[dc]”Rape is never mild, never minor, never acceptable. It is not just sex,” says Pumla Dineo Gqola, associate professor of African literary and gender studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, in her award-winning book, Rape: A South African Nightmare.[/dc]
“It is sexualised violence, a global phenomenon that exists across vast periods in human history and has survived as long as it has because it works to keep patriarchy intact.”
The words rape and patriarchy are never far from each other in any research, article or discussion on this topic, brought to the fore once again by protesting students on campuses around South Africa.
Frustrated at what they felt was a complete lack of involvement and action by management after numerous reports of rape in April this year, Rhodes students brought the campus to a standstill with their anti-rape protests. Their frustration led to the controversial step of releasing a list naming 11 alleged rapists on social media, which became known as #RUReferenceList.
“Lists of names are defamatory,” explains Lisa Vetten, honorary research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER). “They have been circulated before, at the University of Cape Town in 1989, when a list with five names was distributed. This list also emerged out of frustration at not being heard by the university. These lists challenge basic legal principles of fairness in that the men named have not always been formally charged and therefore lack a forum in which to respond. If the university bodies responsible for these complaints listened and responded effectively, lists like these wouldn’t result.”
In 2008, the Soudien Report, commissioned to research transformation in higher education institutions, found that “racism and sexism is pervasive in our institutions”. The question is: has there been any real, tangible change since then? According to Fezokuhle Mthonti, a postgraduate student at Rhodes, nothing has changed. “We don’t see any kind of engagement,” she said in a CapeTalk radio interview. “This report was just another one that gets filed and stored. Universities don’t say what the policies and structures are that need to be put in place. These patriarchal structures must be dismantled.”
The definition of patriarchy is: “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” It doesn’t take much to see that it rules in the world of politics, economy and religion within communities and families in South Africa – and around the world.
What these latest campus protests have done is highlighted this serious issue and once more challenged society about what isn’t just a Rhodes University problem but a national one. The students behind these protests want to see real change and they want more than promises.
“Don’t want your ho
Just want that cookie from her
She tried to resist so I took it from her
How you gonna tell me no…”
– Rapper Homie Quan from his 2015 mega hit “Lifestyle”
Vicky Heideman, lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Rhodes wrote in a recent Daily Maverick article that, “It seems to me the demands of the protesters in this most recent protest have been that the university management solve what is ultimately an ingrained social problem, as though they may have the power to do so.”
She goes on to explain that over the years as a warden of a university residence, she has assisted several students subjected to sexual violence. They had the option of going to the police and laying a criminal charge or reporting the matter internally and going the route of seeking university discipline, which has been up to now the preferred, less traumatic route. However, there’s every possibility that now the police route will be the only option.
It’s clear that victims seeking help are often subjected to secondary victimisation, whether it’s from internal structures, the police or other bodies. Women have reported, for example, being told that they could not have said “no” firmly enough, or that the person dealing with such cases was not in and would “only be back next week”. Responses like these are traumas piled upon the initial traumatic assault.
One survivor phoning in to John Robbie’s 702 talk show reported that the police told her “You know, it’s your word against his…” Another was told “you should have come earlier”, when in fact there is no time limit for reporting a rape case. Above all, it’s the attitude of treating rape survivors as annoying complainants rather than victims and the alleged rapist as having been led on.
For Nigerian-born political sciences Master’s graduate Lovelyn Nwadeyi, who hosted a separate radio interview on 702/567, being a woman in a patriarchal society immediately leaves you open for abuse. “For me as a woman, when I walk down a street at any time of the day my body never belongs to me. I am at the mercy of construction workers cat-calling me, of Cell C’s CEO [Jose dos Santos’s sexist comments in an interview on internet radio station CliffCentral went viral earlier this year] and others… Everybody owns my body, which is a potential space for violation. This type of treatment has almost become normalised in our institutions – that’s what makes it dangerous.”
“Something you hear a lot [from some men] is ‘don’t rape my mother and my sister – we wouldn’t rape those kinds of people’, ” Mthonti added. “So [the argument goes] that’s why we should not rape others. Don’t [eschew] rape because of your mother and sister, just don’t rape because [women] are human beings – that should be your point of departure. You shouldn’t be establishing some kind of kinship with someone in order to know you should not rape.”
Rape myths abound in society and the higher a man’s acceptance of rape myths, “the more likely he is to report a proclivity to rape”, says an Institute for Security Studies paper by Lisa Vetten. “Such men also tend to score highly on scales measuring hostile sexism, which refers to beliefs that women are inferior, cold, aggressive and selfish and seek to take over men’s rightful place. Its close cousin is benevolent sexism, which manifests as ideas about women’s specialness and their need to be cherished and protected. When these scales were tested across a number of countries, South African men scored very highly – as did South African women in relation to benevolent sexism.”
