A Need for a Sense of Solidarity with the Suffering Others – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela


Published on the 1st of January 2018

An October 1970 issue of Newsweek showed a photo of Angela Davis in handcuffs with the words “Angela Davis: Black Revolutionary” on its cover page after her arrest to face charges for which she was later acquitted. The image prompted James Baldwin to write an “Open Letter to my Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” which he opened thus:

One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles.

Baldwin was of course, referring to the memory of the chains of American slavery, which subjugated African Americans as commodities of labour for more than two centuries. But it was not just the memory of the past that he was concerned with in his letter to Davis. The letter captures most poignantly the continuities of this past, evidence of which exists today. The continuing racist oppression in contemporary America has been described in compelling studies (such as Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow), documented most convincingly in films such as “13TH” and captured through social movements like “Black Lives Matter.”

It is important to realise that the problem of the continuities of the past in the present is not just a US phenomenon. The repetition of violence in ways that uncannily resemble the past occurs globally in societies with histories of repression, various forms of gross human rights violations, and social marginalisation of groups. The past continues to cast a long shadow long after civil wars have ended, hostilities ceased, new democratic governments established, and peace and reconciliation processes set in motion. The tragic and gloomy aspect of this is that the repercussions of the past extend intergenerationally far beyond the generation that experienced the violence and oppression directly, and play out in the lives of the descendants of both victims and perpetrators of past atrocities —sometimes manifesting in violence against others (or one’s own group), intractable conflict, and other kinds of destructive behaviour when the victim group is under threat.  The link between traumatic pasts and violence has been found in individuals who have been severely abused, as well as in groups that have suffered trauma collectively. At the heart of the argument about the link between trauma and violence is the contention that traumatic memories have an intrusive power, and often impose themselves violently into the daily lives of trauma victims and survivors. This has sometimes been associated with what is variously called traumatic re-enactments, traumatic repetitions, or, in the words of the founder of a branch of psychology called psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, “the return of the repressed.” Freud’s theories are foundational in the concepts that inform our understanding of transgenerational transmission of trauma among victims and their descendants. Echoes of this insight abound in a broad range of works covering the fields of the Arts and Humanities. William Faulkner’s famous quote “[t]he past is never dead. It’s not even past”, Maya Angelou’s reference to the potential repetition of history’s “wrenching pain”, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s notion of “the body keeps the score” all reference the indelible imprint left by traumatic experiences on victims, and the likelihood of the repercussions of the trauma on their descendants in subsequent generations if the trauma is not addressed.

My interest in this article, however, is not so much on the transgenerational effects of trauma on victims and their descendants. James Baldwin’s response to Angela Davis evoked for me the recent memory of the twenty-one-year-old security guard who was chained to a fence pole and assaulted on the Eenzaamheid Wine estate. Much has been written and theorised in psychology about the intergenerational continuities of historical trauma among victim groups and within their families. But the complex matrix of interacting factors of trauma, of history, power, politics, the fault lines in the victims-perpetrators binary, and the continuing issues of social injustice is an area that still cries out for investigation. The questions that connect the Eenzaamheid incident with last year’s “coffin assault” case in Middelburg, and with the 2005 murder by a farmer who threw a former employee to a pride of lions in Phalaborwa are, in my view, still unasked. I mean questions that will give us a deeper understanding of what’s going on with the perpetrators of these crimes. And who are they? From the photographs of the young man chained to the fence with a bloodied face (his name is not mentioned), it seems clear that the aim was to humiliate the young man; to degrade him, to make him an object of revulsion and to render him inhuman. Yet this cruelty tells us that it is the doer of the deed who has dehumanised himself. What drives this level of depravity? What inner turmoil rages inside the perpetrator to lead him to engage in such an act of hateful violence?

These acts of self-dehumanisation in order to degrade and violate the human integrity of the other—the scenes of trauma across South Africa—are repeated whenever the violence is against farmers, farm-workers, young lesbian women and against women and children in their own homes. “Racism” and “patriarchy”, although some of us use these terms to explain interracial violence and men’s violence against women, seem inadequate as explanatory concepts. The moral outcry and the punishment of individual perpetrators through the Human Rights Commission or the courts are important responses to these crimes. Punishment of individual perpetrators alone, however, will not resolve one of the violent contradictions of our beloved country: there’s been so much change, yet so little transformation of the lives of the majority of South Africans who were treated like second class citizens under apartheid and deprived rights and privileges, and remain, along with their descendants, without the means to enjoy the rights and freedoms promised by the ANC government in contemporary South Africa.

