Our Devastating Lack of Choices


This is a video I made with a collective of aspiring black women filmmakers for Embrace Dignity.

Visit http://embracedignity.org.za for more information.

Using the term ‘sex work’ and supporting calls for the complete decriminalisation of prostitution seem to be feminist prescripts. Any deviations from this position are regarded as regressive, moralising and anti-feminist. I believe calling prostitution ‘sex work’ and advocating for its complete decriminalisation normalises the idea that variously disenfranchised mostly black women and women of colour in the global south are suited to sexual servitude. I find the ubiquity of the ‘sex work’/ total decriminalisation argument in feminist discourses bewildering. We are talking about an industry in which women, in fact, the most marginalised women, are reduced to sexual commodities for consumption by men, who determine how much they are worth. In this world, one of the most valued qualities is youth – the younger she is the more valuable, the older she gets the more worthless. For this reason, most women in prostitution, as Mickey Meji points out, are first recruited or forced in as children, and so many of them are killed with impunity because their lives are viewed as disposable. All this, of course, echoes the patriarchal system at large, the way it positions all women and feminised bodies, and its ultimate murderous conviction.

Often, I hear arguments that simultaneously vilify domestic work and glamorise prostitution by declaring the one demeaning the other an empowered choice. But what makes prostitution, which is characterised by extreme violence, an industry that has claimed the lives of too many women and girls, more appealing than domestic work? Why is it possible for people who subscribe to a particular brand of feminism to regard ‘sex work’ as an empowered choice made by women who are exercising their agency and not domestic work? Both, in my view, are indicative of a system that rigidly maintains the servitude and subordination of black women and women of colour, and our devastating lack of choices.



Interrogating ‘Successful’ Femininity

I spent a lot of last year interrogating notions of ‘successful’ femininity and found them to be variously pernicious. The popular image and understanding of ‘successful’ femininity being ‘glamourous,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘not too serious,’ and let’s not forget the many aspects of it that are indelibly linked to ‘standards of beauty’ which require some proximity to whiteness if you have the great misfortune of not being white in the world as we know it. Let’s not forget that with this notion of successful femininity comes a related ‘unsuccessful’ femininity – the ‘ratchet whore,’ ‘the basic bitch,’ ‘the domestic worker,’ the women and girls in prostitution, and how so many of those who occupy these unsuccessful realms of femininity are women of color. So, while the mostly white women in the global north are breaking their glass ceilings, women in the global south are migrating to do the work that they do not deem worthy of their time (domestic work, child rearing, and various forms of care work) what Ehrenreich and Hochschild (2002) have called “a gender revolution.”  Of course we would rather look upon these patterns of injustice as inexplicable, mysterious, spontaneous, or not look upon them at all, than interrogate the cultures of domination that facilitate them and are destroying us and our world, starting with those who lie at the most precarious intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age and insert your list here.

I’ve spent some time struggling with femininity and more specifically ‘successful’ femininity – its violent exclusivity, its deranged reward/ punishment mechanisms. But is it femininity or femininity as defined by cultures of domination that is the problem? And how can we imagine femininity on our own terms? Or must femininity, as it contributes to the vicious and rigid gender binaries of heteronormative life, be cast out, as per Butler’s (1999) queer theory? In my view, so much of what we regard as empowerment for women and girls is dependent on notions of ‘successful’ femininity. I am struggling with feminisms that emphasize empowerment, as I believe they tend to forgo liberation, or equate freedom with power. I cannot deny my own toxic relationship with ‘successful’ femininity, I am not above it but ensnared. What is your understanding of femininity, ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’?



Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, London.

Ehrenreich, B. and Hochschild, A. R. eds. (2002) Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy. Grant Publications, London.

Intersectional Reflections

White supremacy isn’t something that inherently exists in white individuals, it is something that white individuals learn that they can access. Similarly patriarchy does not inherently exist in men. Men are not born believing that they are superior. White people are not born believing that they are superior. It is the cultures in which they are born that teach them the violence of domination. They learn to tap into the diabolical resources provided by white supremacist and patriarchal structures, in their own interests always at the expense of the constructed ‘other,’ in this case, of black people and of women. Similarly heteronormativity structures societies in ways that provides people who claim heterosexual identity access to insidious forms of power that use ‘normalcy’ as spear and shield. The normative dimensions of power are extensively addressed and deconstructed by black feminist theory. When a chain of inquiry that may lead to a deepening of critical consciousness lands on biological rationalisations all avenues forward are blocked. In fact, all reasoning that depends on the normative is dysfunctional and with perilous consequence when the norms of a society are toxic – for example, opportunistic individualism and the objectification of women.


