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“We need to rebuild a mass-based feminist movement”

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Thursday, February 25th, 2016
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RapeIn Rape: A South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola investigates and analyses South Africa’s complex relationship with sexual violence, and examines society’s response to high profile rape cases, including those of President Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt and Baby Tshepang, in an attempt to bring together divergent conversations on the subject.

Gqola is Professor of African literary and gender studies at Wits University and the author of What is Slavery to Me? Postcolonial/Slave memory in Post-apartheid South Africa (published by Wits Press in 2010) and A Renegade Called Simphiwe (published by MFBooks Joburg in 2013).

Jacana Media has shared two excerpts from the book. In the first, Gqola examines the connections between political and gender-based violence, looks at how trauma and patriarchal structures affect rape survivors, and suggests new strategies to combat a future of rape and violence.

The second excerpt, which will be published soon, considers child rape and the case of Baby Tshepang.



Read part 1:* * * * *

Various feminists have argued that violence is one of the constitutive elements of South African society. It is such an intimate core that it grounds both historic and contemporary identity formation and contestation. In other words, explanations for the scourge of violence in South Africa need to be contextualised both against this backdrop of normalised and ingrained vast histories of violence and feminist understandings that misogynist and heteronormative violence are manifestations that reflect and perpetuate the very patriarchal nature of South African society.

Although feminists and other gender progressives would still wage critical war against gender-based violence under different circumstances, it is integral to the successes we carve to keep an eye on the myriad ways in which experiences and justifications of political violence are used to excuse and/or justify gender-based violence as well. South Africa is a country in deep denial about the causes of various phenomena such as gender-based violence.

As I put the last words down in this book, I realise how much the process of writing this has actually illuminated for me. One of the most frustrating things in my thinking and work on rape over the last two decades has been my inability to really understand how women who were themselves once raped do not feel empathy for those who speak of their own rape. I knew it had something to do with the way in which patriarchy says that women do not matter, that they/we are not fully human. In the language of Blackness, patriarchy really inculcates self-hate in women like all violent oppressive systems do. Yet, somehow this never felt like enough of an answer. I understood why survivors warn others against pressing charges or otherwise going public. What continued to bother me were the ways in which some survivors taunt and otherwise subject other survivors to secondary victimisation.

As I watch women question, taunt, disbelieve and help persecute other women who speak out against rape, the question has stayed with me. As I re-read an essay I was very familiar with, Yvette Abrahams’s “Was Eva raped?” a different illumination came upon me, as I read the section on how rape makes the assaulted less than human. Abrahams writes that because rape changes a survivor’s internal world in devastating ways, bringing about a real crisis in who she is and how things work, a survivor has to make sense of it somehow, and this is paramount. Therefore any meaning that allows her to make sense of it can be taken on board and used; even a meaning that engenders guilt in the survivor is preferable to helplessness. Preferable is not quite an appropriate word for what I mean here because this is a ‘preference’ in the absence of any healing, self-affirming resource. It is harder sometimes when faced with trauma to constantly revisit what she could have done differently than to arrive at a conclusion, even a harmful one.

Abrahams writes:

[h]umanness is a quality which is hard to live without. To react to rape by implicating oneself may not be the best reaction, but it is a workable one. Thus the dehumanisation of rape does not lie in the act alone, nor only in the memory of it, but in the trauma which induces the rape victim to deny her own subjectivity. Paradoxically, her path back to full humanness becomes blocked by the necessity of granting the rapist a human face.

We need to rethink how we move away from the current situation in which there is too little on holding perpetrators accountable. Although we have rendered gender-based violence abnormal in public talk and at legal level as successive feminists in the world, we have managed to do this without minimising it. It is still commonplace, and many violent men can just say they disapprove and distance themselves at the same time as going back to acting in violent ways.

It is imperative to create the kinds of realities that give survivors healthier choices to make sense of surviving rape, to look at the ways in which our tools have not only stopped working, but the many ways in which their co-option enables them to work in anti-feminist ways. I no longer think a small minority of men are holding us hostage. It is a painful realisation and way to live, and one that I have resisted for most of my life, and it may be one I will move through to discover joy on the other side.

In the meantime, I think we need to rebuild a mass-based feminist movement, a clearer sense of who our allies in this fight really are, to return to women’s spaces as we develop new strategies and ways to speak again in our own name, to push back against the backlash that threatens to swallow us all whole. I also think we need to defend the terrain we are losing, because it seems to me that the backlash is working to keep more and more of us if not compliant, then afraid. Yet, a future free of rape and violence is one we deserve, and one we must create.

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