Towards the end of last year, we hosted a public conversation with Zackie Achmat at Stellenbosch University. In a captivating yet harrowing lecture titled “State Power, State Capture and Building a New Politics of Justice and Equality,” Achmat took us on a journey as secondary witnesses to the violence inflicted by state and provincial structures daily on the lives of millions of South Africans, to show us the deep chasm that exists between the promise of a “better life for all” and the ever-receding horizon of such a vision.

We are easily stirred by the spectacular violence we witness in incidents such as the inhuman and degrading treatment of the young security guard at the Eenzaamheid Wine estate. Like James Baldwin’s moving aspirational words of wishing for a collective response from his countrymen and women, Zackie Achmat wanted to bring the audience at his lecture at Stellenbosch University closer to the suffering of others and to connect to their stories.

This might open up the possibility of a shared vision of compassion and empathy for the suffering of the other. The capacity for empathy is, in my view, an urgent need of our historical moment. It is a crucial starting point for building a society that cares enough for the plight of those vulnerable to structural racism, and those who face daily various kinds of violence—to care enough to do something about the structures that continue to fuel hate in our society. It is at this nexus that we can experience a sense of solidarity with the suffering others and embrace a sense of what I have called reparative humanism.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.

The ANC has to Account to Future Generations for the Millions of Dreams Deferred – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela


Published inst4 City-Press as “The Ripple Effect of Rape” on 08/10/2017

Read published version online here

The Book Lounge, Rowland Street, Cape Town. It is standing room only on the ground level of this much-loved space for conversations about books. The basement is equally packed, the crowd spiraling up the staircase and spilling out into the street, forcing the staff of the bookstore to close its doors to deter any one with hopes of squeezing their way in. People are lined up all around the perimeter of the bookstore, looking through the windows —though not hearing anything. It is as if it is enough just to be here.

It is the launch of Redi Thlabi’s book in which she recounts the tragic story of Fezeka Kuzwayo, the young woman who was forced into exile after being tormented by President Jacob Zuma’s supporters during his 2006 rape trial from which he was acquitted. People in the room—an audience of mostly women—are sitting or standing very close to each other. Black, coloured, and white bodies have heeded Redi’s call for South Africans to stand in solidarity against the violence that has captured women’s bodies in our country.,

When Redi speaks, images of the theatre of violence that played out against Fezeka Kuzwayo during Zuma’s rape trial spring to mind. The relentless attacks on Kuzwayo’s character and threats of physical attacks, which culminated in the burning down of her home, were not enough to move Zuma to speak out against his supporters’ actions. Now, with the new frontier of war on women’s bodies, as Redi remarked at the Cape Town launch, we are haunted by an indescribable war that seems to know no bounds. The cycle of violence and orgy of terror against society’s weakest and most helpless continues to play itself out in domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the high rate of rape and murder of women and girls, and sometimes infants. To be a woman in South Africa is to live with the fear of rape. The silent time bomb that waits ominously is male power, wielded by some men through their sex organs and other weapons of destruction.

Yet we have a president who does not seem to recognise the power of his position, and how he can use his connection to wide ranging audiences of rural and urban young men to send a message about the importance of respect for women. Just recently, when Zuma presented a maskandi group that composed a song that was critical of Fezeka Kuzwayo, he was boastful about his ability to get any woman he wants, and that with his middle-aged looks he can still “win” beautiful women. “Don’t even doubt me,” he reportedly said, “because whenever I approach a woman, she will never say no to me.” Zuma’s careless insensitivity is beyond comprehension. He seems less interested in building the stability of our country than in rallying support for his incorrigible ways. He should be offering men—especially young men who feature prominently among perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against women—an alternative to the pervasive violent masculinity. Instead, his flippant remarks about women perpetuate misogyny and encourage men to treat women with disregard. These are attitudes that are foundational in the rape culture in which the thresholds of control begin to sink lower and lower, and abusing women becomes normalised.