To speak about white supremacy, patriarchy and the violence of heteronormativity together is to take an intersectional approach. Intersectionality is not only about the particularities and interactions of an individual’s identity but also about the ways in which oppressive powers operate similarly and in relation to one another. That is why one cannot talk about racism without talking about sexism, or sexism without talking about the violence of heteronormativity, or any of the above without talking about ablism, or class elitism and its hypocrisies. The temptation, so often succumbed to by black men, for example, who feel themselves most impacted by racist structures is to dwell unduly on that, often to the exclusion of considerations that relate to the other myriad concomitant forms of oppression that find us in the conditions we are in today. Similarly white feminism is so often mysteriously silent about racism and the tangible contributions by white women to colonial/ white supremacist projects as well as the many pillars of white supremacy created and erected to protect white women. And so comes the sense in the refrain “all the women are white, all the blacks are men but some of us are brave,” which speaks succinctly to the duplicity of certain ostensible liberation struggles.


You cannot claim intersectionality if you decide, let’s talk about race today and patriarchy tomorrow, patriarchy today and the violence of heteronormativity tomorrow, heteronormativity today and class segregation tomorrow, class segregation today and ablism tomorrow. Everybody knows that nothing ever happens tomorrow, and that what is relegated to tomorrow, not granted the worthiness of urgency, of today, of right now, will never sincerely be addressed.

Racial Self Loathing

the bluest eye

Until that moment I had seen the pretty, the lovely, the nice, the ugly, and although I had certainly used the word ‘beautiful’, I had never experienced its shock – the force of which was equalled by the knowledge that no-one else recognised it, not even, or especially, the one who possessed it.

Toni Morrison

I just read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and cried for my life. I can now articulate why it deeply unsettles me when some people tell me how beautiful they think I am. I can often detect a latent violence just beneath the surface of such a perilous affirmation. And yet I travelled the world in search of it – a pursuit I now realise is worse than empty. Last year I started to strategise ways of not accepting it but it seems near impossible and the anger that quickly rises when it is not well received always surprises me. I was once almost attacked for not being more grateful for the compliment. The darkest among us have been the sites upon which the world has unburdened all forms and guises of hatred and violence. Hailing ‘black beauty’ will not rid this world of “racial self loathing” – it’s just another mask for the same old violent gaze. The same old violent gaze that is so efficient and diabolical we are often unwilling or unable to call it by its name or acknowledge its presence. We will even defend it as it destroys us.

I no longer accept beauty as a reward. I no longer accept beauty as an apology or remedy for racism and “racial self loathing.” I cannot describe what went through me as I read this book, how it threw so many things into devastating focus, never relying on sentimentality for relief or rationalisation. Morrison compels readers to consider “whether the voice of children can be trusted at all or is more trustworthy than an adult’s.” The amount of genius love it took to articulate this story is monumental, perhaps only fathomable through the perspective of brave little black children.

 Or maybe we didn’t remember; we just knew. We had defended ourselves since memory against everything and everybody, considered all speech a code to be broken by us, and all gestures subject to careful analysis; we had become headstrong, devious and arrogant. Nobody paid us any attention so we paid very good attention to ourselves. Our limitations were not known to us – not then. Our only handicap was our size; people gave us orders because they were bigger and stronger. So it was with confidence, strengthened by pity and pride, that we decided to change the course of events and alter a human life.

Toni Morrison


You know it’s about power when you’re being told that there’s nothing you can do about the way things are. You know it’s about power when certain people and groups project their subjective value systems on the universe. You know it’s about power when you’re told that these are the rules of the game, of the world and they cannot be deviated from, or else. You know it’s about power when your existence, your struggle for existence and your pursuit of liberation are trivialised, omitted and condemned, in other words symbolically annihilated. You know it’s about power when so many black men cannot recognise the similarity between the plight of women and the plight of black people in this global dominator culture. When white women cannot accept the intersectional particularity of black women’s liberation struggle. When the non-disabled cannot muster the courage to regard people with disabilities beyond the shallow emotion of pity. When poor people are regarded as a nuisance. When childhood and children are perpetually undervalued. When the wrath of heteronormativity is the invisible gospel and love can only be imagined on a one-dimensional plane of binary opposites, brought to you by Coca-Cola, Colgate, Apple, Hollywood and insert your list here. When black women are expected to tick race over gender and when so many people believe that struggles against domination, oppression and exploitation must be divided and placed in self-centred, hierarchical order. When “black black women,” as lovingly described by Alice Walker, envy “light-skinned black women.” When black men and women have lost each other in the glare of white supremacy and we have all lost each other for the sake of an ethos of opportunistic individualism. When the world as we know it is on the brink of collapse and the only choices that so many believe they have, are to fall in line and to scramble for their piece (or crumb) of the pie, cake, apple and insert your list here. When we turn our backs on each other constantly.

