Rape persists because we fail as citizens

Feb 08, 13 Rape persists because we fail as citizens

Rape in South Africa is unacceptably high. Abominably so.

Not that there would ever be a level of rape that could be considered acceptable – ours is just so fantastically brutal as to occupy an entirely different and altogether elevated strata of the savage things that we are capable of doing to one another. But this is not a polemic on how terrible rape is. Such writing makes regular appearances in our national and local media with scarcely a reaction – the media equivalent of screaming into a jet engine.

What this is, is a question of why years and years of detailed reporting of the rape of women, men, children and the elderly in South Africa fails over and over again to provoke any kind of real and sustained outrage.  Why, as a nation, are we so utterly impotent in the face of such an epidemic of violence?

Like any complicated question, there are dozens, probably hundreds of threads that heavily influence the way we do or don’t respond to particular issues as a nation. Patriarchy is most definitely one. We consistently undervalue and oppress women. So too is the ongoing dehumanisation of each other that was one of the lasting gifts of apartheid. We find it so hard to empathise, because we have grown up in the shell of a society specifically engineered not to. Reclusive, elite fortresses like Dainfern, the prevalence of township tourism and infantile op-eds explaining blacks to whites and whites to blacks only make the point more sharply.

It would be years before many white folks would dare to visit a township. Most haven’t yet reached the point of asking why they continue to exist.

These problems are crippling. But not the one that I’m most keen to discuss here. For lack of space, more than lack of interest, because I am fairly sure whole books could be – and probably have been – written on patriarchy and broken humanity in South Africa. In the latter case, Wretched of the Earth still reads uncomfortably like a description of the last few decades in the country.

To these defects in our ability to actively care or feel outrage, we should perhaps also add our large-scale unfamiliarity with what it means to be a citizen. I am starting to suspect that the reason South Africans fail to stop rape, fail to stop violent crime, fail to stop corruption, and fail to end gross equality is because we fail, overall, as citizens.

We have never really known what it means to hold power to account. We have never really been properly comfortable with the idea of action in the service of principles. And given our history, it’s hardly surprising.

The end of apartheid pretty much saw the collapse of civil society in South Africa. Groups that had long campaigned for dignity, freedom and human rights for all more or less declared the battle won, and fell silent in the post-1994 euphoria. Others, whose funds came from abroad, saw their work shrink as donors redirected funding to other resistances of other injustice elsewhere in the world.

And who was there to resist in any event? The government then was full of an ANC that radiated hope in a more just and equal future. It was all Mandela, rugby jerseys and learning a new national anthem. The cancerous tick of an ANC that infects South Africa today hadn’t happened yet, and (on paper, at least) we had designed space for ensuring that rights like dignity would be meaningfully pursued by the government, our courts, and the constellations of oversight bodies that were established around them.

The idea of an open, democratic civil society from which outrage and political action could emerge – nonexistent under apartheid – seemed bizarre in the post-’94 euphoria. Who would be resisted when the evil had been overthrown and only a government of heroes remained?

We would discover later – after the arms deal, Tony Yengeni, travelgate, and the moral descent that the Zuma administration has come to represent – that there was in fact much that a politically engaged civil society should have been doing. But it’s a lesson that’s only now being learned.

Even before 1994 (notable exceptions aside) South Africans didn’t generally see themselves as political agents under apartheid either. In the main, a generation or more simply existed, complicitly, with whatever the politics were of the day. Unless it affected you directly, no questions were openly asked, no stand was taken. A kind of ‘politics only when it affects me’ kind of outlook that happened to suit the architects of a divided country very well.

Where we have political ideas, they circulate in private when they should be pursued publicly.

Come universal suffrage in 1994, that consensus didn’t seem to change all that much. Those who could afford to, moved into fortified complexes or suburban spaces where they could exist without having to deal with the sharp edge of South Africa’s faultlines. It would be years before many white folks would dare to visit a township. Most haven’t yet reached the point of asking why they continue to exist.

With notable exceptions like the TAC and the R2K campaign more recently, the idea that I have a responsibility as an individual to dedicate some of my time and energy to making the country better remains an utterly foreign concept. Asinine exercises like volunteering on Mandela Day or ‘liking’ polemics on Facebook aside, it remains utterly novel for most South Africans to consider spending days or weeks of their time engaging in activism, lobbying, protest or other directly political forms of engagement.

If you are having a grumpy day, it’s easy to simply dismiss the phenomenon as laziness. South Africans just can’t be arsed to give up sport on a Sunday or a night of partying to spend that time in the active service of causes they believe in. But that’s a lazy analysis. We’ve never, as a nation, seen ourselves as citizens. It’s a foreign idea. We’ve always been a nation ruled by elites, approachable only indirectly.

Where we have political ideas, they circulate in private when they should be pursued publicly. Left as disapproving commentary online, or private frustration, when they should translate into making contact with others and finding ways to take bigger, collaborative action. Less Facebook politics and more actually entering the offices of a place like Equal Education or One in Nine and saying, “Hi. I think this shit is wrong and would like to help stop it.”.

In asking the question, “why aren’t we outraged about rape”, I suspect we need to first ask “why aren’t we outraged by anything.”

Only if we can learn that we are meant to act, and that it is reasonable, acceptable and laudable, can we be capable of doing so.


Image by Francisco Osario