I was shocked to see a tweet by controversial South African blogger Sentletse Diakanyo on the first day of 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence in South Africa. In the tweet Diakanyo says that: “We must not ignore the slaughter of unborn babies during this 16 Days of Activism.” He went on to have more tirades about how “life begins at conception” and that even if women conceived children under “violent circumstances” it’s still unacceptable for women to “slaughter” “innocent life”. His main premise being that during 16 Days women should not look at gender-based violence but also at murder women commit to “unborn babies”. He further likens abortion to rape and says both should be “equally condemned” as they are “criminal”.
What triggered me as I read these tweets was not the inaccuracy of the statements made by Diakanyo but the extent to which he successfully managed to derail the conversation from 16 Days to a conversation where many people had to move from sharing about gender-based violence to correcting the misinformation he was sharing. Yes, scientific evidence indicates that life does begin at conception, but personhood/humanness only begins after birth. So, in fact, women are not slaughtering babies when they terminate pregnancy. Yet Diakanyo concludes “we will condemn criminal acts [of abortion] regardless of what feminists think”. This is despite the fact that abortion is legal in South Africa.
Many people have noted that Diakanyo gets pleasure from triggering and making others angry, especially if they respond to his ignorance. This is what has made writing this post difficult as I wondered: How do I respond to this bigotry without giving so much meaning to the patriarchal garbage spewed by Diakanyo? I further thought: What is my role as a man living in a violently patriarchal society like South Africa? And lastly I wondered: What is my role during this 16 Days campaign?
In the chapter “Is Paris Burning”, African-American feminist and cultural critic bell hooks notes that many heterosexual identifying black men living in white supremacist cultures like the United States (and South Africa I would argue) always behave as if the primary “evil” of racism is the “refusal of the dominant culture to allow them full access to patriarchal power” and hence they continue to exhibit “a phallic misogynist masculinity [that is] rooted in contempt for the female”. This is the way I choose to read Diakanyo. In many of his writings Diakanyo appears to challenge white supremacy and white capitalistic forces in South Africa and globally, and yet instances like these show us that he is not driven by an attachment to justice and overcoming global systems of oppression but a concern with having what white patriarchal men have in South Africa. This is not only in reference to economic power and material ownership but also the full patriarchal dividend that will allow him full ownership and control of the female body.
Diakanyo’s remarks in South Africa are part of a larger societal project of patriarchal men who want to demonstrate their phallic power by waging war on the bodies of women and all that is “feminine”, which as hooks notes includes also gay men (and the larger LGBTIQA community). It is not a coincidence that Diakanyo chose the 16 Days to express his misinformed opinion on abortion, rape and the bodies of women. It is his way of disrupting a conversation about patriarchal male violence into one that not only blames women for exercising their constitutionally given right to bodily integrity and reproductive choice but one that places women’s bodies at the centre of the patriarchal male blame.
In her article “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender-based violence in contemporary South Africa” Pumla Gqola has argued correctly that “discourses of gender in the South African public sphere are very conservative in the main” because “they exist very comfortably alongside overwhelming evidence that South African women are not empowered as is evidenced by the rape and other gender-based violence statistics, the rampant sexual harassment at work and public spaces and relentless circulation of misogynist imagery, metaphors and language”.
So what should be the role of men during the 16 Days campaign? There are many well-documented problems with the concept of 16 Days because many argue it should be throughout the year. I agree with this view. But this does not mean I do not recognise its importance. I live in a country where a woman has more chances of being raped than learning to read. So if women get 16 Days in a year where they can tell their stories and activism without the threat of violence, our responsibility as men should be to listen. When we talk it should be to help elevate the voices and agency of women and not silence them like Diakanyo has done.
I really think Diakanyo’s tweets are worth reporting to the South African Human Rights Commission. In South Africa while freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this right is limited in that it should not be exercised in a manner that unjustifiably limits the rights of others. Diakanyo is limiting the rights of women by intentionally spreading incomplete information to limit women’s right to bodily integrity during a time when women are meant to enjoy freedom from patriarchal male body policing. It’s unacceptable!