By the time I was in matric three of my friends had told me they had been raped. Not by strangers in some dark alley the way I imagined rape happened. They were raped by people who were in their inner circle: friends, acquaintances. When I was in Grade 11 someone I knew was gang raped at Rhodes University during Tri-varsity. In 2006 I watched on TV and followed what was known as “The Jacob Zuma rape trial” where “Kwezi” took the then deputy president to court for rape charges. He was acquitted. Until that point I knew people who had been raped, but rape was more pronounced as something that happened on TV: remember Yizo Yizo 1 and Soul City? It was a violent act where the woman always fought the violent man she didn’t know. And lost.
My friends also told me that they had never bothered to report the rapes. I was astounded. When I listened closely to their stories I knew why they hadn’t reported the rapes: it just didn’t seem worth it. A few years after they told me their stories I learned of the secondary victimisation that rape survivors have to endure: if your body is the site of a crime, a woman has to prove with her body that a crime was committed. Her body, her entire being, is the evidence that is needed to prove the crime — often in a justice system that isn’t catered for women but for men.
When I was in varsity I befriended a guy who was later excluded. There were rumours (or truth) about him: he had beaten his girlfriend into a pulp. The hushed tones retelling the story of violence on a small campus that is supposed to be safe almost made the story devoid of its truth: it just wasn’t possible. He was reserved and religious and kept to himself, but I could never shake off the “tortured soul” persona he carried around with him. I was also troubled that I couldn’t read the violence from his face.
It was also while I was at university that I became involved in the One in Nine Campaign and participated in the Silent Protest. I wore a purple T-shirt and taped my mouth shut for an entire day. At lunch time I went to the library quad together with the participants and lay down on the floor symbolising the silencing effect of rape and gender-based violence on women. It was symbolic but I participated because I knew women who had decided to be silent about the violence they’d suffered at the hands of men and lovers they knew. At the end of every protest participants met and reflected on the experience of being taped for an entire day while attempting to live a normal life. There was always confusion: why are we doing this protest? Others were taunted by comments such as “So if I rape you right now you won’t be able to scream” followed by a chuckle because rape is a joke for some people.
When I moved to Cape Town in 2012 a University of Cape Town student was raped near Rondebosch Main Road. A few months after this incident I moved to Rosebank where I used Rondebosch Main Road every single day and night. The daily walk I did not take for granted because I was aware of the fact that, like most streets in South Africa, the street isn’t a safe place for a woman.
I began to feel lucky every time I made it home safe. When I got off the train at Rosebank station I always hoped there would be no-one in the street so I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I’d have to make eye contact or think about crossing the road if I encountered young men walking in my direction. In a normal society a group of young men walking towards me in a deserted street wouldn’t make me shake with fear. South Africa is not a normal society and when I walk in quiet streets I prefer being alone.
These reflections came to mind about a month ago when I attended the launch of Pumla Gqola’s latest book Rape: A South African Nightmare. The book focuses on the history of rape within the slavery context as well as what rape has come to mean in South Africa. We have watched many violent cases unfold on our screens and newspapers about men raping and killing women and some of them get away with the crime. It took me a month to write this article because I consider myself lucky that I haven’t been raped yet. But why must my safety and the safety of other women be about luck? Why is it not a guarantee? There are many answers to these questions and the words in Gqola’s book pose a challenge to us all:
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.