Time to speak out about abusers

Zukiswa Wanner addresses the culture of protecting problematic public figures with silence in the arts industry. (Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP)

Zukiswa Wanner addresses the culture of protecting problematic public figures with silence in the arts industry. (Rajesh Jantilal/ AFP)

I had an uncle. My cousins and I were warned not to go to his home because he was a known rapist. But he never spent a day in prison.
It was common knowledge in the family that he was the father of his daughter’s only son. He was his grandson’s dad.

When I asked the elders why they had not had him arrested, the common excuse was: “He is the breadwinner. What will happen to his family if he is arrested?”

And so he continued to terrorise children, who were warned not to go to his home alone. When he died, the family gave a collective sigh of relief.

I had another “uncle”, a family acquaintance. My female “cousins” who were born and grew up in exile in Zambia and Zimbabwe know about him. Our parents warned us never to open the door to him when they were not there.

When sanctions were lifted and he returned to South Africa, he raped his sister’s daughter and had a child with her.

In both cases, the adults did not file charges against them. Instead, they put the onus on us — children — to be safe.

I am the adult now. I am in the arts industry where there is limited funding and where our relationships with each other mirror our relationships in our families. In this field, an up-and-coming artist is flattered when an established writer agrees to meet and read your work, when an established filmmaker takes time to meet you to discuss funding for a film, or to talk about a possible audition, or when an established visual artist leaves open the possibility of sharing exhibition space with you.

So when there is impropriety there is silence. Speaking out means the possibility of not getting funding, not receiving the industry’s approval, or being written off as problematic. In the same way, speaking out against the rapist uncle, who is a breadwinner, would leave his family suffering if he was imprisoned.

For those of us who are somewhat established in the industry, we also often keep quiet.

We are quiet because, yes, that man or that brother is a rapist but how can we be responsible for bringing our industry success story down? We worry that we will be excluded from the tribe because we are lucky to have made it in an industry that focuses on us being women writers, women filmmakers, women dancers, women musicians, women visual artists. Always, women before our art form.

One would think that being women first would prompt us to speak out, but no. We are too anxious to be one of the guys. We want to be considered cool and unproblematic. So when a father in the industry lets his hand linger on our bum, we move away. We try to avoid hugging him or being with him without the presence of others.

When brothers send us messages on WhatsApp or Messenger saying what they would like to do to us sexually, we brush them off by saying we are in relationships, or that their messages are inappropriate.

What we never do is to publicise these inappropriate advances as we would if they came from random men in the supermarket or taxi drivers at a taxi rank. To quote Sisonke Msimang out of context, all our faves are problematic and we are problematic because we defend them with our silence.

Two weeks ago, a filmmaker was accused of rape by a young woman. Since then, I have had conversations with many women in different fields in the arts. They tell me they believe she — and all the other women who have come forward — told the truth.

Those I spoke to believe it because they have also been at the receiving end of unwanted advances, or they have spoken to others who have been. They believe it despite having been silent about it. They are guilt-ridden and wonder whether they could have helped to prevent it if they had spoken out about it.

I am an adult now and it is difficult. It means avoiding the mistakes that the adults in my life made when I was a child by protecting rapist uncles and putting the responsibility of being safe on youngsters. It means speaking out against those of my faves who may be problematic.

And so I want to say to my sisters who have been raped, groped, open-mouth kissed or received inappropriate texts from brothers and fathers who talk feminist theory and know all the right gender politics, I am sorry that I was silent. I believe you. And I will do better for you. It will be hard and I know now why the adults in my life protected and continue to protect adults they liked, or who were family, but I promise to do better.

I will speak out about abusers in the workplace, whatever the consequences.

And, to you brothers and fathers, we may be writers, filmmakers, theatre practitioners or visual artists but we are also women.

We see you and we will speak out about rape and sexual impropriety. Because I cannot name you in this article for legal reasons does not mean I do not know. I know. We know. And we will stand up and speak out. Enough, already.

Zukiswa Wanner is a Johannesburg Insitute of Advanced Studies Fellow

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