When I was a child my mother often told us a story of the battle between the chieftains of the Celes and Radebes. My mother’s uncle was one of the elders who helped bring the Cele chieftaincy to victory. It is one of the best known tales of the Cele. The story never explains what the Celes and Radebes were fighting about. Rather, the moral of the story is what the Cele elders had to do in order to win. Naturally, before the fight, they sat together to plan their strategies and tactics. In addition to a battle plan and clever tricks of skilled warriors, they counted on powerful muti. Still, they knew that if there were unresolved conflicts among them, their plans and tricks and all their muti would fail - and they would lose the fight.
To avoid this, each elder would have to candidly acknowledge to everyone any problem he had with another comrade. The most common type of problem they revealed - and resolved - were those arising from misinformation spread by the opposing chieftancy, in order to create divisions. They knew that it was only by addressing and healing these divisions that they could unite, and that only by uniting could they win.
Today, South Africans, and especially young black South Africans, are engaged in a new phase of the struggle for justice and equality that our forefathers so nobly advanced. The Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements have shed light on persistent social and economic inequality, and on the neoliberal structures which are obstacles to a more just distribution of resources. At the same time, campus protests against the culture of rape have drawn attention to the nature, severity and magnitude of the problem of violence against women, and have shown it to be the infringement of basic human rights, and the unjust subjugation of one group by another.
Economic justice requires wresting South Africa’s land and resources from the grip of global capital, for the benefit of all South Africans. At the same time, the defence of freedom requires protecting a woman’s right to autonomy over her body, her sexuality, and her reproductive choices - and to all the rights to which every person is entitled, including the right to life, the right to equality, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to equal protection under the law, and the right to be free from all forms of discrimination. This is the work the current generation of South Africans must achieve. This is what the cause of justice demands of us.
But we are not ready for the battle. We are divided against our selves. South Africa’s culture of rape and near total impunity reflects a terrible division. Rape and gender-based violence are used to enforce the subjugation of women by men - a subjugation as perverse as the subjugation of blacks by whites under apartheid.
Why do men rape? Rape is about power. Many black South African men experience a justifiable rage, in response to degrading circumstances and failed promises. But how is that rage channelled? Is it harnessed to struggle against the real enemy - the forces that prevent genuine transformation? Too often it is manifest in rape, and in violence and other forms of abuse against women. Some men, humiliated by a sense of impotence in the face of transformation’s failures, may feel they gain power by using physical force to impose their will on women. Of course, they are only humiliating themselves further. Individually, they surrender their dignity. Collectively, they perpetuate their own disappointment, undermining transformation by alienating half of their own community of comrades. Only in unity can we win.
Who benefits from the rape culture? Only the real enemy - the interests of global neoliberal capitalism who would maintain the current injustice. As long as men refuse to free themselves from rape culture, this real enemy can celebrate. This enemy can celebrate because all our strategies and all the well-planned tricks of the skilful warrior will come to naught, as long as we are not united.
Some view the conversation about the rape culture as a distraction from the ‘real’ fight. They say, “Let us fight for Rhodes Must Fall, and Fees Must Fall, first. Then later there will be time to talk about rape.” They need to recall the wisdom of the Cele elders. Without unity we cannot win.
A friend of mine observed that South African black women are rolling with ‘success’. They are rising stars in academia, innovators in industry, and entrepreneurs in business and flourishing in many other spaces. But they are leaving their men behind.
At the same time, as we have seen across South African universities, women are freeing themselves from the stigma and shame that they once felt as victims of rape, declining to be defined by a culture that blames the victim for the sins of the aggressor.
Some men, too, complain that when they try to understand the women’s struggle they are excluded or ignored.
As women gain economic and social power and personal independence, partnering with an abusive or domineering men becomes less (very much less) attractive. A black South African man who hopes to support his sense of virility by dominating women is fighting an increasingly losing battle. Happily, there is a win/win path available. When men reject the rape culture and begin to treat women as equals, entitled to every right a man enjoys, they will not only grow in their own true manhood, but will also gain a world of comrades for the struggle. Men, women are not your enemies.
The most difficult thing about fighting rape culture is that our opponents are our own brothers, and our own homeboys - the very ones with whom we want to fight, shoulder to shoulder, to make a better future. As women in the struggle we have a double burden, fighting against external oppression for our rights as people of colour, and fighting against internal oppression - the rape culture within our own organisations - for our basic human rights as women.
If there are divisions between you and your sister, there is no way you can win the fight with your neighbour. With the rape culture within our movements, we cannot win – in fact we cannot even organise a real fight against the neoliberal capitalism.
Come, men, wake up. Recognise your sisters, while you still have the chance. We are building a better world. But we need you, as you need us. Because only in unity can we win.
Sinikiwe Mqadi is a digital content producer at 702.