with the deeply personal.
To claim these two worlds as sites apart is to miss the fullness of the task, the absolute immersion it takes to unlearn, over and over again, what has for far too long passed for normalcy.
Practically, it has meant leaving that nostalgic high school old boys’ WhatsApp group when my screen grabs of smart feminist Twitter clap-backs buckled under the weight of hourly “Hoes be like…” memes.
It has meant going down that rabbit hole of feminist text, wrapping one’s head around the endless strands, from the most instructional and accommodating, to the most radically complex incarnations. It has also meant being brave enough to call oneself a feminist, albeit tentatively enough to prefix it with “aspirant”.
In recent weeks, when so much of the rhetoric from those tasked with leadership has been all too familiar and uninspiring — with talk of “shock”; government planning committees and more conferences — it has meant being in answer mode, action mode, in response to the question, “What can/should we men do?”
There are many answers to this, involving in the short-term visibility and voice, mobilisation and the calling out of peers, not in a performative sense, but from a place of building. There are mid-term answers that involve strong, accountable peer groups; free (carrot) or mandatory (stick) gender sensitivity workshops; gender and sexuality, taught by qualified practitioners, being part of the social studies curriculum; more widely available literature and less one-dimensional masculinity in men’s magazines.
The questions about policing and justice have less to do with policy than with the will and the long-term challenge of a change of mindset. Similarly, it is clear that mindset is a wider problem when many men who “mean well” or acknowledge that “rape and murder is wrong and want to do something” can be rendered motionless by a hashtag.
Many more answers are out there, and I have recommitted to answering them, but like Malema I am still learning. My experiences in these trenches will inform how I proceed this time around, and already I have taken vital lessons to heart. Crucially, I have no hashtag.
Siphiwe Mpye is the editor of notedman.com