All the while we yearn for love, recognition, recovery, community and insert your list here.

All this is my perspective not The Truth. I shudder at some of these lists that I have presented. I shudder at the thought that the thirst for blood will prevail. I am afraid that we, as people, have been irremediably fragmented and distorted and that oblivion is calling.

The journey from #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter is riddled with symbolic annihilation and is not The Truth but an ignoble mechanism of power. Popular discourse that undermines women’s liberation and feminism is similarly infested. If you Google ‘define rabid’ the contextual example is, “a rabid feminist.” Among the synonyms are: maniacal, wild, raving, gung-ho and so forth.

In our culture, women of all races and classes who step out on the edge, courageously resisting conventional norms for female behaviour, are almost always portrayed as crazy, out of control, mad […] Set apart, captured in a circus of raging representations, women’s serious cultural rebellion is mocked, belittled, trivialised. It is frustrating to live in a world where female creativity and genius are almost always portrayed as inherently flawed.

                                                                                                      bell hooks

For example, Serena Williams, in all her undeniable brilliance, is popularly mocked. She is a black black woman and our crime in this global dominator culture, as black black women, is that we disrupt diabolical doctrines. We black black women, much like gender non-conforming people and people with disabilities, are antithetic bodies. We interrupt the myriad normative dimensions of power in this all-consuming global culture. That is why it is at war with us. That is why we must be categorically described as the antithesis of desire and vitality, treated like we are not firmly of this earth but aliens from another planet or ‘unnatural’ or not human. That is why we must be shunned, denied love and the respect of a regard or representation that respects our complexity.

The blacker she is, the more us she is – and to see the hatred that is turned on her is enough to make me despair, almost entirely, of our future as a people.

                                                                                         Alice Walker

In describing the strategic distancing by black people, ‘people of colour,’ brown people, yellow people and insert your list here, from their black black relatives; the strategic distancing from the perceived unbearable wretchedness of deep, dark Africa and all the deep, dark ‘others’ of the colonial imagination, she asserts,

And so I understand the subtle programming I, my mother, and my grandmother before me fell victim to. Escape the pain, the ridicule, escape the jokes, the lack of attention, respect, dates, even a job, any way you can. And if you can’t escape help your children to escape. And yet, what have we been escaping to? Freedom used to be the only answer to that question. But for some of our parents it is as if freedom and whiteness were the same destination, and that presents a problem for any person of colour who does not want to disappear.

                                                                                         Alice Walker

I am an advocate of feminism. I do not believe that feminism is The Truth. I do believe that it has and will continue to make monumental contributions of inestimable worth.

Those who claim dominion over The Truth, hate, demonise and vilify cults because, wittingly or unwittingly, they too are members of cults and they all are members of the cult of The Truth.

We are often powerless, the many of us held captive in this world that values domination, self-centredness and violence, with perilous rigidity and consequence. Perhaps what we must learn is to live without The Truth and its concomitant cultish universalities, never without justice and always with hope, love, compassion, integrity, vulnerability, courage and insert your list here. If a time comes that this dominator culture demands I make a choice, I hope I will have the courage to choose oblivion over the filthy, bloody, infested power – to escape the deadly glare and step into the darkness knowing it is not a bad place, knowing that perhaps that is where freedom lies.



Pumla Gqola in a public dialogue hosted by Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) to launch her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, at Centre for the BookCape Town.

Shajila Patel reminds us that “when you want to understand how power works in any society, watch who is carrying the shame and who is doing the shaming.”… Shame is a function of oppression; it has everything to do with who is valued and who is invisibilised… all systems of violent oppressive power produce shame in those they brutalise.

