Gcobani Qambela
Gcobani Qambela

Why Trevor Noah’s Semenya tweet matters

By Gcobani Qambela

The former secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, says: “All the cruel and brutal things, even genocide, starts with the humiliation of one individual.” I was reminded of this quote this past Friday when I logged into my Twitter feed to find the mixed reactions to South African comedian Trevor Noah’s tweet about Caster Semenya. In the tweet he says: “Happy Women’s Day ladies. Hope you all have a great day. Even you Caster.”

While there was a lot of outrage from many users, there was even more laughter from his thousands of followers. What was disturbing to me beyond the tweet itself and the people laughing was the large number of people who did not see why some people found it problematic. One person on my feed for instance said (paraphrase) “if you are more concerned about a Trevor Noah tweet about Caster than actual atrocities aimed at women in South Africa your priorities are screwed up”.

At first glance this may seem like a legitimate position in a country like ours with well-documented violence against women and children. Why worry and express outrage about a tweet from a comedian when four-month-old babies are being raped and murdered without any justice or the same outrage as Noah?

About two months back a very close family friend was raped at knife point at her house in a rural area in the Eastern Cape. She was 76 years old and a retired government servant who spent her working life teaching young South Africans. She consequently had to be put on ARVs and she died a few weeks later. There were no news outlets covering her story, no Twitter outrage and no public officials condemning such violation of a woman’s body. Her story, like thousands of other women in South Africa, will remain largely erased from our narrative.

So why did I join the number of people expressing outrage at Noah’s tweet when violent crimes are being inflicted on South African women? I expressed my outrage because to me what Noah tweeted and the man who raped our family friend are all part of the same misogyny, (violent) patriarchy and intersex/transphobia that ultimately allows violent crime against women, children and even men to happen.

Noah’s tweet is not only a micro-aggression, it others and unapologetically humiliates a 22-year-old woman in the face of millions of people because of her gender. He is erasing her humanity and says there is something lacking that should be fixed about her. This is the one time as a man he will be generous enough to grant her humanity because it is Women’s Day. This is the same patriarchal rhetoric used by men who rape and murder (lesbian) women to “correct” them, because they do not perceive them as complete women simply because they do not identify as heterosexual and must consequently be “corrected” by force.

Noah joins the long list of men who have experienced personal tragedy in the face of violent patriarchy, but are not self-reflective enough to realise when they perpetuate the very same system that allowed those tragedies to happen in their own lives. In March 2012 it was reported that Noah and his younger brother suffered years of trauma at the hands of his “abusive” ex-stepfather who shot Noah’s mother, threatened him with violence and attacked his mother’s husband as well. Noah’s stepfather is a perfect example of violent patriarchy at its best and a man claiming full ownership of a woman without her consent simply because he can.

When people criticised his tweet he refused to apologise because this was comedy to him and a joke. But it is not a joke, by othering and humiliating Semenya he is opening a gate for other misogynists to take it further and abuse her because he is saying she is something less of being a woman and not worthy of full respect and dignity. Noah’s stepfather had to learn somewhere that it was okay to emotionally and physically abuse his mother. In an email to City Press Noah said his step-father’s abuse prevented her from living freely. This is a reality that many South Africans live with, but this is further intensified for the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) communities, which are constantly harassed, physically assaulted, raped and murdered because of their gender.

The biggest irony for me, is that when Noah spoke out about his abuse from his stepfather he blamed the justice system for not doing something, yet here he is today refusing to self-correct his heteronormative patriarchal thinking despite hundreds of people saying “no” — stop humiliating this young woman. He is just like the police officer who watched his mother being violently humiliated and did nothing to help her. How many times did she beg for her dignity before ending up in hospital for months? And how many LGBTIQ people die begging for respect and dignity over their bodies? Can you see how seemingly harmless micro-aggressions perpetuate violence?

Physical abuse always starts with micro-aggressions – telling people they are inadequate, that they do not matter and eventually seducing them into believing they are worthy of the humiliation and the physical abuse that follows. We have to connect the micro-aggressions, like Noah’s tweet, to the “larger” violent crimes of rape, assault and murder. This is not an either-or situation — we have to speak out at all levels, especially when these (micro)aggressions are being perpetuated by people with a considerable following. This is why I spoke out against the tweet and the same reason I speak out against patriarchal, physical violence.

Gcobani Qambela is an Anglo-Gold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.

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