A Nation in Mourning
The world stopped turning for many of us last past week. We abandoned our daily posts to rage against the patriarchy and the violence we experience. It was profound, something has cracked open that should lead to a greater shift. We are surfacing at the bottom of the iceberg, making the invisible visible. It is our trauma as much as it is the trauma of the recent victims. We felt the wounds we carry and we stood together allowing them to scream and weep, even as we were triggered by each other’s stories, we continued to rise.
The death of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a first year UCT student who was missing for a week, shocked us in so many ways. She went to the post office, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. A post office situated next to a police station in Claremont. One of the safest suburbs in Cape Town. Luyanda Botha, who worked there raped and murdered her. Murder weapon, a scale. Who would imagine that going to the post office could lead to this?!
Words fail me. Rest in peace Nene. It is her death and the voices of her friends that shifted the consciousness this past week.
Over these past few days I have been reminded of the countless times I tried to protect my daughters from the violence of the world. Like when I decided to drive my children everywhere due to some incident they had experienced on a taxi. I would return to the idea of them using public transport from time to time because it should be serving us. Then there would be another reminder that they are not safe and we would return to mom’s taxi. These incidents included being offered drugs by the gaatjie or the taxi driver making a detour via a drug merchant.
We have been a nation in mourning; women and non-binary folks were crying, enraged, panicked, sad, fearful, grieving, questioning, demanding, calling out, standing up and speaking out. We have been moving through a collective mourning process. As women all our traumatic life stories, especially the ones about sexual violence have risen to the surface through reading on social media and listening with empathy to others, through connecting compassionately with each other as we gathered in schools, universities, the streets of our city centre, in our communities and whatsapp groups. The call and response of women and non-binary folks has been unprecedented in our history, weeping for those who were raped and murdered, weeping for ourselves, and then weeping for each other.
I spent Tuesday 3 September reading survivor stories on Twitter, these were mainly stories from university students. It was heart wrenching and left me with an acute awareness that our generation has failed our children. Our daughters, femme, non-binary children have kept stories of painful abuse to themselves, so many were about rape, they have suffered in silence. We gave them no safe space to speak, no platform from which to heal, there was no-one, they thought they could trust enough to share their story.
Our sons, have done unspeakable things and still some say, #notallmen. There are those that haven’t performed these aggressive acts, the good boys. I realised from the accounts I read that the good boys were sometimes in the vicinity. We taught them what not to do, to not be a bad guy, but we failed to teach them to stop the bad guys. Then there are those acts that can be okay and acceptable to one person but to someone else it would be considered a violation. For example, based on how well I know you, I will or will not hug you, so one person’s hug can be unwelcome and is a violation whereas another’s is a comfort. I realised that there are many conversations that we have never had as a society, some of us may have been having these in one place, but most of us have not had these conversations at all. We need to start talking about consent, sexual harassment, sexual assault, gender-based violence, how we care for ourselves once this has happened to us, what we need to feel safe, what can organisations do to support their stakeholders – be they schools, universities and places of work.
How do we keep our daughters, femme bodies, and non-binary children safe while we do the work of smashing patriarchy and building a society where respect for life is truly valued?
Patriarchy is at the root of all of this, the idea that men are better than women, femmes, non-binary persons and should have power over them. The idea that heterosexuality is the norm and there are only two genders are part of patriarchal beliefs. Whereas we can be free to identify ourselves in whatever ways we choose, there are multiple genders and sexual identities. The violence against women includes violence against people who identify in ways that challenge patriarchal notions. In our communities transgendered people are often assaulted and treated with disrespect in public spaces. Patriarchy gives heterosexual men a licence to treat women, femmes, non-binary people and children like property.