Gqola 2015, p. 38

 The construction of an impossible to attain ideal femininity and its deviant antithetic complement along with concomitant systems of reward and punishment produce notions of respect and shame about women (Gqola 2015, p. 78). Femininity, in patriarchal societies is always constructed in relation to and in service of heterosexual men and masculinity. For example, a respectable woman is expected to dress and behave with ‘modesty’ and is legitimately affiliated to one man. Conversely, a shameful woman dresses and behaves ‘immodestly’ – she is lone (single) and illegitimately affiliated to many men. According to the myriad patriarchal narratives such thinking creates, a respectable woman deserves to be rewarded and a shameful woman punished. This informs an aspect of what Pumla Gqola describes as the “female fear factory” (Gqola 2015, p. 78). She asserts, “something makes it possible for millions to be raped on a regular basis. That something is patriarchy” (Gqola 2015, p. 6). In this essay I will draw extensively from Gqola’s writing to examine the violence that is enacted upon young black women’s bodies in public urban spaces, the ways it is linked to rape culture and colonialism, and interrogate myths that characterise women as ‘sexual intimidators,’ which are commonly used to excuse multiple acts and forms of gender-based violence.

At the end of 2014 several highly publicised ‘miniskirt attacks’ occurred on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. In one of the cases a sixteen-year-old girl was attacked by four men, one of them a police officer, who attempted to forcefully undress her. In the same month one hundred men were arrested after a woman was similarly attacked at a matatu stage (minibus taxi terminal). In the second case it was reported that all the men were intoxicated. These incidents are not uncommon and the men who participate claim to be teaching women and girls a lesson or punishing them for being ‘indecently’ dressed. In response, after a social media call to march from a group called Kilimani Mums, hundreds took to the streets in a protest tagged #MyDressMyChoice condemning the men’s actions. This sparked nation wide discussion, much of which was documented on social media, about gender-based violence and the policing of women’s bodies.

While a considerable number of men marched in solidarity some were reported to have taunted women protesters asking, “Are you wearing panties?” “Why didn’t you come naked so we know you’re serious?” “If you keep talking, we will strip you to teach you a lesson!” Public commentary on the incidents and the protests ranged from condemnation of women and girls who dress ‘immodestly’ along with the #MyDressMyChoice protesters, to condemnation of men who support or participate in such attacks. The incidents and the subsequent public debate reveal an unhinged sense of entitlement that many Kenyan men have over young black women’s bodies. Nanjala Nyabola offers an insightful analysis of the attacks, asserting, “the debates about the stripping of women and a return to ‘decency’… highlight a misplaced nostalgia for a time that never was.”

Nyabola is referring to the conservative ostensibly African values that are juxtaposed against supposedly ‘loose’ so-called ‘un-African’ morals, perceived as a threat from the west. The paradox of this prevalent mentality is that the modest conservatism it purports to be traditionally African (in a troublingly over-simplified, essentialised, homogeneous sense) is a product of a ruthless European patriarchy, which was inextricably linked to the racism of its colonial projects (Oyewumi 1997, pp. 122-123). Oyewumi focusing on Nigeria aptly asserts, “(male) chiefs lost sovereignty while increasing powers over the people,” under British colonial administration, however, “we are to believe that their powers derived from ‘tradition’ even where the British created their own brand of ‘traditional chiefs’” (Oyewumi 1997, p. 125). The current prevailing patriarchy that is proclaimed ‘traditional’ by African male elites has its roots in the distorted, damaging colonial reproduction of ‘traditional’ Africa. With appreciation for the intricate heterogeneity of African peoples, I believe that current articulations of a conservative ideal ‘African-ness’ have created a violent patriarchal and heteronormative environment, in which institutions such as religion, the media and the nuclear family operate duplicitously. This places women and variously gender non-conforming individuals in precarious positions across the continent (Seale 2009, p. 88).

Gqola refers to what she terms “the female fear factory,” and poignantly articulates the stifling often life-threatening position of women in patriarchal societies. The examples she provides demonstrate the paralysing fear that informs women’s everyday choices and behaviour and the ways in which women are expected to silently endure (Gqola 2015, p. 87). I feel that a greater acknowledgment of the heteronormative dimension of this dilemma would enable a more expansive recognition of the ways in which the violence produced in the “fear factory” impacts women as well as people who do not, cannot, or choose not to fit into rigid binary constructions based on gender and sexuality (Berlant and Warner 2002, p. 309). While I think there could have been a more explicit mention of heteronormativity in the chapter, Gqola does not overlook this element of the problem.