In the wake of the launch of Redi’s book, it would be difficult to believe that Zuma’s comments were not a reaction to the outpouring of support for the book, and to the collective act of solidarity that our response to Redi’s book shows for Kumalo. Zuma’s boastfulness produces a double impact: it bolsters Zuma’s masculinity (the very masculinity that reproduces abuse of women), and it tries to drown Kumalo’s voice. But Redi’s book stands as unerasable witness testimony. It renders so powerfully Kumalo’s voice as she addresses us in the silence of her grave, as if confronting us with the question: where were you when this was happening to me?

Zuma’s “I don’t care” attitude, which he has also displayed in his sniggering responses when confronted with difficult questions in parliament, points to a deeper problem. If the silent anti-rape protest by a group of young women during Zuma’s speech invites the violent force of his bodyguards, if a show of solidarity by South Africans protesting against state capture is criticized as an act mobilised by racists, if criticism of Zuma transforms him into a victim, then will Zuma ever be accountable?

South Africa is like a country holding its breath. There is something surreal about opening daily and weekend newspapers and reading about yet another violent murder or rape and mutilation of a young girl, millions of rands that some parastatal employee is due to receive, ill-gotten billions of rands that have gone to Gupta-owned companies, or the staggering, and still rising, cost of electricity. It is as if one is waking up in another country, or watching a film about the slow violence attacking all the values that once gave us hope, and made us believe that the doors of opportunity were opening for all. In countries that have faced physical destruction, where the signs of wars are visible in the hollow structures of destroyed or blackened burnt buildings, the language of violence and human rights violations easily comes to mind. But in South Africa, where the abuse of state power is running out of control, slowly invading our lives, our livelihoods, our security and our freedoms, the violence of the state is not immediately visible.

Yet looking around the packed room of The Book Lounge at the launch of Redi’s book, and at all the people who were lined up all around the building—a sign of a strong desire to be part of the conversation—I sensed that many of us feel the slow violence that sate capture is inflicting on South Africans.

The total absence of shame by the top leadership of the ANC in supporting Jacob Zuma is a gross violation of human rights against those at the margins of our society, who are rendered poorer by each billion that enriches the president, his friends and their families. This point crystallised for me when Palesa Morudu, who facilitated the conversation with Redi, referred to Redi’s question to Eugene de Kock about whether women abducted by Vlakplaas operatives were raped. I will not go into detail about this line of discussion at Redi’s book launch. De Kock’s story reminds us that like rape culture, the political culture of fear, silence and denial— see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—comes back to haunt not just those encouraged to commit unspeakable acts, but also those who knowingly turn a blind eye to these deeds “for the sake of unity” of their political organisations. The ANC will have to face South Africa’s future generations and be accountable for the millions of dreams deferred.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.

Race Matters Matter: A Need for Dialogue and Genuine Human Connection – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela


I am in an airplane travelling to Vrije University in Amsterdam to teach a seminar at a Summer Institute titled “Working through Historical Trauma: Societal and Transgenerational Dimensions.” I watch the film Race, which chronicles Jesse Owens’ rise during pre-civil rights America from spectacular college athletic wins to a multiple gold medallist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The film is uplifting in its portrayal of Owens’ shining legacy—it ends with a breath-taking image of Owens’ character flying high, as if into the sky, in a scene that is a re-enactment of Jesse Owens’ magnificent long jump win at “Hitler’s” Olympics.

Watching the film, I feel a deep sense of sadness when it depicts Owens’ encounters with raw hate and disdainful treatment in his own country. At one point, the film shows Owens’ character with his wife, arriving at a gala dinner organised in his honour. But he is sent away to use the service entrance. The film shows Owens to take all the racially charged insults in his stride. His eyes are fixed on the goal. To achieve it, he has to “crowd out” the noise, as his coach advises him in the film.

Eighty years since the harsh reality of American racism depicted in Race, and more than 60 years since the Civil Rights Movement, racism is still rife in that country.  No longer can racism be reduced to mere “noise” that should be “drowned” out. “Black Lives Matter” is the new “Black Power,” a rallying cry for recognition in the face of the seemingly disproportional deadly force used by police on black American male citizens.

