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Humans

Rape, culture and the president

September 30th, 2016
in:Humans
by:Shasha Seakamela
located in:South Africa
tags:HIV, Independent Electoral Commision (IEC), South Africa, Women's Day commemoration, Zuma

South Africa faces a particularly pernicious problem given the country’s high levels of violence against women. It’s not so long since South Africa’s Women's Day commemoration.

It was the day following the release of the 14th August 2016 municipal election results. Organised by the Independent Electoral Commision (IEC), South African President Jacob Zuma took to the stage, took the mic and lauded the women who led the protest against pass laws in 1956.

While on stage, Zuma’s speech was drowned out by the searing silence of the protesters. Four female protesters stood in front of the podium and held aloft A4-sized placards, that read, “I am 1 in 3”, “10 years later”, “Khanga” and “Remember Khwezi”.

“Khwezi” is the assumed name of a female HIV activist who accused Zuma of rape in 2006 before he became South Africa’s third democratic president. Everyone from the audience including the Independent Electoral Commision officials were surprised by the activists. Also because the speech was being broadcast live on national television, they were unsure about what to do.

Even when young protesters Simamkele Dlakavu, Amanda Mavuso, Naledi Chirwa, and Lebogang Shikwambane were violently shoved out of the ceremony that night, Zuma did nothing to call his security off.

In 2006 Zuma shocked many people by arguing, against scientific evidence, that there was little danger of him contracting HIV from unprotected sex. The rape case had caused political damage to Zuma, particularly because he conceded that he had had unprotected sex with the woman, despite knowing that she was infected with HIV. Zuma said then ‘taking a shower after having intercourse with the woman had reduced the risk of transmission’. When Zuma was acquitted in 2006, the woman and her mother fled the country and were granted asylum in the Netherlands.

However, recently on the Women’s Day commemoration, the four protesting ladies were reminding the public about the rape charges and trials of the president that happened a decade ago. They were asking profound questions about the moral basis of leadership and culture.

“They encourage us and give us the vocabulary to affirm that naming and shaming rapists is a legitimate black feminist response to patriarchal violence. An entire genealogy of black feminist resistance allowed us to stand up in Pretoria last Saturday night”, said Simamkele Dlakavu in the City Press Newspaper.

Corruption and ill leadership have plagued Zuma’s presidency, but so have the president’s comments and behavior towards women. Cultural beliefs about women and sex, and the notion that what women really want – what they find romantic or erotic – is to be overwhelmed by male sexual aggression, infuse “common sense” social and legal opinion, often leaving victims of rape without recourse or protection.

“I wouldn’t want to stay with daughters who are not getting married. Because that in itself is a problem in society … Kids are important to a woman because they actually give an extra training to a woman, to be a mother,” Zuma said in a 2012 television interview with host Dali Tambo, on his SABC 3 show People of the South.

By attributing such views about women Zuma made a bid for the normativity of his own gendered behaviour. Zuma’s claim to culture was a bid for the legitimation of his actions.

According to his own account, Jacob Zuma’s sexual actions are not to be interpreted as either aggressive or irresponsible but rather as those prescribed by the wisdom of culture, familiar to him since his youth. Culture, in fact, was the real agent on his trial. Invoking Zuluness in this case not only diffused his individual responsibility and his own will to action into a corporate field. It also placed his action in a domain historically persecuted by the various dominating forces of Eurocentrism; it was therefore a political claim. And it is a claim that has widespread resonance.

In April this year, culture and rape once more came back to South Africa. A South African judge Mabel Jansen was under fire and was put on special leave following the emergence of her Facebook comments in which she claimed sexual violence was part of black people's culture.

Although Jansen’s remarks were made outside the courtroom, they are a reminder of how deeply South Africa is poisoned by rape culture. What is beyond doubt is that this complicated history has made the issue of culture a sensitive political trigger in an unevenly transforming society. One would assume Judge Mabel had learned this from Zuma’s rape trial back in 2006.

The notion that rape in South Africa is a specifically post-apartheid problem is deftly dismantled in Dr. Pumla Gqola’s book titled ‘Rape’. It is natural that rape charge statistics would rise after 1994, she writes, because black women felt more likely to be believed: previously, police stations had been deeply unfriendly places.

“If there was any one text I would suggest in the bag of a warrior, it would be Rape: A South African Nightmare. As the title screams in upper case red lettering, the book deals with rape in South Africa. However, to say the book sticks to that content alone is disingenuous,” wrote blogger Youlendree Appasamy on The Journalist online newspaper.

It is easy to shift into the paradigm we oppose. Its values are often deeply embedded in our own hearts, sometimes beyond conscious reckoning. Rape is not merely a South African dilemma, but a dilemma which is concomitant to the social conditions of modernity itself. Women are situated in an ambiguous and painful position in the politics of culture. As culture is politicised as a legal and secular ‘right’, gender is de-politicised to become a normatively ‘private’ and ‘customary’ domain.

Zuma pledged loyalty to certain principles such as women's empowerment, and it is the duty and right of the citizens to question his office when he is seen to transgress or jeopardise these same principles.

However, even this talk of ‘the empowerment of women’, as currently employed and aired by South Africa’s President, rests on the assumption that ensuring that some women have access to wealth, positions in government and corporate office, is enough gender-progressive work for our society.

Article written by:
Shasha Seakamela
Author
Current Map: Our coverage
“Khwezi” is the assumed name of a female HIV activist who accused Zuma of rape in 2006 before he became South Africa’s third democratic president.
In 2006 Zuma shocked many people by arguing, against scientific evidence, that there was little danger of him contracting HIV from unprotected sex.
“They encourage us and give us the vocabulary to affirm that naming and shaming rapists is a legitimate black feminist response to patriarchal violence. An entire genealogy of black feminist resistance allowed us to stand up in Pretoria last Saturday night”.

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