She examines the rape and murder of the late Eudy Simelane, who was a black, lesbian soccer superstar. This was one of the more high-profile cases, in which “the motivation or justification for raping and/or killing [black lesbian women]… surfaces the desire to render them heterosexual” (Gqola 2015, p. 92). Rape that is in this way characterised, has come to be known as ‘corrective’ or ‘curative’ (Gqola 2015, p. 92). The choice of Eudy Simelane’s case and what is described as “a collision of patriarchal and homophobic power,” recognises the contribution of heteronormativity to gender-based violence (Gqola 2015, p. 92). A message that Gqola (2015) robustly drives home demonstrates how rape, even when it ends in brutal murder, is persistently explained in ways that, in spectacular speculative contortions of what could or could not have happened, somehow render the victim culpable.

Speculation that incorporates “slut shaming and victim blaming” that is so readily introduced and believed in public discourse is an aspect of collusion that makes rape culture viable (Gqola 2015, p. 86). When this reversal occurs, this deranged search for excuses, perpetrators are able to escape scrutiny and ultimately escape justice. To put it bluntly, the speculation begs the question, what did she do to get herself killed? What position did she put herself in? And not, what are the conditions of the society that she lives in? Not, how has society positioned her? All those questions come down to, how did she bring it on herself and did she deserve to die? Patriarchal societies privilege men who adhere to violent masculinities at staggering costs. My suspicion, unfortunately, is that the diabolical underlying sentiment, below the questions of collusion, is ‘yes, she got what she deserved.’ Women are expected to deal with rape and rape culture “very seldom do we talk about the rapist,” which creates narratives of “rape as a perpetrator-less crime” (Gqola 2015, p. 7).

Gqola flirts with the notion of women responding to patriarchal terror with violence, she tentatively states her affiliation to non-violent feminist activism by “disavowing violence as a patriarchal weapon,” she asserts:

I have agreed to be bound by this kind of feminism. But there are times when I wonder what would happen if women fought back for ourselves in numbers and unapologetically … the suspension of disbelief that works of fiction offer readers allowed me to entertain a different feminist position: one where women kill men who violate women, where women do so for themselves and in defence of one another… I have been convinced that the only reason the patriarchal siege continues unabated is because violent men know women will not rise up, take arms and collectively defend our own

Gqola 2015, p. 11

I chose to focus on Gqola’s writing because of the bravery in her willingness to entertain such radical departures and because her approach is refreshingly forthright and unabashed, which I think mitigates the effects of stigma and shame, opening up new avenues for solutions. I believe that considering violent retaliation should be more than entertained. I believe it should be creatively considered. Gqola further maintains, “rape is a crime of power and in a patriarchal society, all men can access patriarchal power” (Gqola 2015, p. 11-12). What power can women access?

In recent protests at Rhodes University, where a list of perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment was leaked, young women sought out the accused, confronted police and bore their naked bodies, bringing their university’s operations to a halt. In disrobing the young women followed a tradition that has proven effective for other African women in the past. In 2002 in Nigeria’s South-western Niger Delta hundreds of women acted against the debilitating activities of oil companies on their communities. The women were between twenty and ninety years old and they took seven hundred men hostage for over a week by threatening to disrobe – they were unarmed.

Mungai (2016) in an article examining the legacy and efficacy of naked protests maintains, “in a society founded on women’s literal and figurative invisibility, the shock of a naked woman is jarring; as a tool of protest, deliberately so.” She gives a few relatively successful examples, the most intriguing one came at the end of the Liberian peace talks when Leymah Gbowee, heading a delegation of women, began to strip in a last-ditch effort and a moment of supreme exasperation, other women followed suit. The havoc that ensued caused some male delegates to leap out of windows. The peace talks had been deadlocked for months, after the women stripped down an agreement was reached within two weeks and Gbowee was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Another Nobel Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai, a renowned environmental activist who “deliberately broke taboos as a form of symbolic protest,” resorted to similar tactics in Kenya in the early 1990s. When authorities would arrive to take them into custody, she and other women would disrobe, refer to police officers as their sons and state that it was a curse for sons to see their mothers naked.

The reverence of motherhood and the existence of matriarchies prior to traumatic colonial encounters in Africa are explored by Cheikh Anta Diop (1989) and Ifi Amadiume (1989). Amadiume in an illustration of Diop’s concepts describes two worlds, with two sets of value systems; in the North a world with narratives characterised by “ideals of war, violence, crime and conquest… [where] guilt… original sin and pessimism pervaded its moral ethic which was based on individualism” (Amadiume 1989, p. xiv). This is the current global dominator culture. On the other hand Africa represents a “Southern cradle of matriarchy,” and produces narratives based on “social collectiveness” and “the emancipation of women” (Amadiume 1989, p. xiv).