The patriarchal system must be destroyed. Patriarchy as an oppressive system has intertwined itself in all other oppressive systems and so it is everywhere. Patriarchy is central to the ways our society is organised, it is part of our state, capitalism, family systems, religious organizations, cultures and traditions, universities, schools, community groups, political parties etc. These systems uphold patriarchy to varying degrees. A simple easy to understand example is the practice of a woman’s surname changing to that of her husband, when people marry - families and the husband expect this, women dream of this and the state automatically assumes this. If a woman wants to keep her surname, she must fill a form and write a letter of motivation to request her surname to change back to her initial surname. There are many more serious examples of patriarchy and the worst physical forms are the sale, rape and murder, which is what we are now rising up against!
People keep the patriarchal system running. People are cogs in the wheels of the system. It is people who fail us. When it comes to patriarchy in our families it is our parents, our uncles, our brothers even our mothers sometimes. People need to stop defending, mansplaining and covering up the acts of relatives to save face, keep the peace, because Pastor said you should, because men are always right and must be obeyed and whatever story that makes them feel justified. We now see the sum of it and if you are not actively promoting respect and protection of women, femme bodies, non-binary people then you part of the problem. If you are not acting to hold accountable and responsible men who violate us - in thought, word and action, then you are part of the problem!
Family life is hard for many of us, we are trying to survive and so we respond to crisis and in between the crisis we do the best we can to teach the values of ubuntu, humaneness to our children. Many families have been torn apart by migrant labour, there are too many single mothers and too many child-headed households and all of this undermines the sense of security that children should find in a family. The violence of poverty and inequality leaves our children vulnerable to being victimised or becoming the predators. Most of us, know this story, I don’t need to elaborate. The lack of resources in communities, both rural and urban contributes to the challenges.
Sadly, the story of Uyinene’s murder, as one example, illustrates how the state and the criminal justice system has failed to protect our children from patriarchy. The fact that peaceful pickets and calls for the president to intervene to end the violence was met with water cannons, stun grenades and arrests this week, highlights one of the ways patriarchy is at work within the state.
In every organisation we are a part of we need to examine the structure, the policies and practices and rules to identify how they perpetuate patriarchy and generally support the exertion of power of one group over another. Leaders and managers need to take stock of themselves and the structures they are a part of, how they work and who they serve. We hear politicians justifying violence against people from other parts of our continent, it is exactly like the justifications of rape that we are calling out - this can never be justified. People are not property, people are not commodities, we cannot be bought and sold.
There is work to be done that only men can do, it cannot be that only those suffering the violence must work against it. Firstly, look at yourself and recognise the many ways that you have contributed to upholding patriarchy in your home, workplace and community and find ways to do things differently. Secondly, deal with yourselves and the men who act on those violent disrespectful thoughts you all call jokes! Largely the men in question are straight, heterosexual men. These bullies / predators can be found bullying other men and attacking and killing women, femmes and non-binary bodies, and our fellow Africans. We need to see men’s groups, conversations and gatherings taking place. Thus far, men have largely been silent. Men need to stand up and be counted and begin to change the narrative in the spaces that they inhabit. Thirdly, develop a programme to end violence and keep working at it.
Women need to self-reflect and identify where we become complicit and the ways in which we encourage girls, femmes, non-binary children to be smaller alongside the boy child in our families. Mothers need to stop closing their eyes and ears when their children report sexual abuse by a family member or close friend!!!! Women need to stop defending their husbands / partners who abuse them or others.
We need to return to the spirit of Your Child is My Child! We need to teach them to fight, to be assertive, to tell us if someone does something to harm them, we teach them that we will believe them. We need to create spaces in our communities that people know they can come to for help and support. We need to teach our children to defend themselves and each other against bullies while we work to dismantle a system that has had us in a chokehold for too long.
I offer these thoughts as a start, so much more can be said and done. As a black woman I refuse to live in fear and silence, I will not let my mind be colonised by oppressors who prefer that we live in fear! We are emotional, we are angry, we are overwhelmed, we are mourning, we are fighting back! I ask let us not become fearful. Let us be strong to fight back, take time for healing, be compassionate toward each other and let us live and walk this earth fearlessly and together smash the patriarchy!