‘Rape: A South African Nightmare’ by Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola

“Book is easy to read and difficult to swallow”

The Chapter 2.12 protests at Rhodes University last month saw outraged students speak out against poor university policies, which inadequately address rape culture and sexual assault on campus. The demonstrations also brought these issues into national dialogues, and saw activists standing up against the reproduction of violent masculinities, the policing of women’s bodies and a broken legal system. A powerful, must read, South African book that continues these conversations is Rape: A South African Nightmare, by Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola, which was recently shortlisted for the Sunday Times Literary Awards. Youlendree Appasamy reviews Gqola’s book, which seeks to redress the lacklustre, lazy, and often downright insensitive and misinformed way that rape and sexual violence is spoken of in South Africa.

There are many incidences of sexual aggression perpetrated by violent masculinities and “phallic women” that I have witnessed and been on the receiving end of in my young life. They span nearly every place imaginable – the countryside, the suburbs, the beach, the streets, the clubs, the classroom, the lecture hall, the pool, the bar, the bedroom, the campus, the chatroom, and the comment thread. They were all perpetrated by different people, strangers, friends, peers, lecturers, teachers, and family. These experiences are not unique to my life, it is all too commonplace. To be a young Black woman is to fight relentlessly, the opponents changing as quickly as the environments do. This is not only my story, but is the story of those who have been forced to adhere to the injustice of patriarchy and whose existence ruptures it.

If there was any one text I would suggest in the bag of a warrior, it would be Rape: A South African Nightmare. As the title screams in upper case red lettering, the book deals with rape in South Africa. However, to say the book sticks to that content alone is disingenuous. Gqola, who is a majestic and incisive writer and whose prose is as delicate as it is incendiary, covers a variety of topics ranging from the period of formal slavery to apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Like a hot knife through butter, she dismisses smokescreen arguments and gets to the prickly core of gender based violence in South Africa. The book documents histories and a chauvinistic and terrified mode of being that we do not want to see for ourselves. We would rather cloak our fear in apathy, or find a scapegoat, or ignore the problems altogether. Gqola urges us to collectively and bravely look at the sores, wounds and defence mechanisms that have accumulated over the centuries, to rupture the mentalities that perpetuate and allow endemic gender based violence to continue so that we live in a society that matches up with the ideals of the Constitution – our manifesto for freedom.

Who is this book for? Everyone who wants to live in an equitable society, free from violent masculinities and the cult of femininity. No one is too young or too old, too wise or too ignorant. In fact, if you look at the title of the book and put it down thinking that rape is an issue for women and Black women at that, then this book is even more for you.

Gqola’s dual approach of looking at the violent masculinities that perpetrate sexual violence and the cult of femininity that accepts and allows for further violations highlights issues in a new matrix.

The cult of femininity which positions women, female presenting, and gender non-conforming bodies on the frontlines of violence if they overstep certain boundaries and ‘norms’, is particularly interesting.

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The cult consists of people, mainly women, who make and re-make rules for a strict gender hierarchy. The cult normalises rape culture and continues to dictate the paramaters of safety, freedom, and expression for women. SAPS safety guidelines for women at night come to mind. “Do not stop at a red robot if you are driving late at night by yourself.” “Do not walk home late at night”. “Avoid being drunk and around strangers”. Essentially – follow our guidelines, don’t be a bad girl and you will be safe. Hence, anyone who is violated is seen as outside the bounds – “She deserved it” is still acceptable on the palate for many South Africans. Anene Booysen’s brutal rape is another story that comes to mind. So many think pieces, armchair commentators and mainstream media outlets added to the moral panic of “keeping our women safe,” without examining who make women unsafe and why burdening women with their safety is part of the problem of their un-safety. The female fear factory is one of the key features of the cult of femininity. It operates and is performed and repeated until it becomes invisible in our society. Gqola names and sheds light on how rape threats function in a society where fear is the commodity produced by this factory – female fear especially. Her analysis itself is a disruption to the cogs of the machine as its power lies in its invisibility.