Like Amadiume I have misgivings about the notion of an “irreducible” binary construction of world systems (Amadiume 1989 p. xv). However, I find “the sacredness of the mother,” central to Diop’s matriarchal Southern cradle, useful in understanding naked protest as activism, in the current patriarchy and why it is so impactful when older women, assumed to be mothers participate. I do not believe that it is female power that is being drawn from when women disrobe in protest, in some cases winning hard battles because of it, but male guilt, shock and confusion, which older women, who are perceived to be mothers and therefore asexual, can more easily invoke. Older black women complicate notions of ‘public indecency,’ and ‘sexual intimidation’ because they present bodies that cannot be categorically sexualised, for mass heterosexual male consumption, and shamed. They perhaps even summon remnants of respect for the authority of the mother and in this way disrupt the continuum of male violence and patriarchy. This also serves as a reminder of just how under valued and at risk young black women and their bodies are in contrast.

When the young women at Rhodes University stripped to call attention to the plight of women in a rape culture that colludes with rapists and blames victims, protecting men while stigmatising and shaming young women, the predictable moralising response of condemnation, claimed ‘indecency’. This is similar to responses to the #MyDressMyChoice campaign in Nairobi, where many women donned the ‘miniskirts’ and other garments that supposedly lead to ‘sexual intimidation.’ Gqola examines the “compulsory literal and symbolic availability of all women to male heterosexual pleasure” or the “taken for granted assumption that all women should literally and theoretically be available for the pleasure of heterosexual men” (Gqola 2015, p. 8). She effectively interrogates the notion that some rapes are more brutal than others, specifically that the rape of the elderly and babies are “the worst kinds of rape” (Gqola 2015, p. 8). Both the idea that some rape is “understandable” based on the bodies they are acted upon and the notion that some women’s bodies are more deserving of respect, operate to keep young women hostage.

Young black women are especially stripped of power and their bodies frequently become the site of contestation. In the ‘miniskirt attacks,’ what the women are wearing, how they present themselves, is not the catalyst of the attack. One of the women was a street vendor demanding money from a client who owed her. To escape payment he called her a ‘whore’ and began to rip her clothes off, at which point other men flocked to participate (Nyabola, 2016). These public attacks on women, which date back to the early 1990s, are another facet of gender-based violence that young black women, in particular are taught they can avoid by dressing and behaving modestly and monitoring when and where they go. However, what makes a person vulnerable to attack is not what they are wearing or where they happen to be, but the position that rigidly heteronormative, patriarchal society place them in.

A young black woman relayed a harrowing personal story to me that occurred during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Cape Town South Africa. She had gone to meet a friend at a hotel where she was dragged out by security and hauled into the back of a police van, distraught and in tears, with no warning or explanation. I was reminded of my own experiences as a young black woman in spaces that automatically eroticise my body, regardless of the way it is presented and regardless of my conduct. In these spaces I am shameful by virtue of my blackness, youthful appearance and womanhood and I am faced with an exaggerated hostility, which must make me aware that I am unwelcome.

Yvette Abrahams quotes Lorraine Hansberry who declared, “…they look at me and they think of sex. They look at me and that’s all they think… you could be Jesus in drag – but if you’re brown they’re sure you’re selling.” Chimamanda Adichie tells a similar story of what it’s like “to be young and female in Lagos.” She maintains, “I cannot go alone to many ‘reputable’ bars and clubs. They just don’t let you in.” In my conversation with the young black woman, mentioned earlier, years after the incident, she told me that it took her a long time to share her experience because of the shame and humiliation she had felt.

Gqola maintains, “the manufacture of female fear uses the threat of rape and other bodily wounding but sometimes mythologises this violence as benefit” (Gqola 2015, p. 79). In this way large groups of men can isolate and attack women and girls in broad daylight on the street under the pretence of ‘teaching them a lesson’ about dressing ‘immodestly.’ These women and girls are characterised as shameful ‘sexual intimidators,’ ‘asking for it,’ ‘fair game’ and so forth. The notion that modesty and careful movement in public can protect women from sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender-based violence is false. Patriarchy and heteronormativity place women and variously gender non-conforming individuals in positions of high risk. Young women are surrounded with constant reminders that their bodies do not belong to them but to heterosexual men and function in service of masculine desire. In my view, all women, and young black women in particular, in patriarchal societies, by virtue of their womanhood, can very easily be characterised as shameful, regardless of how correctly they present and conduct themselves. The naked bodies of women in protest action have been used to disrupt the flow of masculine power in the “female fear factory” (Gqola 2015, p. 78). The response to them indicates the differential treatment of older women, assumed to be mothers, who are afforded greater respect and less likely to be sexualised for consumption; and younger women, automatically perceived as ‘sexually available,’ and given no respect. Ideal femininity is created only to be aspired towards and, along with rigid heteronormative structures and socially condoned violent masculinities, maintains patriarchy by engendering shame.



