Mourning Women’s Month

By Chelsea Haith

Celebrating Women’s Month in South Africa in 2016 is a farcical exercise in erasure. Sixty years ago women were criminalised for their political action. In 2016, women are being criminalised for their political action.

This Orwellian repetition of history was exemplified on 7 August by the governing party’s response to the #RememberKhwezi protest that took place while President Jacob Zuma delivered his address following the release of the Local Government Election results, and again at the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR) where a failed attempt at dialogue revealed the heart of systemic violence in the erasure of black womxn’s bodies and voices.

#RememberKhwezi and #RUReferenceList protests

The images of the four women in formal dress that stood up in front of the president during his address will one day be a part of South Africa’s media and social justice histories. Future generations will look back at what happened. But who knows what they will be thinking, because we are in a tense and historically critical turning point in South Africa’s democracy.

The four held up signs that read Khanga, Remember Khwezi, #, I am 1 in 3 and 10 years later. This extremely public display of resistance has forced the Jacob Zuma Rape Trial back into public memory, from which it has been conveniently erased for a decade. The four women, all of whom have experience of recent student protests against tertiary education fee increases and rape culture on campuses, were physically hauled away by security guards as the press followed, demanding that they be given access to the protestors, demanding that the women be unharmed. One of the women, Naledi Chirwa ended up on the ground in the commotion. The women told the guards not to kill them, such was the violence with which they were treated.

In an attempt to delegitimise the four women, the ANC has claimed that the protest was a ploy by the EFF to discredit the president. The response by the ANC Women’s League, to shame Khwezi as they did 10 years ago, and to reject the current protest, is an exposition of the ways in which women can be complicit in patriarchal oppression. However, this protest was not motivated by party politics, but by the politics of the body.

The resistance by these women seems to draw powerfully on the frameworks established in womanism and black feminist theory. The four women resisted in a symbolically powerful move, using a silent protest to critique a decade of silence on an issue that has received considerable coverage in recent months. The response on social media to the #RememberKhwezi protest has been deafening and the roar of womxn refusing state silencing and institutional silencing can no longer be ignored. Given what happened the next day at UCKAR, where the #RUReferenceList protests shut down the university for a week in April, it’s time state bodies pull their fingers out of their ears.

“Why should I have to go to class with my rapist?”

On 8 August an ‘Inaugural National Gender Based Violence Policy Dialogue’ was planned at UCKAR. Flower arrangements and other ceremonious window dressing were set up in a lecture venue, large posters were visible and a small band was playing to entertain the attending crowd. The atmosphere that this created was completely contradictory to the severity of the problems of rape culture and gender-based violence that the gathered participants had wished to address.

On the panel alongisde the reluctant Dr Lindsay Kelland and an anonymous rape survivor were UCKAR’s Vice-Chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela and the Deputy Minister for Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana. Mabizela was booed by the crowd during his opening address and about a minute in students began to shout, “Interdict!” referring to the court order that has banned student protest on UCKAR campus. As a result of the disregard for student protestor’s discontent, nothing about the interaction was dialogic.

The question that students are asking is how can a dialogue, a dialogue that specifically excluded the very people it proposed to include, even begin when the students at UCKAR are banned from engaging in the discussion through legitimate protest? Criselda Kananda, a MetroFM Dj who was inexplicably emceeing the event, tried to halt the mid-event protest by saying, “You come to a dialogue when you are willing to participate in a conversation.” She was met with jeers from the students who referred her to the talks that they had tried to hold with Mabizela. “He walked out on us! Is he going to listen now?” one student yelled.

Many believe that management should not even have been part of the dialogue given the students’ mistrust of management which resulted from the interdict that is believed to have been ordered by the management of UCKAR. In support of the protest UCKAR Associate Professor Alex Sutherland addressed the speakers. “This is a top down approach, it is not inclusive!,” she said, to cheers from the students. “A dialogue is premised on a group of people having trust and some equality of power, of which there is none at the moment.”

Students felt that holding the dialogue four months after the protests is too little too late and were angered by the fact that several of their demands have yet to be met, including the demand that alleged rapists be immediately suspended. “Why should I have to go to class with my rapist?” protestor and survivor Sikhona Nazo demanded.

But it remains so quiet

Meeting the students’ demands has been a matter of extreme urgency since the protests began and yet the governmental and institutional response has been to offer up an erasive and ultimately failed ‘dialogue’. The message the pomp and ceremony of the event sends to student protestors is that their concerns are not legitimate or worth serious consideration.

Jacob Zuma watched with a smirk on his face as the #RememberKhwezi protestors were hauled away on 7 August. The Department of Higher Education and Training planned an erasive dialogue that had no dialogical intentions. These incidents indicate that the response by senior officials in our country’s government to attempts by female students to engage in discussion is to obscure the severity of our concerns and demands behind smokescreens of political pot-stirring and point-scoring.

What’s the point of Womens Day then?

In a very fine and very angry (yes, the two are simultaneously possible) piece published on Books Live, writer-activist Helen Moffet articulates the farce of Women’s Day: “Stop bleating about the month of women. It’s PATHETIC, considering it’s open season on South African women 24/7, year in, year out.” She wrote those words in 2012 and four years later, still nothing has changed. Women’s anger is still delegitimised in a rhetoric that privileges calm and ‘reason’ over legitimate and honest emotion.

There is nothing reasonable about one in three women being victims of rape. There is nothing reasonable about the erasure of queer black womxn’s bodies and the criminalising of naked protestors. These are distinctly illogical and violent responses to a system of resistance that is founded in our country’s history. It is no longer possible to celebrate how far we’ve come in Women’s Month. It is only possible to mourn our losses.

Image courtesy of Kate Van Rensberg
Illustration courtesy of @nannavente

Contributors

Chelsea Haith

Chelsea Haith, a Postgrad student at the university currently known as Rhodes (UCKAR), is interested in determining whether writing is actually a viable career option and spends her days trying to convince herself that it is. She is a student of literature, freelances as a journalist, and works as the Media Officer at the Gender […]

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