Manhood and masculinity is not violent – it is multilayered and complex. Violent masculinities are a specific performance, a psyche that prioritises a patriarchal manhood. As Gqola notes, “it is effectively manhood on metaphoric steroids”. Kenny Kunene is one of the examples (from the many that Gqola could have chosen in South Africa) which demonstrate how a violent masculinity is often intertwined with ideas of power and money in contemporary South Africa. His comments about gang-rape on twitter, his openness in stating he has had sex with women younger than 16, all allude to society’s unwillingness to confront rapists and hold them accountable. “Kunene understands something the rest of our society often pretends it doesn’t know: that South Africa has a greater problem with the existence of a woman who speaks of having been raped, the young man with a broken body from rape, the old woman maimed and raped, and the child who needs reconstructive surgery than it does with a proud, known rapist,” Gqola says about the issue. Complicity and reproduction of violent masculinities is what makes this manhood a continuing feature in South Africa.

The cult of femininity needs to be shattered, just as much as violent masculinities need to be. Extreme policing of people’s bodies, which is a common thread between the two, is something that is shared with apartheid and slavery. Gqola’s delving into history, in the first two chapters, shows how much gender based violence, sexual aggression and sexual violence of today looks very much like the same systems of domination during South Africa’s history.

Roman Dutch Law, which never once tried a Black or white man for raping Black women during the period of slavery and colonialism sounds familiar to the modern legal system which re-violates and inculcates fear and self-doubt in victim-survivors who choose to take their perpetrators to court. Black women were rendered unrapable due to their position in these systems of domination in the past. Unrapable meaning that if sexual violence is acted upon them, it is not violence enacted on another human being – as black people were seen to be sub-human fetishes. Sex workers follow the same grammar of patriarchy and racism. And yet today, Black women are the most vulnerable to rape in this country and their stories are often met with claims stemming from a racist, sexist psyche which claims that Black women are unrapable. Jacob Zuma’s rape trial stands as the strongest example, on a national, public level, of this oppressive view. Khwezi’s trustworthiness, her story of her rape, her being and humanity was under fire during the trial. How dare she accuse a powerful man, one of the most powerful in South Africa, of rape? Supporters of the status quo denigrated her and her supporters into rabble rousers, opportunists and liars – because in their minds, Black women cannot be raped, especially by a powerful Black man. South African society, feminist scholars and activists did not play ball with patriarchy. Many of us stood behind Khwezi with love and support. Legally, Zuma was acquitted.

Child rape and molestation are also addressed by Gqola. This is another area where the legal sphere comes under fire. There is a “forked tongue” when it comes to child rape, Gqola notes. When instances of child rape are made visible, taken to court and reported on, the reliability of a child’s testimony, the injuries sustained, the motivations and slithery manoeuvres by child molesters and rapists all turn against the child victim-survivor. The credibility of a child victim-survivor is definitely high – the outrage of a child rape such as Baby Tshepang is an example. However, courts in South Africa often minimise the sentences of child rapists, and society’s shock and disavowal of the child rapist (who is often not a hulking monster but a trusted figure) is not matched by the punishment (not to mention, potential rehabilitation measures). The hypocrisy of bystanders and the injustices in this realm are hidden, to a large extent. Children are an auxiliary to the vulnerability of the feminine. Child victim-survivors pay the price of society’s silence on childhood sexuality, bodily autonomy and sexual violence and they end up on the interstice of the forked tongue.

This book is easy to read and difficult to swallow. Gqola holds up the mirror and we must see for ourselves what the image shows. It shows the mother who will turn a blind eye when her child is being molested, it shows the generational violence and trauma from jackrolling, it shows a broken legal system, it shows unsupported victim-survivors, it shows weak state attempts at gender empowerment and importantly, it shows the brave people fighting to interrupt and dismantle systemic and systematic gender based violence in South Africa.

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