Why are we still witnessing the violence of racism, after so many struggles, and after gains made, in America and in South Africa? Yes, “gains”: the segregation of blacks in the United States was outlawed, and the apartheid state collapsed in South Africa and ushered in democratic rule.

A few months ago, I wrote as in one of the Cape daily newspapers: “Racism, it seems, refuses to go away, from the pulpits to the corridors of the corporate world, from the beaches and coursing through the digital sphere, the language of hatred is deepening the divide in our society. I am inclined to think, with Derrick Bell [in his book Faces at the Bottom of the Well] ‘racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component’ of our society.”

I said this because the system of power and control that produced apartheid—and slavery in America—polarised our society into white superiority and black inferiority. It is now reproducing itself through a range of strategies, such as enforcing “cultural values” at institutions of learning. At these centres of education, where blacks and whites study in proximity, there is certain dis-ease among whites who still experience equality with blacks as disruptive and rupturing their sense of identity. Blackness in relation to whiteness has to be constructed as “other,” Frantz Fanon informs us. In order for these white South Africans to feel white, to reaffirm their status of superiority, they have constantly to devalue blacks in whatever way possible.

I was confronted with this countless times at Rhodes University where, through a special permit granted by the apartheid government’s Minister of Education in 1983, I was the only black person doing Masters in Clinical Psychology, and the only other black person (besides the woman offering cleaning services) in the Psychology Department. My encounters with the woman who was department secretary would always end up with her telling me stories about “my maid Sylvia” and John “the Gardner” in a way that used these stories to put me in the same category as her workers. One of my classmates, and the only male student in our class of six, would try to play peekaboo with me. Every morning when he arrived at our offices at the Rhodes Psychology Clinic, instead of greeting me as he did my other classmates, he would hide his face, pop back and peep through the opening between the door and the frame with a broad smile, as if he were playing with his little daughter.

Some may view these examples as inconsequential “personal” stories. But they illustrate a common strategy among whites who struggle with recognising a shared humanity with blacks, or whites who struggle to accept black people’s status of seniority or equality. Equality with blacks shatters their sense of how they see themselves: as members of a group imbued with a sense of racial superiority.

The tragic aspect of this is that this belief system may be transmitted from the previous generation, and it operates at an unconscious level. Eva Hoffman, literary scholar and child of Holocaust survivors, refers to this phenomenon as “indirect knowledge.” The paradoxes of indirect knowledge, she writes, “haunt many of us who came after. The formative events of the twentieth century have crucially informed our biographies and psyches, threatening sometimes to overshadow and overwhelm our own lives.”

If racism moves across generations, is internalised into individual psyches, and manifests through spoken words, through institutional cultures and structures of power and control, what is to be done to “eradicate” it? The first step is to recognise this reality, that it is alive in some people and exists at a very deep level. The second step is confronting the problem—I think we underestimate the power of dialogue. I have wondered whether the language of rage without reflection is suited to redressing the contemporary challenges we face in our country, and whether rage and anger alone will help build the kind of future that we will not be afraid to face. Frantz Fanon writes about the violence of decolonisation; we have also witnessed the violence that continues to plague our post-colonial continent. Yet Fanon challenges us to imagine a more humane world. He speaks about the need for “an authentic communication”—understanding through dialogue—between black and white.

“Both must turn their backs on the inhuman voices which were those of their respective ancestors,” he writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “in order that authentic communication be possible… Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply the attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself.”

We may not succeed in “eradicating” racism. Racial proximity at schools, universities, the corporate sector and in churches has proved insufficient on its own as a strategy for inspiring change and transformation. In order for racial integration to lead to shifts that may open up the possibility for transformation, the “diversity” training offered at these institutions should go beyond teaching about prejudice and stereotypes. What matters are opportunities for genuine human connection and respectful understanding that can transform dialogue into a profound ethics of care that reaches concern for the other and for issues of social justice.

 Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.

Research Forums

Regular research meetings are held to discuss work in progress and papers written jointly, including the Principal Investigator for the project, post-doctoral fellows and other co-investigators, or by individual members of the research team. Post-graduate students also present chapters of their work as these become drafts that can be shared. The research forums have become an important space for lively intellectual engagement, constructive dialogue and exploration of new avenues of investigation. While the audiences for the symposia/seminars involve more rigorous debate, the Research Forums are conducted in a more intimate setting as they are more about ideas in progress rather than finished work. This component of the project speaks directly to the capacity development goals, which are intricately woven into the very nature of this research initiative.