Many victims never speak out, but one woman who wants her voice to be heard is 30-year-old Refiloe Sesoko, who survived not one, but two rapes. “I was 17, in matric and knew this guy for about two months. For me he was just someone who hung out with my friends. One Sunday he kept calling me but I didn’t answer. He eventually tracked me down to my church and asked if I’d go with him to get petrol.”
The next thing Sesoko knew they were at his cousin’s house where he said he had to get money. Not knowing the area she had no choice but to go in.
“He led me into the back room and the next thing I knew he locked the door. When I asked what he was doing the whole story came out – he held nothing back on how he’d been planning this moment.”
When he was finished he drove her home. “As he dropped me he said, I’ll give you a call tomorrow, like it had been a date. In his mind this wasn’t rape – he felt we both wanted it…”
After initially trying to hide it Seseko sought help and with her family’s support took the rapist to court where he was tried and sent to prison.
Seseko’s nightmare wasn’t completely over as five years later she was raped again, by a man who had sat next to her on a bus journey from Mafikeng. When they reached Park Station he offered to walk with her to wait for her lift. “The next thing he pushed me into a dark corner, pulled my pants down and raped me. I thought ‘Oh, God, it’s happening again. I can’t believe it. I thought, I can die now – I’ve experienced the worst in life’. ”
Not wanting the trauma of another court case she kept it to herself, which saw her being hospitalised with a nervous breakdown and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, possibly triggered by her trauma. But she refused to become another statistic and today has become an activist speaking out against rape and sexual abuse.
Sesoko’s ‘shame’ brings up the question of attitudes. Not just men, but many women, will ask “were they wearing miniskirts, were they drunk, why were they in that particular place?” These kinds of questions all seek to blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator and in fact have nothing to do with it. As it happens, in Seseko’s case, she was wearing pants and a long-sleeve top. “Clothes didn’t come into it,” she says, vehemently.
For Vetten some things have shifted, with fewer stigmas attached. “There’s more awareness and support for certain types of rape; very young children and elderly women brutally raped by a stranger. Then you get an outpouring of support. But when a young girl in a mini-skirt is the victim the support completely disappears.”
“Every time we seem to throw the rape survivor under the bus,” comments Mthonti. “When this happens I feel violated as we’re being complicit in violence against women. Those stereotypical responses about women’s clothing or behaviour shift the blame to the woman.”
Another misconception perhaps is the link between rape culture and poverty.
Gqola states in her book, “I cannot accept the lie that poverty makes it more likely for men to rape. The image of poor young black men as the figures of the rapist is not the reality South African women live under. If that were so, then some groups of women would be safe when they lived lives that brought them into minimal contact with these men who are the face of the rapist in public discourse.
“Rape is a crime of power and in patriarchal societies all men can access patriarchal power. Wealthy white men like Knoetze [William Knoetze was sentenced to 15 years for repeatedly raping three girls] and [former tennis champion and convicted rapist] Bob Hewitt rape and those like Oscar Pistorius kill their partners, as do [some] wealthy black men. Quibbling over the class of rapist is a distraction. It misses the point. It is not true that ‘hurt people hurt people’. Otherwise queer, working-class people of colour would be the most violent people on the planet.” However, the ISS study concluded that “childhood adversity (including emotional and physical neglect, along with physical, emotional and sexual abuse) was common” to rapists. But adversity does not follow class lines.
So can you walk through a crowd or enter a room and spot a rapist? According to Gqola, “There is no way to tell who can choose to rape, even though women and girls are often told they can protect themselves by staying away from certain places and kinds of men. Rapists can be anywhere and everywhere. Rape culture and the manufacture of female fear are part of how we collectively get socialised to accept the ever presence of rape, often by being invited to be vigilant.
“How can we shift our perspectives and behaviour in ways that make it harder for violence to happen in our presence? How can we render violators unsafe? Why is it that most of us look away even when the violators are in the minority and audiences [i.e. wider society] in the majority?”
Maybe it starts right in our homes by educating our children, especially our sons, on their treatment of women. Vetten comments, “I start by asking parents what’s going on in their relationships. What are they modelling to their children and sons? Do you have a situation of a father always screaming at his wife, running her down and being abusive towards her?
“The same thing goes in schools. Are men always in charge? Do girls always clean up? Gender is perpetuated in many ways. There’s a duty on everybody. You can’t leave it all to parents.”