Updated: Jun 18
South Africans have found themselves shocked by the recent spate of murders and rapes involving black womxn. Four womxn were found dead in open velds around Soweto in the past weekend. Furthermore, a pregnant womxn was kidnapped and gang-raped while on her way back from work at a nightclub at 4am this Monday. Three men have been arrested in connection with the murders. In connection with the gang-rape, 11 men have been arrested and are expected to appear in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on charges of kidnapping and rape.
Gender-based violence (GBV) is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. The above cases are not exceptional. Although, these stories have attracted the mainstream media’s attention we need to remember that these acts of GBV are not out of the ordinary. The reason why I say this is because I have noticed that media attention on GBV-related incidents are often accompanied by the call for South Africans to reflect on what GBV means for us and how we, as a young democracy, have reached the point whereby womxn’s bodies have become disposable. I am not saying that these calls for reflection are unnecessary. The problem is that these calls for reflection are often within a climate of hysteria that often precedes our collective amnesia once our kneejerk outrage dissipates.
The recent murders and rapes remind me of Pumla Dineo Gqola’s arguments in her book Rape- an incisive and necessary read that unpacks our nation’s relationship to rape and the shock/disbelief that is characteristic of the South African public’s responses to rape. Gqola painstakingly reminds us that rape is neither exceptional to South Africa nor is it merely distasteful sex. Rape is an act of sexualized violence that communicates who is disposable and who matters within a given society. Furthermore, rape is an extreme act of aggression which seeks to exert power over a feminized body.
South African feminists often complain about the violent patriarchy that is omnipresent in South Africa. We have often been told that we are complaining too much as we use hashtags such as #MenAreTrash as discussion points to illustrate the pervasiveness of the violence of patriarchy. However, the same people that deride us for making use of these hashtags often decry the violent rapes and murders of womxn that receive media attention. As womxn, we have been taught to brace ourselves for the moments when our bodies will come under attack. We grimace but remain silent when we experience sexual harassment on the streets we walk/drive on. We change our routines to avoid the (often) male colleagues who sexually harass us- if we have the luxury of doing that. Otherwise, we have been trained to smile politely and demurely decline unwanted sexual advances in a bid to not endanger ourselves, lest we anger those who have the power to
encroach on our spaces.
With rape and other acts of GBV, we learn that our spaces and bodies do not belong to us. Gqola explains that womxn live in a society that readily manufactures female fear. Female fear is created through the threat of rape and other forms of bodily harm. The female fear factory is a key component of rape culture as a womxn’s respectability is tied to her being unrape-able. The manufacture of fear works to remind womxn of their rapability. Therefore, womxn need to silence, and keep themselves in check so that they may avoid being raped. Of course, this not only applies to cisgendered heterosexual womxn. The manufacture of feminized fear applies also to men, transgendered people, and (in South Africa’s case) most particularly queer womxn. The manufacture of female fear is a phenomenon that is pervasive within South Africa’s public culture. The public sphere does not belong to womxn. Womxn constantly need to look over their shoulders, even though womxn are in no position to guarantee their safety.
I am fully aware that the incidents I have looked at are of the “stranger in the alley” tales womxn are often told to ensure that they safeguard themselves from being attacked. We all know that GBV is a form of violence that thrives in both the public and private spheres. This article is in no way an attempt to detail the prevalence of rape and other acts of GBV. We tend to exceptionalize the men who get caught committing these random and heinous acts of violence. They become monstrous and exceptions to the other men who have been charged with protecting womxn and children. The problem with that is that by exceptionalizing them, we are divorcing rape and GBV from the patriarchal power that uses these acts to- as Gqola says- enforce submission and punish
defiance. Rape and GBV thrives on silence; we become complicit in the pervasiveness of this violence whenever we do not call out the rapists with whom we cross paths as we go about our daily lives.
Popi Qwabe, Lerato Moloi, Bongeka Phungula, and the two other unidentified womxn whose victimization have made headlines this week are only five of the many who have experienced the true violence of patriarchy. Like Karabo Mokoena, what these womxn have experienced is a call for us to no longer see rape and GBV as enigmatic events.
We owe it to these womxn and other victims/survivors of rape and GBV to make an attempt to untangle the language of rape in an attempt to interrupt the deeply entrenched patterns that have made the recent rapes and murders all too familiar stories within the South African public imagination. We have managed to abnormalize GBV within the public sphere; however, more needs to be done to create a future that is free from rape and violence against feminized bodies.