Lisa Vetten
Lisa Vetten

Anatomy of power: Sexual misconduct in South Africa’s polity

Irregular employment practices, furtive, adulterous sex in the workplace, rape, blackmail, secret meetings, power and conspiracy — they’re all there, the ingredients central to any riveting political scandal. But Zwelinzima Vavi’s sexual liaison with a female subordinate is so much more than entertainment for the excitable twitterazzi. Indeed, the sexual misconduct that it illustrates and which Vavi admits to, locates this incident at the heart of behaviour bedevilling our politics generally.

Sexual misconduct takes diverse forms, ranging from sexual patronage and favouritism to sexual harassment and rape. It flourishes within a social context that positions women as mere “semen receptacle” (to borrow former FHM journalist Max Barashenkov’s phrasing) and is buttressed by workplace relations that subordinate employee to employer. When political office is added to the mix, it renders the combination of powers truly toxic. These have been exercised by a number of politicians over the last decade.

The harbinger was the late Norman Mashabane, first found guilty of 21 counts of sexual harassment in 2001. Undeterred by his conviction, he embarked on a fresh spate of harassment in 2003 for which he was again found guilty and recalled from his diplomatic post. And let’s not overlook Mbulelo Goniwe, found guilty in 2007 of sexually harassing a parliamentary intern in October 2006.

But the reference point for sexual misbehaviour in high places is unquestionably the rape case opened against President Jacob Zuma in 2005. Heard in 2006, the trial endorsed almost every rape myth ever concocted and resulted in a judicial lecture to President Zuma on his moral failings. Even so, President Zuma made news again in 2010 when it was revealed that he had fathered his twentieth child with Sonono Khoza in 2009, only months before his fifth marriage to a different woman.

Like President Zuma, Jeffrey Donson and Truman Prince, currently members of the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa, are also masters of the political comeback. In 2008, Donson was convicted of six counts of statutory rape and one of indecent assault perpetrated against a 15-year-old girl in 2004 while he was mayor of Kannaland. Nonetheless, he is once again the mayor of Kannaland. Prince was captured on camera in 2005 kerb crawling in an area frequented by teenage sex workers. He was dismissed for sexual misconduct but, like Donson, has returned to political office.

For more recent examples, a quick and cursory search of the internet identifies a politician charged with rape in Polokwane in October 2012, yet another charged in March of this year in North West, a third and fourth set of rape charges recorded in uBuhlebezwe and Jozini, KwaZulu-Natal in April, while in May this year the ANC was reportedly examining the appointment of nine councillors in Tshwane, one of whom had been charged with rape. Culprits in the other matters were drawn from the ANC, DA and IFP. But special mention must be made of Mayor Jonas White of Cederberg, expelled from the ANC in June this year after he was convicted of sexually harassing two girls aged 15 and 16, as well as texting to his deputy pictures of his erect penis outfitted in strawberries and cream.

Within this context Malusi Gigaba’s 2012 tweet “@Derek_Hanekom No, let’s talk about the slut walk. Now, I wanna attend as an observer. Might get lucky” and Julius Malema’s bizarre accusation — “Zille has appointed an all male cabinet of useless people, majority of whom are her boyfriends and concubines so that she can continue to sleep around with them” — appear deeply insightful. They lay bare the workings of a political environment where sexual misconduct and patronage are the assumed norm, and political office made a never-ending cornucopia of slut walks and getting lucky.

A polity built on masculine sexual entitlement corrupts constitutional commitments to gender equality in a range of ways. Where sexual patronage is practised both in relation to hiring, as well as promotion, it denies opportunities to other worthy candidates and employees — female and male. It degrades women’s citizenship by reducing their status to that of sexual object and undermines female politicians. It prevents equality as a practice from taking root and makes it almost certain that measures intended to promote equality will never be effectively implemented.

There is also the damage done to rape as a cause when it is used in political power games.

Crying “conspiracy” has its uses. The verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand, “conspiracy” allows comprised politicians to position themselves as victims, and their accusers as conniving/gold-digging/malicious etc etc. This effectively deflects attention away from the particular politician’s questionable behaviour and encourages minute scrutiny of the complainant’s conduct and motives instead.

However, there are two cases where the claims of conspiracy might be more than posturing. These are those of Masizole Mnqasela, a councillor accused of rape in 2010 and acquitted in 2011 and that of Vavi. In Vavi’s case it is imperative that Cosatu investigates the origin of those SMS between him and the complainant implying the involvement of third parties in the sexual harassment claim. If such manipulation is corroborated then it points to an expedient use of rape that is breath-taking in its cynicism.

Taken together, these various cases suggest that political power in South Africa has an anatomy, one in which our male political office bearers take literally the notion that they are organs of state administering the (female) body politic. Because they appear to demonstrate so little inclination towards self-correction, it is up to us to demand a higher standard of those who represent us — unless this is how we wish to be reflected. Allowing for both constituency and proportional representation, for example, would grant voters more power to reject politicians who engage in sexual misconduct. Further public deliberation and condemnation of such behaviour is also necessary — especially the notion that being caught with your pants down entitles you to sympathy and victim status. For in the final analysis, sexual misconduct corrodes not only political and working life, but otherwise-principled men like Vavi. It must be checked.

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