Punishing rapists isn’t good enough

Milisuthando Bongela (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Milisuthando Bongela (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

I got a text from a male friend yesterday. “I apologise for the shit men out there, me included. All men are fucked and I’m disgusted at times for being one of them.”

At first I felt vindicated by this sentiment. That he shares in the collective rage that women feel against the violence of men in our country. My friend is a good person in all respects. A man I have always felt safe around.

But as we continued our discussion, I wondered: Is the articulation of anger on social media and in private spaces helping to create more value around women’s safety, our lives and our needs in relation to the men in our society?

There is no way to assess that. What does it mean when “all men are fucked” is the point of reference that good people use about themselves and others? What narrative does this sentiment create and of what use is that narrative to us at the moment? What does self-flagellation as an emotional point of departure serve in a situation like this?

We are not lost for words when it comes to articulating our national pathologies, violence against women being at the very top of that harrowing list.

Khensani Maseko: a radiant and ambitious young woman who died of suicide a day after the national women’s shutdown and march. The caption on her last Instagram post was: “No one deserves to be raped.”

What does this and the many other deaths reveal to us about our collective approach to the problems of intimate violence?

The women of South Africa fearlessly gathered (yet again) to express their devastation at the dawn of yet another women’s month. They put their bodies on the line facing a nation of leaders and followers who do not care about women citizens. And of course, they marched in hope of change. What will the response to this march be? What will make our society care more?

I wonder whether we can raise the level of engagement with a subject like rape from the #MenAreTrash narrative to something a little more needs-oriented, unitive and, quite simply, helpful. A year ago, it made sense to dress my anger in the hashtag. Of course I get it. I have said it many times and am tempted to retweet it when I see it online.

But something has changed in me. Humiliating and castigating men has not helped me feel safer around them. In fact, I am more afraid of men than I have ever been. So how else should I be thinking about and engaging with this condition? I am asking us who consider ourselves to be good people.

I often hear the term “let them rot in jail”. The assumption that sexual crimes will be reduced when criminals are arrested is a fallacy. Yes, crimes of sexual violence don’t always lead to arrests and jail terms. But even if they did, you arrest one violent perpetrator of a larger pathological attitude. That attitude still exists. You can arrest and jail one person but you cannot arrest the conditions that created their attitude. You cannot arrest misogyny. You cannot arrest low self-esteem. You cannot arrest emotional neglect, loneliness and isolation.

In the same way, the pain of the victim of a crime is not lessened by the factual evidence of the crime being named again and again. Naming is useful but another step should follow. What happens after the naming? What are our needs right now when it comes to addressing the gender apartheid in South Africa. What do young women need to feel safe and valued in our society? What do young men need to feel safe and worthy in our society? What is it about our society that makes violence manifest in the normalisation of rape, compared with our neighbours in Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia?

We do not need more experts in penology. We need social healing as the next step of our political process.We need resources and ideas for organising our society so that both young and older people no longer feel isolated, alone, not part of something bigger than themselves, directionless, hopeless, perpetually sad and anxious, overwhelmingly depressed and fundamentally divided from ways of developing their humanity at different stages of their lives.

People are already doing so much to sustain their communities and families so these are not new ways of being; we know how to solve our problems. If we study older indigenous societies, social order was intentionally structured around each member of the household or society having certain roles. We have identified the things that need to be thrown out when it comes to older societies.

But there are many valuable things we seem to be discarding too. I return to the teachings of isintu through ubuntu. Growing up, my father was adamant that we call my older sister Sisi instead of Vuyo as a form of respect. Even though she often felt it made her sound old, that was a delineation of roles. She is older. We are younger. Inherent in that simple Sisi is a code of ethics that determines the ways in which we should honour and treat our different ages.

“Ewe mama, hayi mama.” “Yes aunty, no aunty.” The addition of a suffix to the words yes, no or thank you is a fundamental daily reinforcement of how to be a child and how to be an adult. Something as simple as children being assigned daily roles in the household (taking turns washing the dishes, making the bed, chopping vegetables, making everyone’s school lunch, sweeping the yard, being the primary work force in the running of the home in addition to the person who is hired to help) goes a long way to creating this idea of belonging, being part of something bigger, having purpose, being needed.

By the way, there is a difference between a domestic worker and a helper or umntu oncedisayo. A domestic worker does the house work for the people in the house. Umntu oncedisayo provides additional help to those whose task it is to do the housework — historically everyone in the household.

These are small examples of the kinds of things that prevent the fundamental sense of isolation that leads to people harming themselves and others. It’s about having guidelines and holistic practices for how to be a child, how to be a sister, how to be a friend, how to be a lover, how to be a father, how to be in your 20s, how to express your emotions, how to process rejection and how to love.

Of course, modern capitalism is an impediment to these forms of historical social organising. But how can we use the existing operating system to cater to our human needs? How can we use capitalism to foster ways of becoming emotionally available to each other’s needs?

Right now, so many of our needs are not being met but this is not an insurmountable problem. We have enough human resources, time, money and desire to improve the state of our lives. But we need to be careful of the narratives we tell ourselves, lest we destroy our will to address the problems we inherited.

Ubuntu teaches us that we are each other’s keepers.I would much rather we poke holes in each other’s ideas about how to approach these problems than to poke holes in each other’s humanity.

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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