Editorial: We have all shielded powerful abusers

We have all been there, either to a wedding, birthday celebration or a now infrequent Orlando Pirates victory party where we’ve been made uncomfortable by the sound of yet another one of R Kelly’s long list of hits. “They are just so damn good …” We’ve had a relationship in some shape and form with the man who was once christened and for many still hailed as the “King of R&B.” 

The reason for our discomfort is triggered by revelations about his sexual abuse of “girls” and most recently his conviction in the US. It’s a story of abuse that we know too well in South Africa, where one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

The more bitter pill to swallow is that anyone who has followed R Kelly’s career would have had these suspicions for years; professing no judgment on his character but rather choosing to appreciate his talents. The truth is that what we were doing for the almost 30 years of this toxic relationship was to strengthen his position regarding the “girls” he had come to truly reign over. Their voices silenced and in some cases drowned out by our admiration. It’s ironic that one of R Kelly’s songs, When a Woman’s Fed Up, at the height of his popularity would prove prescient of a time to come that he would have to finally answer for the decades of abuse of vulnerable and powerless girls. 

The Me Too movement, which began in 2006 and only really exploded some 11 years later, helped reveal the abuses of some of the most powerful men in the world by creating a platform for survivors of abuse to tell their stories after suffering years of silence. For a brief moment — it’s peak came rather quickly — perpetrators such as the R&B musician and the most powerful in Hollywood in Harvey Weinstein, faced a public gallery and eventual court sanction for their abuses. It’s something that would not be possible before the social media age, because publishers such as the Mail & Guardian would have been sued for covering these stories.

We should use the tale of R Kelly to ask questions about excuses we continue to make for the powerful, talented or revered men and women who we know have similar deprivations as the “Pied Piper of R&B”. With a statistic of one in three women being exposed to some level of abuse, we know them. 

For the large bulk of us, no matter race, class or creed, we’ve stood next to an abuser. We’ve made excuses for them such as alcohol or that these “girls” and women were attracted by their fame and are now seeking to make good on it with their baseless accusations. What a tangled web we wove in defence of the most powerful and in turn tying their victims to their fate for decades. 

There are hard and difficult questions that we refuse to face up to. We have had a role in creating the perfect environment for the continued abuse of the most vulnerable in our society.

There weren’t too many big trees to fall in South Africa in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The names that were mentioned have already been forgotten and their lives have continued for the most part. As society, we’ve returned to form, ensuring the enabling environment for the most powerful men in our places of work, churches, mosques, synagogues, homes and schools to continue their abuse.

Keep the powerful accountable

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