Research Symposia / Seminars

The research symposium brings together an interdisciplinary team of scholars ranging across the fields of psychology, philosophy, art, literary studies, cultural studies, and others to reflect on new ways of thinking about historical trauma and its transgenerational repercussions. The symposium will be held annually throughout the project’s funding period, and will culminate into a book volume and/or a special issue journal. The inaugural symposium, titled “Post-colonial Legacies and the Meaning of being Human” will be held from 10 – 12 August 2016. View this symposium programme here.


Racism – A Permanent Feature of Our Society – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

st3A few weeks ago on Africa Day, in a speech I gave at Stellenbosch University, I used Matthew Theunessen’s infamous Face Book post as a reference point to advance some thoughts about racism in South African society. I pointed out that it is not the “K” word that concerns me so much about Theunessen’s and others’ insults hurled at black people. “Kaffir,” I argued, still recognizes the humanness of the other—it is a devalued, and dehumanized humanness, but the image it coveys is still in human form. The other part of Theunissen’s insult, where he conjures up the image of black women’s collective private parts to refer to black people, obliterates the very humanity of the black Other. It is a total annihilation of the human beingness of black people, making them into “things.” It gives one pause for such wrath and anger to come out of the lips of a young man born in 1990.

If “we the people of South Africa believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity,” it is important to create alternative conversations in pursuit of the goal of healing the divisions of the past, while the social media runs its course of endless tweets and retweets of hateful and racially charged insults. Anger among young white South Africans who cannot get jobs, who may see their black friends from their elite private schools getting jobs, and may not experience the kind of privilege they have grown up believing their race is supposed to bestow upon them, is part of the reality of contemporary South Africa. This condition of post-apartheid whiteness—and the white rage it breeds—is something that should not be dismissed simply as racist rants. The response should not be that of dismissal, but rather engagement with the question of what conversations are necessary in schools, the workplace and in churches at a national level in order to break the intergenerational cycles of racial hatred in South African society.

At the same time, young black South Africans’ lives are burdened with the legacies of generations that were deprived education, and denied opportunities to own property and other economic privileges. Many of them suffer daily the humiliation of knowing they are born “free,” yet they lack the means to bring that freedom into being in order to reclaim their human dignity. The slow, sometimes stagnant, process of transformation in the lives of many young black South Africans and their families is in plain sight. This crystalized for me most poignantly in some of the stories performed at the Baxter Theatre’s Zabalaza Festival earlier this year. The actor Thabiso Nkoana, for example, reminded audiences that stories of black pain, of woundedness and of dreams deferred cry out to be told in the voices of young black people who endure the worst of the problem of cycles of poverty. “I just want to write [these stories],” he said in a refrain that looped throughout his performance, adding that the desire to write these stories is “not in that #hashtag revolution kind of way.” His message and the message from other plays, and the deep sense of betrayal that their voices conveyed, shook the audience, confronting both white privilege and the black privilege that has eluded the young actors’ grasp with the question: what is your role in all of this?

And what of the meaning of the racism debate in the lives of the young people whose stories Thabiso Nkoana wants to tell? “That racism thing is beginning to annoy!”

And so it is, an “annoyance” for many South Africans, perhaps in different ways. Even for blacks who are privileged, whose professional positions and economic positioning in society are a kind of ticket of escape from white contempt; race continues to define their lives in fundamental ways. The issue of race in our country is a complex one. The complexity is at the core of our collective woundedness, which should be addressed through thoughtful dialogue and appreciative listening. Recently I was on a panel with a former student activist who in her closing remarks argued, “We cannot eat dialogue.” She is right of course; dialogue alone will not address the monumental problem of inequality. Yet to engage meaningfully and collectively in this debate as citizens, we have a responsibility to avoid descending into the chaos of hatred and violence, and instead to reclaim the hope of living in the future of our dreams. Black voices matter; perhaps white voices matter more, partly because the weight of privilege is tilted in their direction, but also because they should be active partners on this journey towards calming the troubled and mad waters of our democracy.

