If we are going to fight back, we can’t use men’s tools

“You can’t shame people into changing their behaviour.” Academic and author Brené Brown said these words in an interview in 2012.

And we should know that. Steve Biko’s shaming of white lies got him killed. White people didn’t change their behaviour towards black people after 1977, despite his death hanging on their consciences. His nourishing of black misery seemed to agitate their shame, inflame their fears and strengthen their defences.

It took a Mandela — placated by isolation, leathered by time and disconnected from people’s realities, bearing forgiveness and love — for white people to be prepared to change their behaviour towards, if not their minds about, black people.

As devastating as this is for popular logic and justice, there was a petty shift in the way white people occupied their reality in the early 1990s as grand apartheid fell. Nelson Mandela’s stance brought change. This is a really sore fact to admit for anybody who can judge basic fairness and unfairness.

“Why should the oppressed do the work of loving and forgiving the oppressors in order to end oppression?’’

In the absence of a plan for what we are going to do about South African men, I am thinking about this question again, questioning its validity and seeking the wisdom in having the audacity to ask victims to help perpetrators to heal.

I was raised on kitchen-table narrations of unfairness, told by Xhosa women who would state with cucumber conviction and, at times, scars or secret children as their proof that amadoda ziinkunkuma. Men are trash.

Hysteria would come once in a heavy moon when a broken woman, drunk from Enough, would take her man’s, brother’s or son’s secrets to the streets, emthuka ngoo nqi noo nyi esidlangalaleni (swearing at him in public). For the most part, though, cruel, emotionally and physically unavailable, violent and shattered men have been a fact of life for most people in South Africa.

As a result, we have arrived at a time in our history where the instances of boys and men swearing at, lying to, blaming, groping, beating, strangling, shooting, raping, molesting and killing queer and heterosexual women are comparable to the legislated abuse of black people by the apartheid government, whose laws gave white citizens the licence to speak and act in any which unregulated way against black citizens.

We should be in a state of emergency.

Today, our laws may be protective of the vulnerable but they are not protecting us sufficiently. We have arrived at a time when the same mechanisms that brought down the state’s machinery, from a human rights perspective, need to be revisited and revised to become suitable for a fight that we are simply not prepared for, owing to “the struggle” we thought we were done with in the autumn of 1994. We are not done.

The fight ahead of us is unprecedented because it’s not a government, a masked criminal, a different ethnic or religious group “out there”. It’s in our streets, our homes, our bedrooms and in intimate spaces. There is no lexicon for the indescribable things that happen in our families and no easily available solutions. We have not plagued our national platforms enough with the question: What are we going to do about masculinity as we suffer it?

Women’s rage in the form of #MenAreTrash has been useful to galvanise people into paying attention to the crisis we are facing. Rage is necessary because it is creating a site for transformation to happen.

But rage might not transform men. Men will not change because of the names we call them, otherwise the Xhosa men of my aunts’ and grandmothers’ era would have changed.

The easiest thing to do right now is to widen the existing rift between men and women by detonating our rage to officially hate men. And the most difficult to do is almost unspeakable to the mother of a dead lesbian: to respond from a place of love, which asks more of each “good’’ individual than it does from a broken “bad’’ man.

This is an opportunity for those tormented by the violence against women to think about what form our fight is going to take. If men express their power and emotions through violence, a lack of empathy and battered emotional intelligence, are we going to do the same?

Patriarchy’s popular tactics of shaming, excluding, theorising, policymaking and jailing have not worked to protect us. Is it possible to imagine responses beyond the ones that exist?

It feels too early to speak of healing at this point. For now, because it’s the power we have, the thing we can do is to learn to write down and talk about the things that cause us pain, in spaces we feel confident to speak in. We need to invent the spaces to tell our stories, to share experiences and, most importantly, to be heard.

We failed to do that after apartheid ended. These are the results. I don’t know if being compassionate towards abusers will console them or our anger. But there are some things my conscience won’t allow me to do and one of those is to pick up and polish the lingua franca of fear because I am scared.

This week’s edition of Friday is dedicated to facilitating the emotional conversations we, as citizens, need to have to imagine a next step.

Milisuthando Bongela is the editor of Friday

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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