In 2006, Fezekile Kuzwayo, together with her mother, fled the country and went to Holland. Amid threats to “burn the bitch”, the home of Kuzwayo’s mother had been burnt down. Multiple death threats and insults had been flung at Kuzwayo. Rage and hatred had been poured on her wherever she went.
Today, we know Fezekile Kuzwayo as Khwezi – and the man she accused of raping her, as our President.
Khwezi’s recent death has served as a sobering reminder of her painful story – and the fact that such stories are all too common. In a country where rape is often trivialized or even treated like a man’s “birth right”, women must face the likelihood of being disbelieved, laughed at, or violently threatened, when talking about our sexual traumas. When institutional power in our country belongs overwhelmingly to men, you don’t even need to be a President (or Deputy President) to be believed and prioritized over the women who accuse you.
Many would argue that Khwezi died without justice, and that her death should spur us to fight against such injustice while there is still time for other women. Given the recent spate of campus rapes in South Africa, have we learnt anything from Khwezi? And how many more women must suffer, unsupported, before we listen?
Khwezi was one of many women – women we, as a nation, have thrown away, forgotten, disregarded.
“Every 26 seconds in South Africa a woman gets raped,” Charlene Smith wrote in 2009, “it was my turn last Thursday night.”
Every 26 seconds…
As I write this blog post, ten minutes have already gone by – 600 seconds. In that time, 23 women have been raped. Will their stories ever see the light of day? Will they get the medical care they need? Will they be left with HIV? Or a pregnancy? Will they be able to report the crime? Will they be forced to interact with their rapists again?
Every 26 seconds…How many more?
On 25 November this year, Nomboniso Gasa revealed the report she had compiled on the case of a foreign student allegedly raped on a Wits campus. The report states that, “…while one individual from Residence Life in particular was empathetic and continuously supportive, other officials did not demonstrate sufficient empathy and care, and failed the complainant by not meeting the University’s commitment to providing a safe space for complainants of gender based harm .”
Wits University arguably represents one of the most progressive arenas in South Africa; if even such an arena is tainted by a lack of “empathy and care”, what must the rest of South Africa’s response to rape look like? Moreover, what underlies this lack of empathy and care, and why are trained professionals failing to provide the necessary safe space for victims of rape? Does the failure lie in the University’s systems – or in the deeper underlying fabric of South African society?
Gasa’s report hints that the answers to these questions may come, not from officials and professionals, but from the younger generation which has, since 2015, been loudly demanding a new paradigm in South African universities; “She [Gasa] commends the friends who supported the complainant, because they too experienced emotional trauma during this process, and the activists who played an important role in highlighting the issues… The report commends activists for having brought focus to this complaint and ensuring that it did not get drowned in the multitude of institutional bureaucratic processes and procedures.” The issue of campus rape was pushed by students, and it is perhaps a most pressing project ahead of us to empower and enable these students in waging new battles against sexual violence.
But an even more pressing project is, arguably, listening to the voices of women who, like Khwezi, have survived the nightmare and lived to teach us.
In addressing the crisis of rape, how do we center those who have endured it and prioritise their needs?
“Every 26 seconds in South Africa, a woman gets raped”…How many more?
How many Khwezis will it take to turn the tide?
As this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign concludes, what have we learnt, and whose voices have we amplified – or drowned out? What resolutions have we made to stem the country’s epidemic of violence against women? Will we pursue our resolutions? Or will we stand by as more women are engulfed by the violence? Will we ask ourselves, How many more will it take?