Masana Ndinga-Kanga
Masana Ndinga-Kanga

Mabel Jansen’s comments pathologise an entire people

Mabel Jansen’s comments rightly caused outrage this week. Unfortunately there have been a few that have come out in her defence (lingering in the comment section of articles and social media) after Justice Minister Michael Masutha made the decision to suspend her.

I was utterly shocked at her pathologisation of an entire people. As a survivor of sexual abuse at a young age it seems that one narrative that is missing from the public discourse is the voice of black women in South Africa – women who have survived incidences of sexual violence. Their agency and capacity to respond and shift the narrative has been negated. Not once in my upbringing did I feel that my mother and father condoned the acts of extended family members despite their obvious heartbreak and shock at the revelations I shared with them.

Throughout my teenage years my black parents tried their best to get me help in our small mining town where this was no easy feat. Hours of crying and wrestling with sexual abuse in the family, combined with the limited resources and support available to a middle-income family demonstrates our position of relative privilege. My case is not usual because I chose to come forward and tell my parents, and they in turn chose to seek help (only 1% of victims see justice). But it does highlight some things that are not captured in popular discourse about sexual abuse in South Africa:

1. Not once did my mother or father position the crimes of others (especially sexual crimes) as a right to my body meant to happen, and necessary for some twisted patriarchal trajectory. Now that I am older, I recognise that there is still very little social support for families grappling with sexual abuse, even for us positioned in a place of relative privilege. I cannot imagine the difficulties facing low-income communities, where limited family support networks and poor community resources make seeking support for survivors difficult.

Instead of contributing to a renewed sense of urgency that creates empowering spaces for parents of children encountering sexual abuse, comments like Jansen’s stigmatise parents/caregivers already contending with guilt at the acts of others committed over those they love most in the world. These comments are irresponsible and unhelpful in reaching the most vulnerable and voiceless in society. To insinuate that black mothers raise their daughters in a way that promotes sexual violence against them is to strip them of the very definition of motherhood, and place its nobility and unconditional sacrifice firmly in the auspices of white privilege. The same can be said of black fathers, many of whom would kill for their children.* It also stigmatises non-female children/adults experiencing sexual violence.

2. Jansen’s comments also serve to silence a second group of people – non-black or non-poor victims of sexual violence. By pathologising black communities grappling with sexual violence she inadvertently reinforces the narrative that fetishizes the black body and contributes to the othering of non-black victims wrestling to make sense of crimes committed at the hands of their own non-black family members. As Sisonke Msimang writes: “Never mind that white privilege allows white men to evade prosecutions, and keeps police out of white homes except in the most dramatic circumstances. When you live behind a high wall it is much harder for the police to simply barge into your home than when you live in a shack.”

Thinking about sexual crime like Jansen also conflates incidences among the black population (as a majority in South Africa) with cultural differences between blacks and whites, and other races. Issues of under-reporting, or increased and biased profiling by the media serve to reinforce the idea that crime and deviance are inherently black experiences. In my experiences in Fochville and Potchefstroom, I encountered a number of young women and men who experienced sexual abuse at the hands of family members, a number of them choosing not to come forward because of victim-blaming and shame, their experiences further stigmatised in instances like this. That these people were white should not matter, what should matter is that sexual offence is endemic in South Africa, and the trends globally indicate an increase in incidence.

3. The response to Jansen has also been problematic. Black women should not have to resort to saying, “I am black, 24 and have never been raped.” Instead highlighting solidarity for those women, men, children and close associates of survivors is a more powerful statement to counter the narrative that problematically racialises sexual violence. Furthermore, those decrying the fact that Jansen’s private comments were made public have their priorities in the wrong order. Instead of contributing to the solution, they are reinforcing a culture of silence around sexual crime in South Africa and its under-reporting in all spheres of society regardless of race.

Almost 15 years after the fact, I am in a place where I recognise the broader problems around sexual crime in this country, and globally, against some of society’s most vulnerable. It is through my relative privilege that I have been able to get help for the trauma associated with these events, but it also at the (sometimes imperfect) attempts of my parents to grapple with their love for their child and get her help, even in a largely un-supportive society. I am grateful for this, and hope that the public outcry over Jansen’s comments only contributes to real conversations about providing greater services to survivors of sexual abuse – black, white, coloured, Indian, Asian alike.

To support the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust click here.

If you, or anyone you know, has experienced sexual abuse contact the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust at 021 447 9762.

* This in no way means that there aren’t parents/caregivers in each racial subgroup that commit sexual crimes against their children. Rather it is to highlight that for those who do not, stigmatisation is not helpful in their efforts to seek help for their children.

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