What do Sandile Mantsoe, Nicholas Ninow, Sibusiso Mpungose and Rob Packham have in common? They are responsible for unleashing terror on women and children. They are not human traffickers, gang members or serial killers. They moved within the bounds of society’s definition of normality: they were fathers, husbands and boyfriends.
Watching Luyanda Botha, the post office worker who raped and killed University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, in court, I see a man whom I would once have labelled as ordinary and passed him on the street without a second glance.
A terrifying aspect of Mrwetyana’s killing was the eruption of brutal, sadistic violence in a dull and mundane setting. Her life was stomped out at a post office — a banal, calm and supposedly secure domain of public life.
The crime against her rattled the lazy assumptions about where evil lurks and how it is transformed into violence. For women, intimate knowledge of their near-universal vulnerability confronted them on the national stage.
Once again, that corrosive form of manhood that does not know the barriers of race and class — and the men who unthinkingly embrace it — became the subject of intense criticism.
Once again, the demands and pleas of women for sincere respect for their bodies — for men to act in solidarity with them in the seemingly endless struggle for their lives to be rid of fear — crashed against towers of indifference.
The omnipotence of danger in the daily lives of women and children has yet to be fully grasped by those of us who represent the gender that most often acts as the perpetrator.
Why are the lives of women so precarious? Like most people, men don’t want to see themselves as villains. Many of us consider ourselves to be the good guys. “The problem isn’t men, it’s rapists” is a common excuse for indifference towards gender-based violence.
Adding to our delusion, the
simplistic view of “good and bad guys” allows men to avoid looking within themselves and outside at the world to see the complicity of manhood in sustaining what appears to be a campaign of terror against women.
We fail to understand that justice is sabotaged by those who remain passive. Worse, injustice finds its prosperity in our collective apathy.
The distance of men from the pain of women remains a mighty barrier to safety and freedom for all genders.
Where can the core of this passivity be located? Generally, far too many men display an uninformed reluctance or active refusal to believe women’s stories of sexual violence. Cementing these tendencies is the myth of women being overemotional and, therefore, irrational. This fosters, in some men, a patronising distrust of women’s experiences. The reluctance to believe the survivors of sexual assault and abuse isn’t exclusive to men, but it appears a salient feature of our reactions.
This scepticism masks both the fears and naiveté crouched in the corners of our minds: If what women tell us is true, if indeed their lives are as perilous as they beg us
to believe, what does this reveal about the world we live in? Worse, what does it reveal about ourselves?
I remember rape survivor Jes Foord visiting my high school during one of our routine morning assemblies. Before hundreds of teenage boys she retold her traumatic tale, in explicit detail.
On March 2008, while walking with her father, Tim, she was approached by four men. They assaulted her father and forced him to watch as they raped her. The horror of Foord’s experience, and the courage of her attempt to make young men squarely confront the reality of rape, received a worryingly mixed response from my schoolmates.
As most listened in empathetic or awkward silence, I heard muffled sniggers, gleefully whispered rape jokes and choruses of matrics trying to hide their chuckling faces in the back of the sports hall. After assembly the jokes continued, and this irreverence was fortified by suspicions concerning the details and plausibility of her story.
Others questioned her actions: Why hadn’t she done this or that differently? But mostly there was a detachment from the experience Foord had tried to convey. Very few of us seemed to genuinely care.
One could explain the behaviour of my peers simply as immaturity, although I think that would be a bit of a stretch. I doubt Foord would have received the same emotional reaction if she had told her story to a crowd of teenage girls.
One of the reasons men are stunted in our ability to empathise with the experiences of women is our attachment to unexamined, naive notions of evil. We clutch on to childish ideas about who bad people are, where they do bad things and what it takes for a person to become a moral monster.
This isn’t to say such naiveté doesn’t exist in the minds of women. The difference is that most women have abandoned such innocence because not being vigilant, not exercising a calculated suspicion of other men, could get them killed.
In the media — a powerful constructor of what we believe to be true and what we think is possible — sexual violence is often portrayed in excessively vicious ways. And the rapist? He is viewed as a sociopath, a cruel criminal or a man of power in the world of politics or business, whose mind is devoid of any capacity to care for others.
The scene of the rape? A dark hallway, a deserted street, a decrepit drug den or a “whore house”.
The media presents stories of exceptionally bad people doing exceptionally bad things in exceptionally bad places, which distorts complex sociopolitical realities.
The religious beliefs that are massaged into our minds from an early age can also distort the nature of immorality. Devils and demons, sinister spirits and bitter ancestors are held responsible for the depraved actions of people.
Perhaps such faith is so prevalent because it allows us to avert our eyes from troubling truths about what people — responding to certain conditions and exercising their own will — are capable of.
Yes, the outcasts of society commit terrible crimes but, more often than not, it is ordinary people — predominantly men — who are the perpetrators of violence and abuse against women and children. A friendly neighbour, a talkative taxi driver, an employer, a supportive teacher, a loving father, a trusted aunt or uncle, a father, a brother.
The scenes of violence can be far from sinister. I know people who were sexually assaulted at family weddings, molested at church retreats and date-raped at house parties or abused on school playgrounds. These spaces should be defined by security, protected as incubators of innocence and refineries of trust.
When forced to confront these realities, men — and a surprising number of women — often turn away in disbelief. It’s disturbing to think that those men we laugh and banter with, those who love us as fathers and care for us as friends are capable of sexual assault, rape, domestic abuse and murder.
It plunges the mind into the recognition that evil isn’t lurking only in criminal underworlds or in the depths of hell — evil is all around us, all the time.
The solution is not to condone the wicked things people do or for your conscience to remain comfortably flaccid in the presence of immorality. One has to ask: What are the conditions and environments that, partly, enable people who do deeply bad things?
The “free” will of humans can’t be controlled. Yet people don’t think and act in isolation from the world we inhabit. We are social animals. Our lives are embedded in cultural, political and economic environments that shape how we behave in society. These conditions also build possibilities for people to be violent or abusive. Such conditions cannot be changed until they are faced and thoroughly understood.
The #MenAreTrash movement captures the fury of women, while also demanding that men conduct meticulous self-examination of what we are now and what we could become.
But #MenAreTrash has been misunderstood and defensively dismissed. It is seen to be an unfair attack on men and condemns them as inherently violent.
The hash tag, and the vantage point that gives it substance, is not concerned only with the horrendous acts of individual men. It calls us to question the state of manhood and to see it as not being carved in stone, but as a way of being in the world that can change. Through self-education, holding ourselves and each other accountable, while working in collective movements, I believe we can and must become men who make everyone feel safe.
Andile Zulu runs a blog called Born Free Blues