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"Just Another Black Girl" | The Scourge of Sexual Violence against South African Women

Malawian author of “Soft Magic” and “Nector”, Upile Chisala said it best in her Twitter post; “I am Black, Woman, and African, in a world that undervalues all three.” These are the only words that come to mind amidst yet another national outcry against the assault and murder of another South African black woman, Karabo Mokoena. Like many women experiencing these angering and depressing times, my heart is broken.

Moreover, I am disappointed that we are back here, again, 13 years after the murder of police constable Francis Rasuge. Remember her? The policewoman who also went missing and was found eight years later, bound and entombed in the backyard of her boyfriend, William Nkuna. We are spreading #menaretrash hashtags and calling out abusive South African men when just nine months ago, we witnessed four female anti-rape protestors holding placards in front of the stage that President Jacob Zuma delivered his IEC national results address. The placards read, “10 Years Later”, “Remember Khwezi”. Khwezi is the name given by the South African press to Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who President Jacob Zuma was accused of raping in 2005. Am I the only one who was also deeply unsettled by how the four female protestors were removed from the front of the stage? Granted they were demonstrating against President Zuma in a very public and expressive way and they were representing the opposing EFF party, but that scene alone explicitly conveyed the message: black women are of no value in South Africa.

As a young black South African woman who is forging her independence in a vacuum of male bravado and dominance (Durban). I'm very in tune with my surroundings and extremely mindful of my personal space and security. Wherever I go. Whether I am walking in a lower or upper-middle-class suburb, in the mall parking lot or walking in the inner city; along with the many thoughts that cross my mind, safeguarding my being or not exposing myself to any threat, are thoughts that constantly stand out on an everyday basis. Which is sad, considering how progressive we are as an African country. It’s a real let down that we as women don’t feel safe in our own homes, the workplace and in public spaces - and this has become a norm.

I’ve been documenting my dating experiences since I moved to Durban and sexual violence and violence against women in South Africa has come to the forefront as a real concern while attempting to dissect and understand the opposite sex. I, fortunately, haven’t been sexually abused, unlike the 784,967 young people who have fallen victim to sexual abuse by the age of 17, according to The Optimus Study on sexual victimisation in South Africa. Nor have I been in a physically abusive relationship unlike the reported; one in every four women who are physically abused by their intimate partners. Also, unlike the mother, daughter, sister or friend who is killed every six hours by her current or former intimate partner in South Africa. There is no doubt that the South African (particularly black) woman is under siege- constantly under attack, whether it be physically, emotionally or her self-worth being ripped to total shreds.

Although I’ve noticed that there are Durban Zulu men who treat women with care, the flip side is the need to have a much-heightened awareness and understanding of my social standing as a woman. I’ve been called nondindwa (prostitute) because I was in one taxi driver’s way and a bitch by another driver who was driving with a woman in the passenger seat. Being catcalled by a group of men is considered harmless (necessary) praise, well at least I assume it is because I’ve never seen a woman being offended by it, in actual fact, I’ve only seen women being amused or flattered. Personal space is also not respected; on more than one occasion I’ve been treated as though I was crazy for reacting against being touched by a stranger who felt the need to get my attention.

I’ve always known that rape culture and violence against women is a huge problem in the whole of South Africa but never has the possibility of being physically threatened been so real in my mind since living independently in a new city. I had a chat with a friend about the male and female relations she noticed when she was in Accra, Ghana. She was struck by how women were generally revered. The big thing that stood out for her was how safe women were and how a woman is seen as very precious. Men in Accra are taught that your sister is one of the most precious people in your life who need to be protected and defended. Nonetheless, as much as this manifests in women feeling safe enough to walk alone at any time, unlike many places in South Africa, Accra men treat women like this because they view them as the weaker sex. Which my friend observed as another side of male superiority. Seeing a woman as the weaker sex that needs to be protected is great with regards to her feeling safe, but it would sure suck to be a woman in a boardroom in Accra

We can, like many radio and TV shows, talk about how the numerous socioeconomic conditions and the billion factors that South Africa is faced with are the result of the repeated violence against women in South Africa. We can also indulge in waving our fingers to the men in our lives and telling them to stop, because “enough is enough”. But having lived a good 20 years knowing that this is how things are, I can’t help but feel like all the noise made right now and all the noise that has been made over the years is falling on deaf ears. Surely we know by now that campaigns, pledges, controversial TV ads and discussions aren’t the solution.

We aren’t talking about monsters lurking in the dark waiting for their next victims here. We are talking about the shopkeeper who day in and day out is quick to objectify me by calling me a yellow bone and my laughing it off not realising that by doing so, I’m allowing him to continue to disrespect and view me as a sexual object that he has power over. Or the very subtle ways men lure you in by promising you gifts and a charmed life while manipulating your trust and playing mind games- that we choose to ignore.

By no means am I shifting the blame onto us (black women and victims of heinous crimes). Sexual violence is about power and the fact it’s prevalent in disadvantaged communities where some of the black man’s power or sense of worth is mostly found in how many women he can conquer, clearly points to an entire social breakdown. I am, however, suggesting that perhaps if we flipped the script by not accepting the status quo, maybe then we can start seeing real change. And that is; going into relationships not seeking validation and approval because even though it’s a hard pill to swallow, there is a large number of men who are taught (by other men) that the most effective way to control a woman, is to capitalise on her insecurities and weaknesses.

Being ruthless about setting the tone for how you expect to be treated is another way I suggest we can retain our power, and not fearing being alone so much or succumbing to societal pressure and feeling the need to belong to somebody. Or to be nice, to always smile and play along to the male ego. I don’t think this would automatically cut down the number of sexual predators, but it could possibly change how we are treated in everyday situations.

I’m no expert in the relationship dynamics between men and women in South Africa, but I’ve been in a few relationships and been around men who’ve dismissed what I had to say solely because it was coming from me, a black woman. Most recently, I was talking to two guys younger than me who actually believed they naturally had the upper hand intellectually compared to any woman, simply because they are men and are therefore built in a way that makes them smarter and more capable of making informed decisions.

So, I’m thinking that in these instances, maybe if we stood up and challenged these backward views (that no 20 something year old should have in this day in age), instead of rolling our eyes or keeping quiet. Maybe, just maybe, such everyday awareness will influence our thinking which will, in turn, change our behaviour and before you know it, form a new way of relating to each other. I can’t help but believe that if we took a hard look at how the black African girl child is viewed and treated compared to how the black African boy child is celebrated and protected that’s when we’ll see that this social ill that we are constantly digging ourselves deeper in, isn’t something robust or overwhelming and outside us. But a deep-rooted issue that needs to be confronted in our homes in the conversations we have and how we allow the women in our lives to be treated.

But what do I know right?, as far as the chauvinistic male boss, the desensitised South African police force, the power hungry church leader and my own male peers are concerned, I’m just another black girl.

Illustration: Thulisizwe Mamba

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