Nwabisa Makunga: Let’s not miss the moment

About a decade ago I walked into a room where a small group of colleagues were chatting casually. Most of them were men. Apart from passing them in corridors from time to time, I was not familiar with them at all.

And so I felt slightly anxious before entering the room.

You see, in my world it is not uncommon for a newly married woman, as I was at the time, to be antagonised by complete strangers with disrespectful comments or questions about the way she is dressed and how she behaves.

It’s infuriating. Yet bizarrely, it is deemed permissible.

One of the women in the group asked me whether in accordance with “norms”, I had been expected by my in-laws to do some heavy chores when visiting them.

I responded, quite gleefully in fact, that there had been no expectation on me to do anything out of the ordinary, particularly the kind work she had been referring to.

One of the men – now an ex-colleague – mumbled his displeasure at what he viewed as my inadequacy as a Xhosa wife.

I laughed, perhaps out of disbelief more than anything else.

And then, with contempt in his voice, he told me: “You are lucky you are not my wife, otherwise I would fix you.” The rest of them laughed. Shocked, I kept quiet and walked out.

Of course, this is not the worst kind of treatment one has had from a man.

Like millions of South African women, I have at some point been on the receiving end of violent misogyny.

Our stories only differ in detail and the extent of violation.

I am highlighting this particular incident because it is the most enduring memory that best illustrates the toxic masculinity from which I believe violence against women and children stems.

The recent, gruesome killing of Soweto woman Karabo Mokoena (and many others since) has again thrust into the forefront of our national psyche the frightening reality of being a woman in South Africa.

Let me first state the obvious: not all men in this country are violent monsters.

Yet, it is precisely because too many of them are that we find ourselves at this point.

Second, I have no interest in debating the fairness or meaning of #MenAreTrash.

The last few days have convinced me that doing so is an exercise in futility.

From both sides of the debate, we are unlikely to convince each other otherwise.

My point today is quite a simple one: I fear that we may again miss the moment.

I am concerned that when our current outrage dies down and our focus shifts to yet another national crisis, so will our appetite to enforce change.

Remember, we have been here many times before.

We were enraged when Dawid Potse raped nine-month-old Baby Tsepang in Upington back in 2001.

Never had we imagined that walking among us was such a perverse and deranged beast.

We were incensed when William Nkuna killed his ex-girlfriend, Francis Rasuge, and buried her body in his Hammanskraal home in 2004.

Similarly, when Nwabisa Ngcukana was sexually assaulted and paraded naked around a Johannesburg taxi rank in 2008 by taxi drivers offended by her miniskirt.

We were outraged when Johannes Kana raped and killed Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp 2013.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Despite these moments of indignation, the status quo prevailed and women are no safer now than they were before.

My concern therefore is that as significant as it is, we may yet again be unable to move beyond our fury.

In our eagerness to “win” the debate, we might yet again fail to fully grasp the daily agony of women whose lives are characterised by terror and violence.

We are likely to miss the torment of women – young and old – who are forced to confront their worst fears again and again, in schools, at work, in church, in a taxi or at home.

In our attempts to cement our intellectual posture, we might just miss the opportunity to define new norms of acceptable behaviour in our society.

We are likely to miss the silent call for help from women in spaces where degrading them – even jokingly – is such a part of the culture that the thought of them speaking out is unheard of.

I fear that we might just miss yet another opportunity to confront violent behaviour before it manifests itself in its most brutal form.

We may be deaf to the anguish of women failed by the system or those trapped in a life from which there seems to be no escape.

This past week, perhaps more than any other time, I have come to realise how deep a crisis we are in.

This was evident in moments during our public discourse when abuse was at times attributed to a woman’s behaviour or factors that sought to minimise the culpability of the abuser.

At times this past week, I was overwhelmed by complete exasperation.

Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that things can change.

I am mindful that changing deepseated attitudes is a long and painful process.

It may take generations to conquer.

But whatever we do, for all our sakes, let us not miss this moment.

Nwabisa Makunga is deputy editor of The Herald and Weekend Post. 

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