Black voices matter. Yet politicians continue to use black voices in a manner that subjects black supporters to voices of protest donning Zuma-emblazoned ANC yellow shirts. This kind of dehumanization is hidden in plain sight. It is the violence of the privilege of power – difficult to name in the same way we are able to identify the violence and open racism of white bigots. There is something perverse about the busing in of people to confront Andre Slade and his immigrant partner about their racist exclusion of blacks from their Sodwana Bay Guest House. Why does the ANC leadership, a government in power in KwaZulu Natal, need black supporters to raise their voices of protest when they could use the power of the Constitution? It was painful to witness Andre Slade, standing behind a fence on land he has converted into business property, openly mocking, humiliating and ridiculing black people, telling them that they are “not people,” while they, the blacks, did the toyi-toyi. With many black people knowing the tantalising lure of freedom, facing the daily humiliation of poor education, cycles of poverty in their families, landlessness and joblessness, the scene at the gates of the Sodwana Bay Guest House were painful to watch. Thabiso Nkoana is right: “This racism thing is beginning to annoy!” It is a deflection from the other reality of black pain.

Racism, it seems, refuses to go away, from the pulpits to the corridors of the corporate world, from the beaches and coursing through the digital sphere, the language of hatred is deepening the divide in our society. I am inclined to think, with Derrick Bell, “racism is an integral, permanent and indestructible component” of our society. This is the overriding message in Bell’s book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well. It is a profound observation, coming from someone who has stood outside the circle of what is accepted as a norm: the first tenured black professor at Harvard, a legal giant in his own right who served as a civil rights lawyer in the United States. Yet the message is not that of despair, but one that challenges us to continue searching for solutions that can offer the best possibilities of building mutual respect, understanding and sustained interactions as an important starting point.

 Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.

On Black Male Privilege & Other Matters Some Insights from Professor Thidziambi Phendla’s Story – Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

st2When we think of activism, images of mass protests, placards, sit-ins, and sometimes-violent attacks on symbols of power come to mind. These are the traditional ways of focusing the public’s attention on issues of social justice. Every once in a while, however, one reads about the determined voice of one woman and her fight for justice and fairness. City Press reported on the story of just such a woman (“Victory at Last in Sex Pest Battle,” 28 June 2016).

When Professor Thidziambi Phendla faced sexual harassment from the highest office of Executive Management at the University of Venda, she reported the matter to the office that deals with these matters. Instead of investigating her complaints, the perpetrator of the abuse silenced her by accusing her of using her position fraudulently to benefit from a university tender process, and then dismissed her as Dean of the School of Education. This action served to shift the spotlight away from Professor Phendla’s abuser, and to protect him from facing the consequences of his actions. By stripping her of her position as dean and terminating her contract without affording her the right of reply to this allegation of fraud, the university violated a significant rule of administrative fairness.  At great cost to her personal life, Professor Phendla began the painful and lonely journey of fighting for justice. After five years of fighting and waiting, with tremendous financial strain, and its impact weighing heavily on her health and family, justice has been delivered. The charges of financial misconduct against her have now been dismissed by the High Court in Gauteng, and the University of Venda ordered to take disciplinary action against its Vice Chancellor.

Many stories of how universities and other institutions of higher learning fail to protect their members of staff from unfair treatment by those in positions of power remain untold. In the past couple of years, several newspapers have carried debates on racism at South African universities. These debates are critical if we are to confront the important issue of social change beyond the university environment. Yet it is also true that a focus on the single issue of race as a framework for addressing cases of discrimination against women obscures the problem of abuse of all kinds, including patriarchy, and abuse of power by other women. The framework of racism has dominated perspectives on discrimination in the courts of social media and public perception, leading to a skewed view regarding the vulnerability of women, and especially black female academics, the majority of whom are often at the bottom of university hierarchy. Our own views especially—(“our” as black men and women)—regarding issues of gender and race have an impact on how we respond to attitudes about sexual harassment in the workplace. Comments on this issue by Carol Swain in her book, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality come to mind. Reflecting on the tide of critical voices that rose against American law professor Anita Hill when she went public about her experiences of sexual harassment by then nominee to the US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, Swain writes:

For African Americans generally, the issue was not so much whether Hill was credible or not; she was dismissed because many saw her as a person who had violated the code … which mandates that blacks should not criticize, let alone accuse, each other in front of whites.

