By his own admission, deputy minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana acted criminally last weekend when he assaulted a woman at a club in northern Johannesburg. Yet for days afterwards, and as I am writing this column, he remains in his job and free to roam the streets.
That is despicable. Several aspects of this violent misogynistic episode, and how it has played out publicly, show us yet again that South Africa is no place for women.
One eyewitness confessed that many of the bystanders, himself included, didn’t come to the rescue of the woman in the first few minutes of the attack. This is quite a chilling, but unsurprising, confession. It means, first, that the attack was sustained, which must have been terrifying for the woman, not knowing when and how it might end. Both photographic and video evidence corroborate this.
Second, the initial inaction of staff and bystanders shows us just how routine and normal violence against women is in South Africa. We are not motivated to stop violence. We are, rather, desensitised to it. Violence has been naturalised.
Tracy Chapman, in a classic track about domestic violence, sings the macabre truth that “The police always come late/ If they come at all/ And when they arrive/ They say they can’t interfere/ With domestic affairs/ Between a man and his wife”.
Public violence often leads to similar attitudes from criminal law enforcement agencies and from bystanders. A woman is neither safe in her home nor is she safe outside it. She is clearly not safe in a nightclub either. We witness public violence and then we look away, reducing it to a private domestic affair, we have no social responsibility to respond to.
We are thus complicit in the violence against women with our inaction and silence. We create a public space that is safe for perpetrators to prey on their victims, secure in the knowledge that consequences for criminality are rare.
We throw the safety net around the criminal and leave their victim exposed to brutality. That is a shameful mark of our indecency.
Our violence is also layered. In a statement from the deputy minister subsequent to the attack, he refers to an “extreme provocation”, but does not explain the provocation.
There are at least two accounts of what had preceded the attack. One version suggests there was a heated debate about who the next president of the ANC should be. The second account, not incompatible with the first, suggests the deputy minister was labelled as “gay”.
It is a manifestation of violent and toxic masculinity if you assault your interlocutor in a debate. It is homophobic to respond violently to being labelled gay. In fact, the moment the assault happened, it became irrelevant what conversation had preceded it, because the response was evidently grossly disproportionate both in law and ethically speaking.
The deputy minister’s apology is rendered meaningless once he tries to smuggle a justification into the non-apology. He also reinscribes his homophobia into the statement by describing being called gay an “extreme provocation”. That gives him a false legal ruse to have a right to respond to provocation.
It doesn’t work, I’m afraid. The Constitutional Court has been clear that one cannot claim to have been defamed if someone calls you gay. This applies to other aspects of the law too: being called gay isn’t the same as someone poking your ribs with a weapon, an act that reasonably may result in a proportionate response to such actual provocation.
We shouldn’t fall for the hasty description of an “extreme provocation”. So what drives this violent homophobia?
It’s not surprising that homophobia is a close relative of misogyny. We are told and taught lies about what it means to be “a man”.
These lies include the following: A man cannot have sex with another man. A man cannot cry. A man cannot be vulnerable. A man cannot emote. A man cannot be effeminate. A man cannot lose an argument.
These lies, if we think them through, in effect send boys and men the message that any behaviour deemed to be typical of how women might act (itself a problematic construct) is bad. Women are weak, so the messaging goes, and therefore any associations with these stereotypes about women become a source of shame in men and can occasion aggression in defence of one’s “manhood”.
Being called gay, in that context, amounts to being called a woman, a girl, a sissie. In a society with toxic masculinities in gay abandon this becomes the ultimate slur.
This hatred of all things feminine is so potent in men that even men who are not heterosexual can be and often are misogynistic. In some gay men, for example, shame and self-stigma find expression in violence against others.
That is also why one cannot assume that a homophobe is not gay. Gay men can also be homophobic precisely because gay men can also hate women and therefore can also hate an aspect of themselves that society associates with “acting like a woman”. That is the glue that binds homophobia and misogyny.
We urgently need to open up productive conversations about how to recover the humanity of boys and men so that we can find healthier ways of being in the world and eliminate toxic masculinity from the domestic and the public space. The deputy minister of higher education is not an exception. He typifies patriarchy.