Abrahams, Y. (20017) Ambiguity is My Middle Name: A Research Diary. In: Women in South African History: Basus’iimbokodo, Bawel’imilambo / They remove boulders and cross rivers, HSRC Press, Cape Town.

Adichie, C. N. (2013) We Should All be Feminists . Available: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc> [May 9 2016].

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Gqola, P. D. (2015) Introduction. In: Rape: A South African Nightmare, MF Books Joburg, Johannesburg.

Gqola, P. D. (2015) The Female Fear Factory. In: Rape: A South African Nightmare, MF Books Joburg, Johannesburg.

Gqola, P. D. (2015) Rape Myths. In: Rape: A South African Nightmare, MF Books Joburg, Johannesburg.

International Museum for Women (2016) The Curse of Nakedness. Available: <http://exhibitions.globalfundforwomen.org/exhibitions/women-power-and-politics/biology/curse-of-nakedness> [May 8 2016].

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Rape culture is a term that has been floating around South African university campuses in recent months. From November 2015 to March 2016 five similar cases of sexual assault were reported around Rhodes Memorial near UCT’s upper campus. Four of the five victims were UCT students. On the 11th of March, amidst growing speculations of a serial rapist and with increasing media attention, UCT offered a R100,000 reward for leading information. A manhunt was unleashed on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, which culminated on the 12th of March in the arrest of a suspect who had been living on the mountain. The intelligence driven operation, which led to the arrest, revealed that the man, who wore a UCT sweatshirt and cap, had frequented UCT’s upper campus, even charging the stolen phone of one of his victims on the university’s premises.

UCT survivor is a platform created by three survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment, who are part of the university’s community. It provides a space for survivors to share their experiences. In a statement responding to the highly publicised arrest of the man who has come to be known as the ‘Rhodes Rapist,’ released on the groups blog page under the heading Statement for #RapeAtUCT, they asked “what about all the perpetrators of sexual violence in their classrooms and residences that UCT has not offered a reward for?” They asserted, furthermore, “if the management of this institution are serious about tackling sexual violence on this campus, they need to be open about the perpetrators that are part of the UCT community. They need to be open about how their structures have failed survivors in the past.”

The letters from survivors detail a range of experiences with discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault in and around UCT, the majority of which are perpetrated by members of the campus community. The gravity of the situation at the institution is nowhere more clearly stated than on UCT Survivors’ platform. Because the group privileges the experience of the survivor, rather than the reputation of the institution or the perpetrator, they are able to provide the most credible publicly available information. The stories relayed reveal fundamental contradictions and inefficiencies at DISCHO, which is UCT’s sole body tasked with managing harassment and discrimination, as well as the general incapacity of the institution to deal with the scale of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

One survivor wrote “I went to DISCHO where I was advised against taking him to the UCT court. I was told he was another student… they told me that I didn’t have much of a case because his behaviour was too close to ‘normal male behaviour,” and described a lawyer claiming in court that, “his client was just flirting with me like a ‘normal man.’” In this case the “normal male behaviour” refers to two years of stalking. Four years after the ordeal, upon returning to UCT to take up a position as a lecturer, the survivor describes seeing her stalker “swaggering across Jamie Plaza… The Panic and the fear that once held a grip on 19-year-old me came rushing back. I was frozen in terror.”


Another survivor describes being chased and assaulted by an acquaintance in a university residence. A Residence Facilities Officer (RFO) was immediately informed of the incident and responded, “you see, I keep telling you girls to lock your doors.” In a post taken from a student’s facebook page the situation in university residences is illuminated. The facebook poster reveals how the performance of violent masculinities and its attendant bonding rituals is condoned and encouraged, specifically at the male residence Kopano, where “the official song explicitly suggests raping a woman ‘til she’s dead and then continuing ‘til she’s rotten.”