The issue may not be as dramatic in the South African context as described by Swain in relation to African-American’s responses to the issue of sexual harassment by black male sexual predators. One could say, with very few exceptions, that generally the South African public has demonstrated significant support for survivors of sexual harassment who have spoken publicly about their experiences. Even during President Zuma’s rape trial, there was visible presence of public campaigns in support of the woman who accused him of rape, despite the public mockery, ridicule and humiliation of her by ANC-supporters. But Professor Phendla’s story casts a new spotlight on this debate, and reminds us of the complicity of management, councils and other committees presiding on these matters at universities.

Institutional goals of change and transformation are often overshadowed by a number of other factors embedded in the institutional culture of universities. Even when rules and policies are applied appropriately, including the presence of “transformation representatives” in various committees, seemingly “normal” university procedures often work to the detriment of academic and administrative staff who may have little control over decisions taken by those with an unfair advantage in the way that these procedures are implemented, often leading to unchecked procedural injustice.

Professor Phendla’s story focuses our attention on the interaction of race and gender in her experience of discrimination. It clearly demonstrates the grave injustice done to her, leaving her with no recourse except to approach the courts. In the aftermath of her fight for justice, will the university acknowledge that at the centre of her dismissal, and a five-year traumatic struggle, was black male privilege and the complicity of others in positions of authority?

Phendla’s story is also important as a reminder of the various ways in which university cultures often discriminate against women who have no power or influence in the university hierarchy. The universities’ National Development Plan has set as its target to increase the output of black women post-graduate students, and female academic staff and researchers by 2030. This vision should go beyond a simple numbers approach. A multidimensional framework that considers the overlapping systems of disadvantage and the unintended consequences that might constrain women’s advancement would ensure that these goals are pursued effectively and achieved with meaningful results.

 Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is professor and Chair of Research in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She also holds a research fellowship at University of the Free State, and appointment as the SARChI Chair for Historical Trauma and Memory.

“They couldn’t achieve their Goal with me: Narrating Rape during the South African War”, Prof Antjie Krog (26 Jun 2015)

“This is one of the bitterest moments I have ever endured. I would rather see my daughter carried away as a corpse than see her raped like this.”

This is one of 32 testimonies that were locked away quietly in 1902. These documents, part of the NC Havenga collection, contain the testimonies of Afrikaner women describing their experiences of sexual assault and rape at the hands of British soldiers during the South African War.

This cluster of affidavits formed the foundation of a public lecture that Prof Antjie Krog delivered at the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Bloemfontein Campus on Tuesday 23 June 2015. The lecture, entitled ‘They Couldn’t Achieve their Goal with Me: Narrating Rape during the South African War’, was the third instalment in the Vice-Chancellor’s Lecture Series on Trauma, Memory, and Representations of the Past. The series is hosted by Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Senior Research Professor in Trauma, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation Studies at the UFS, as part of a five-year research project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Verbalising revulsion

The testimonies were taken down during the last two months of the war, and “some of the women still had marks and bruises on their bodies as evidence,” Prof Krog said. The victims’ words, on the other hand, struggled to express the story their bodies told.

What are the nouns for that which one sees? What words are permissible in front of men? How does one process revulsion verbally? These are the barriers the victims – raised with Victorian reserve – faced while trying to express their trauma, Prof Krog explained.

The collusion of men

When the war ended, there was a massive drive to reconcile the Boers and the British. “Within this process of letting bygones be bygones,” Prof Krog said, “affidavits of severe violations by white men had no place. Through the collusion of men, prioritising reconciliation between two white male hierarchies, these affidavits were shelved, and, finally, had to suffer an embargo.”

“It is only when South Africa accepted a constitution based on equality and safety from violence,” Prof Krog said, “that the various levels of deeply-rooted brutality, violence, and devastation of men against the vulnerable in society seemed to burst like an evil boil into the open, leaving South African aghast in its toxic suppurations. As if, for many decades, we did not know it was there and multiplied.”

Text source: http://www.ufs.ac.za