I did not watch the Surviving R. Kelly documentary about the singer’s alleged two-decade abuse of women, many of them young and black. I did follow the court case and read the articles that came in for years. Watching the documentary would not have changed the fact that I, and many women my age, know the narrative very well.
When I was seven or eight, a comrade of my father’s was a man who everyone knew was a paedophile. The adults in our lives told us: “When Uncle Sipho comes and we are not here, don’t let him through the gate.”
He had never been arrested and the responsibility was somehow put on us to ensure that we did not fall victim to him. A patriarchal organisation protected Uncle Sipho and would have laid the blame at our feet should anything have happened to us. “Why were you opening the gate to him? You have been told many times. You do not listen.”
When sanctions were lifted, Uncle Sipho returned to South Africa. My father and his friends would later stop associating with him because he impregnated his niece, who was in her mid-teens. “That is too much, even for Sipho,” they said over drinks. They did not see the irony of what they said.
Two male teachers taught us in grade 6. “Angela, Zukiswa, Agnes come and give me a hug,” they would say. When we refused, they would insist: “I said come and give me a hug. It’s harmless.” Our refusal was seen as us teasing them. They would insist, rubbing their erections against our bellies.
My best friend Agnes and I talked about this. “When we don’t protest, they are unlikely to bother us more. It’s the resistance that they are looking for.” So the next time either of them asked us for hugs, we went but stood passively.
I hope both these men are dead. It would horrify me to think that they were still teaching. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.
From the age of 12, when I started to develop breasts, men would slow down while driving to talk to me as I walked from school or to the shops. “Hello sweetheart. Can I drop you somewhere?” they would say. “No, thank you,” I would answer and walk faster. The persistent ones would continue to try to convince me as they drove to keep up with my pace.
Mine was not a unique experience. What was important was that we had to say no and walk away. If we agreed to get in the car and anything happened to us, it would all be our fault.
I remember an incident that took place when I was 17. My friend Joy and I met at a restaurant. We were going to have lunch and cocktails; we were two teenagers experimenting with alcohol. We had not yet finished our first round of drinks and lunch when an older man with a balding pate came to our table.
“Ladies, hello,” he said. We looked at him, looked at each other, then answered in unison: “Good afternoon, sir.” He giggled a la Msholozi. “No, no. Don’t call me sir. I’m not that old. My name is Michael.” Then, running his hand over his head, “and this is just premature balding. I am a young man.” Joy and I looked at each other again and said, “Okay, sir.”
But this man was nothing if not persistent. He wanted to know if he could buy us a drink. We refused. We would have liked to save our money, but we knew what him buying us drinks meant. The responsibility rested with us. So even when he told us that we shouldn’t worry about finishing his money, that trying to finish his money was like “trying to finish drinking the water in Kariba with a teaspoon”, we were steadfast.
Eventually he left us alone, but not before telling us we were not that pretty and that he was just trying us.
We would all do well to reflect on the many R. Kellys in our lives. We would do well to ban our uncles who come to family functions with underage girls. We must call the police and not stay silent about the men who rape their daughters or nieces, because we are protecting our family’s reputations. The only person who needs protection is the one who is raped.
We must insist that the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and the department of education enforce policies to protect female pupils so that teachers will think twice before they even think of talking to a child about anything other than their schoolwork.
The girls and women in dream hampton’s documentary may have survived R Kelly. But girls and women should not have to survive men. We want to live with them and love them as family, lovers and friends without feeling fearful.