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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.