This morning I read a column about journalist and popular talk radio host Redi Tlhabi’s newly released book Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing. There has been a lot of hype about the book and I was interested to get an account of what to expect from it. I was quite distressed to find that the first such account I would encounter would be entitled “Tlhabi tells of unseen township terror, trauma.”
The account was a personal one in which the author, Zama Ndlovu, shares her own encounters with and enduring fear of sexual violence with which she grew up in the township of Meadowlands. Drawing links between her own experiences and Tlhabi’s, she exposes and highlights the quiet and regimented violence visited on womyn from an early age to expect, fear and make peace with the very real probability of falling prey to sexual violence.
This is an important point which cannot be overstated. In a society in which one in two womyn will likely be raped in their lifetime, and rape culture is so endemic, womyn in South Africa live in the quiet and often unacknowledged terror of when and not if it will be their turn to be raped. What’s worse is that, though publicly decried and womyn are told to report and “trust in the system,” only one in 25 will have the faith, the courage, the support or even the gees to report. Of these, only five for every hundred will be tried successfully.
Most rapes in South Africa happen between people who are known to each other, often in intimate relationships as friends, partners and kin. The first response most womyn who disclose that they have been raped usually entails an interrogation of what they were wearing, whether they had been drinking and why they were in a place or state which compromised their safety as though it was entirely in their control that they were raped.
Womyn are slut-shamed for being sexual or even being perceived as such. We all know, some of us personally, the trite but pevailing narrative of a womyn known to have many (whatever that means) sexual partners as being a liar and having wanted “it” on account of her “promiscuous” sexual history when she reports her rape. Or that of a girl-child who, upon disclosing to her mother that she has been raped by her father, step-father, uncle, cousin, neighbour, friend, is decried as either a liar or a flirt. What more did she expect parading herself around like that?
We know that, in a society where violent heteromasculinity is normalised and families are economically dependent on a patriarch, unwanted sexual advances are currency for continued and direly needed patronage. We also know that the family’s shame over what might become of its standing in the community often prevails over the survivor’s personal trauma, grief and humiliation. What will people say?
Womyn are groomed into this violent consciousness from an early age. So foundational and regimented is this education that even unconscious to themselves is their every move a delicate yet precise calculation, a weighing of their options of what will best keep them and their bodies in tact in a world that is hostile towards them.
So, it was in this consciousness that I found myself so troubled by Ndlovu’s column, unsure whether it was a case of the particular representations being made about terror and trauma in the townships or my own reading of these into the piece. Turning it over and over in my mind, I tried to locate what it was that was niggling at me.
Was it that Ndlovu had cast township streets as a dangerous minefield for girl-children, with the prospect of sexual violence behind every corner and they lived universally arrested by this terrorising fear? Or was she simply sharing one of multitudinous experiences, both good and bad, about her experiences as a girl-child growing up in a township, with this one focussing particularly on sexual violence?
Was it that the narrative of terror and trauma in the township that Ndlovu constructed vindicated the white-middle-classed lens (not to be confused with white middle-classed folk) of Blacks and “the townships?” Or was there something particularly fearful and terrorising about townships in the experiences of girl-children, or even just her own?
I happen to co-parent a fourteen year old girl-child. In a township. I also happen to be an active gender activist who has had more than anecdotal first-hand exposure to and worked with the effects of violence against womyn. Occupying both these roles, I don’t think myself unfamiliar with the stilling fears Ndlovu recounts her mother having for her daughter’s safety, nor am I not mindful of the psychological terror the very real and palpable fear and probability of sexual violence causes the township girl-child. I see it in my own. More so now that she has developed an ass and tits.
I am, however, also aware that the fear and probability of sexual violence is equally real and palpable in white middle-classed suburbia. Perhaps it is my own limited exposure, but by far the most experiences of sexual violence shared with me occurred here. And I am sorry to say that they are many.
So, perhaps, what I’m really interrogating is whether Ndlovu’s narrative, in spotlighting the psychological terror and enduring trauma caused by sexual violence on the township girl-child in particular, does not tacitly edify 1) the established panic about safety in townships, invoking Conradesque images of menacing Black men ready to rape and kill womyn and girl-children alike, and 2) a false sense of security about safety in white middle-classed suburbia?
It’s a hard and complex call. One which I’m certain Ndlovu painstakingly considered. Nevertheless, I do believe that, by paying due regard to the dangerous and damaging imputations and implications of her narrative and the violence they commit by localising the terror and trauma in one place, for one people and tacitly, however inadvertently, silencing the same experiences for others, it was one she needn’t have had to make.