“I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa. I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights. The ideal attire for household chores. I secure babies happily on their mothers backs…Armed with proverbs, I am a vehicle for communication between women. I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman. But make no mistake…I am not here to please a man…Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape. Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse…”
This is how Inyathelo, the South African Institute for Advancement, started a dialogue reflecting on violence against women and children. The poem, I am Khanga by Fezekile Khuzwayo, popularly known as Khwezi, was her response to President Jacob Zuma when he was found not guilty of allegedly raping her. Inyathelo felt it necessary to not only pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Women’s March to the Union Buildings, but also to remember Khwezi.
The discussion was led by award-winning journalist, Zubeida Jaffer and writer on gender, political and cultural issues, Nomboniso Gasa. “This day is important for a number of reasons. It is important to look beyond the superficial narrative of history. The history of women’s resistance has been misrepresented, it is erased and it is misunderstood. The relationship between power, abuse of power and a woman’s body is well established in the history of the world. As we mark the beginning of 16 Days of Activism, we must pay tribute to the women who refuse to be silent; to the women who insist that their bodies are not battlefields and to women who insist that they will have bodily autonomy,” said Nomboniso.
Simamkele Dlakavu, who was part of the silent protest against President Jacob Zuma, highlighted the importance to address the politics of memory and honouring the history of a woman’s struggle. “What memory are we privileging? Who are telling these stories? Whose voices and histories are being erased? Referencing Pumla Gqola’s book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, Simamkele said the silence we have to break is not for women to speak out, the silence we have to break is who the perpetrators are. Rape is not a perpetrator-less crime,” said Simamkele. From Gqola’s book, she furthermore asserted that there must be a social cost to the actions of rapists. “The burden of shame should not only be felt by women, the perpetrator should also carry shame. There must be a social cost to rape,” she added.
Judy Brooks from the audience, questioned why the only topic of discussion was rape, as there are many different forms of violence against women taking place. Simamkele said violence against women is an everyday violence, women experience it every day. When women are denied transport money to get to work, that is a form of violence. When women are underpaid, that is a form of violence. When women have no access to healthcare or sanitary towels, that is a form of violence. Simamkele went on to point out that cyber violence and online harassment is also a pervading reality for many women. “Safety in the online space needs to be regulated and taken on as a serious issue. The online space is also a space where women should be affirming each other and mobilising,” said Simamkele.
The consensus reached by the panel affirmed that it is important to talk and think about where we are as men and women and our collective challenges. Unity comes from discussion and from understanding each other’s histories. The reciting of Khwezi’s poem is indicative of the collective discriminatory, lived-experiences that countless women endure every day. “The only way we can deal with continued repression, sexual violence and other forms of abuse is through solidarity. This dialogue is an example of solidarity,” said Nomboniso.