Eleven young men on UCT’s campus spoke to me about how close relationships with women inform their awareness and concerns and expressed a willingness to engage in conversations about sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based violence. One described feeling protective over his younger sister and expressed his wish to speak to his mother about how to raise his own children, particularly how to raise boys. He stated, “if I have kids one day… if I father boys, what’s the best way to raise them, such that they don’t get inflated egos with respect to their gender..? I’d probably chat to my mom about that.” Another asserted, “we don’t talk about it enough or when we are talking about it it’s not really a serious issue you know… most of the time it’s a joke or something like that.” I asked him if he would be willing to start the conversation with his friends and he responded “I just feel like the conversation doesn’t really happen on a real level between men, like we don’t really bring it up that much, but at the same time I feel that… what avenues are there for women and men to discuss this..? because I think that’s where the real solutions are.” Most of the people I spoke to said that they knew survivors of sexual assault, none said they knew a perpetrator or, in fact, anyone who knew a perpetrator.

While UCT has mechanisms in place and has become increasingly vocal about the severity of the situation it is always evident that crucial information is withheld in attempts to protect the institutions reputation. This is not uncommon or particular to the university; it reflects one of the major impediments for activists, researchers and anybody seeking information or clarity about gender-based violence. It is a problem that transcends university campuses, nation-states and international organisations. Secrecy and reticence shroud the global dilemma of gender-based violence, making it mystifying and confusing to many and aiding in its perpetuation.


On the 5th of May 2016 a sparsely attended event titled Institutional Responses to Gender Based Violence was held in a large lecture theatre on UCT’s upper campus. It is part of a conversation series organised by the Black Academic Caucus. Three speakers addressed a small attentive audience: Dela Gwala, a postgraduate student and one of the founding members of UCT Survivors; Zethu Matebeni, a social justice activist, senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities in Africa, and the convenor of the Queer in Africa series; and Sianne Abrahams the curriculum interrogation project officer at HAICU (HIV and AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit). Yaliwe Clark from UCT’s Gender Studies Department facilitated the conversations.

Gwala and Matebeni discussed the limitations of DISCHO and UCT’s Sexual Harassment Policy, Mediation Policy and Racial Discrimination and Harassment Policy, which Matebeni described as UCT’s three flagship social justice policies. They both noted the absence of a policy on gender and the fact that gender is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bullet point. Gwala asserted that sexual assault cannot be dealt with in isolation and emphasised the toll it takes on survivors to follow through within the current response and management structures. Matebeni asserted that mediation, which is one of the options survivors are presented with, is a “big no” for anyone approaching the problem with knowledge of feminist research and discourse. She illuminated DISCHO’s limitations stating that it is the only formal body tasked with responding to harassment and discrimination on a campus of 27,000 and maintained that it essentially consists of two people.

Gwala and Matebeni also interrogated the notion of confidentiality. Gwala asserted that the university seems to “confuse confidentiality with secrecy” and Matebeni discussed a Transformation Services Offices (TSO) review, which, like a review of DISCHO that took place between the 12th and 14th of October 2015, has not been made publicly available. Matebeni asserted that the suggested solutions coming out of these confidential reviews, such as the amalgamation of DISCHO and HAICU, are inadequate.

In the audience were Rashida Manjoo, a professor in the Department of Public Law at UCT, she was appointed the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences in 2009; and Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma who heads up UCT’s recently established Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). She spoke at length about the challenges faced by the task team and responded to a remark from Dela Gwala, also a member of SART, who maintained that the team was set up by UCT’s management to defer responsibility. Gwala noted that in one announcement UCT management mentioned SART in a misleading manner suggesting it was fully operational when, in fact, the team had not even had it’s first meeting. Duma described the team as a multi-disciplinary collective of experts, including representatives from Cape Town’s Rape Crisis, Campus Protection Services (CPS), DISCHO and student wellness. She repeatedly mentioned that the team is open and in need of support and resources, stating that with her already full load the only time she can dedicate to SART is in the early hours of the morning. She spoke of organizations outside the university coming forward to offer their services, including a church that has been counseling survivors of sexual assault from UCT.

Duma spoke about more than 15 cases of sexual assault being reported in four months and how that number is more than has been revealed in five years. Gwala said that the 18 cases reported this year are a “drop in the ocean.” Matebeni expressed disdain at management’s “carelessness.” Towards the end of the event, Rashida Manjoo asked, “who is the ‘we’ making decisions and the ‘we’ it will impact most?”