Satire, like any kind of media production, is a difficult business, particularly in a country with so many systemic challenges (such as poverty, inequality, prevailing racism, homophobia, patriarchal violence against women, children and men who fall victim to violence by men who feel it is their birthright to have unfettered access to our bodies and public spaces) and escalating political crises, particularly as they play out under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma.
Enter the social commentator who has the arduous task of encapsulating some part of the prevailing public discourse.
Nearly a decade after he first used it, Jonathan Shapiro once again repeats his image of a black woman being gang raped to make a point about the deeply concerning (which we should and which many of already are watching with grave concern) socio-political events.
Except Zapiro employs an image that’s not just an image but a very real, visceral and harrowing reality for many of us. He chooses rape, and gang rape in particular.
South Africa is a country characterised by pervasive sexual violence, and (even scarier), a society that seems to be fine with it, that always seems to find a way to victim blame, to tell women to not get raped rather than for men not to rape, that (still!) seems unable to articulate that rape is about power not sex, and about violent masculinities that put the rest of us in danger.
In a country where even the 2013 rape and murder of teenager Anene Booysen descended into victim blaming, into class shaming her parents, rape is understood to refer to refer everything but the violence itself- a convenient disassociation for a country as violent as ours where the threat of rape as tool to punish women, particularly poor lesbian woman looms over every part of everyday life.
Throughout his usage of the imagery, Shapiro has used rape, particularly gang rape to everything but rape, and does so, by his own admission yesterday to “shock.”
Satirists work with power- they understand who has the power, they understand what the power means for those who don’t have it, they understand the impact of repeated imagery and so Shapiro in employing rape as a metaphor does so with the full knowledge of what that means in the South African context. And if he didn’t know before, over the last decade it has been explained ad nauseam what the use of rape as a metaphor does for a public discourse that is failing terribly at discussing and completely condemning rape, and not just about him but about artist Ayanda Mabulu and his penchant for sexual violence as metaphor, who also uses women’s bodies as sites of violence “to make a point.”
Whether or not he intends to, Shapiro joins a long line of diminishing the true horror of rape, his trope makes it harder for those of us who must explain what happened to us and what is happening to others and why it continues to be so painful, it makes harder the task of building the discourse and the work by activists, and incredible organisations like Sweat and 1 in 9 campaign, because his work fits in nicely with prevailing discourse that thinks doing badly in a test, paying more for petrol or groceries is the same as the seemingly endless violence visited on so many of our bodies. In South African dominant discourse, everything else is as bad as rape but not rape itself. Ironically, if the country responded to sexual violence in the manner that it has responded to state capture, South Africa might be a fundamentally different place for those of us living in fear of being violated for the first or the umpteenth time.
What discussions around Shapiro’s use of rape as metaphor as well as the work of Charlie Hebdo last year demonstrate is that current social commentators and satirists seemingly want to contribute to public discourse without being accountable to it, it wants freedom of expression for itself but not for for the people reading it and consuming it to respond to them.
Increasingly, the old guard of social commentators is proving that it either doesn’t care that its “satirical” work is not consumed in Narnia - a wonderful magical world not defined by inequality and violence- and thus requires them to think about what harm they could be doing, in trying to speak about harm.
His defence on one of the other radio platforms yesterday afternoon was that he had consulted media colleagues and rape survivors in his life.
But this is not enough because Shapiro does not publish for his colleagues and those close to him. Shapiro takes on the mammoth task of publishing for all who have access to his work, for all whose experiences of violence he reduced to a shocking metaphor. Those who have black friends, and say racist things, harm the rest of us with their racism, even if their friends love or condone their violence anyway. Similarly, men who are violent and sexist, yet have women in their lives, can and do remain violent and sexist even if the women in their lives love them anyway.
Our interpersonal relationships do not redeem us from what harm we cause out there, they are also not a pass, and Shapiro as someone who reflects on the impact certain individuals (like President Jacob Zuma) have on public life (despite how people in his personal life feel about him), actually understands that.
The incisive Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, in her must-read book ‘Rape- A South Africa Nightmare’ writes: “how we speak and respond to violence matters. “It happens all the time” points to the crisis, debunking the myth that it is shocking and expressed in isolated incidents.
That phrasing also suggests that it is commonplace, normal… The truth is rape does not just happen. Individuals choose to rape and they make this choice because it is available one, and one mainly without consequences to themselves.
But there is a cost - a huge, devastating cost that comes with rape- an invisible would that remains long after the physical scars (where they exist) have healed. And what a cost to us to have so many of our people walking around wounded. As a society, we can do so much better…”
Social commentators, those of us with the immense responsibility and privilege to write, speak and draw to contribute to public discourse, those of us who call ourselves allies, can do so much better too. We must do better in our work and offer the public discourse much needed new and better tools to understand the completely new times, while also not further causing harm to people already failed by our country’s public discourse.