By Jen Thorpe
This morning I finished reading Jessica Valenti’s Memoir Sex Object. The book is a collection of personal reflections on topics such as street harassment, abortion, drug use, sex, and child raising. Throughout, it explores the way that the world treats women, casting them as objects for men’s comment, pleasure, and enjoyment. It also explores the very powerful physical, psychological, and political effects this categorisation has. I found the book painful and difficult to read, not because of the writing but because of the content. Despite this difficulty, the book is important in that it raises important questions that we need to consider.
Valenti considers what it means for her to be raising a daughter in this world and the qualities that she would like her daughter to have. She wants her daughter to be brave, to still be the girl who wants the best part in the play when she’s older, and most of all she wants her not to have to endure the constant harassment, abuse, and assault that most women are exposed to on a daily basis. She wonders what it might be like if that was not the world that existed, and what women would believe about their own potential if we had the space to live our lives un-objectified.
It’s a powerful question that bears reflecting on in South Africa, where street harassment, domestic violence, sexual violence, abuse, and gender discrimination remain the norm. Sure, we have the laws that say it’s not allowed, and the Constitution says we all have the right to feel and be safe, but for most of us, those are just pieces of paper with good intentions.
Last year I spent three months out of the country on writing residencies. It was an amazing time, not least because I had uninterrupted time to write, and my meals were mostly cooked for me, which feels like #livingthedream. What I loved most about the residencies, that took place in two small towns, was my ability to walk alone, for long periods, on the road or in the wilderness, without being harassed. This simple pleasure, an hour long walk a day where I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid, where nobody said anything to me about how I looked or what I was doing alone, and where I could be in nature and consume the beauty of the natural world, was something that I treasured. It helped me sleep better. It helped me write better. It made me feel more human.
The first week back in South Africa after the first residency, I was sexually harassed by a man while walking down the street to visit some old work friends. When I ignored him, which is my instinctive reaction (sometimes my instinct is to keep walking with my middle finger in the air), he took the liberty of crossing the road in case it was a matter of his lewd suggestions being unheard rather than deliberately ignored. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was there, looking at me. It was only when a kind male stranger walked next to me and told him to go away that he stopped. But even this didn’t make me feel better – he didn’t stop because he realised it was vicious, destructive, or offensive to shout comments at me. He stopped because he believed I belonged to another man. I was still an object to him.
I’m at the age where I think about what it might mean to raise a little girl in this world and to be frank, it terrifies me. I wonder how I will tell her that she has the rights and power to do anything she puts her mind to, but simultaneously explain that she should also probably be hypervigilant when crossing the street at night or when choosing an intimate partner. I don’t know that this double-think double-living is psychologically tenable.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where women could go on a walk every day for the sheer pleasure of it, and what women would be capable of doing if they were really free.
16 Days of Activism to end violence against women
For release: late Monday 4 December 2017
Another Teflon Man – Government ignores it’s own #CountMeIn campaign
CASE 8: George Mthimunye, municipal manager in three municipalities, now senior manager at Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature
Esther Mahlangu-Mathibela was sexually harassed for three years by George Mthimunye, the then-municipal manager of the Dr JS Moroka Municipality in Mpumalanga. In 2001 Mthimunye was finally suspended and charged with sexual harassment and unauthorised or fruitless expenditure. He later settled with the municipality and resigned in 2001, reportedly having received a R5 million settlement. Mthimunye was then appointed the municipal manager of the Naledi municipality in Vryburg – and suspended in 2010 in the course of disciplinary proceedings against him, related to tender irregularities. Two years later, reportedly on the recommendation of the ANC’s deployment committee, and despite a High Court judgement against him, Mthimunye was appointed the manager of the Emalahleni Municipality. In a now-familiar pattern, Mthimunye was suspended in 2013 and the municipality placed under administration. Mthimunye resigned from Emalahleni in February 2014 and took up his new post as the Executive Manager of Corporate Services in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature in April 2014 – a position he continues to occupy.
Mthimunye seems to have avoided ever facing disciplinary enquiry for his actions and has consistently evaded finalisation of such processes. In a pattern already noted in previous #NotOurLeaders, he appears to have received at least one substantial settlement upon his resignation. In 2007 Mthimunye also successfully sued RCP Media and African Eye News Services for defamation after they described him both as ‘lecherous’ and as a sexual harasser. He was awarded R35 000, in addition when his harassment of Mathibela-Mahlangu went to court, the municipality reportedly paid his legal costs.
By contrast, Esther Mahlangu-Mathibela had to wait until 2012 before she saw justice. The North Gauteng High Court found that Mthimunye had committed the sexual harassment and awarded costs and damages to Mahlangu-Mathibela to be paid by the Moroka Municipality and Mthimunye. Esther Mahlangu-Mathibela reportedly faced ongoing victimisation by the Moroko Municipality during 2012 and 2013, including having her salary frozen. The municipality has also never sought to recover any costs from Mthimunye, in spite of legal advice that he could be liable for at least a portion of these.
In 2016 Mthimunye was again accused of at least three incidents of sexual harassment by a woman working in the Mpumalanga Provincial Legislature. When the Legislature failed to take up her complaint she took the matter to the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE). Subsequently the case disappeared, the CGE having concluded that the matter was ‘amicably resolved.’
ANC and municipal spokespeople have used the usual avoidance tactics when asked to comment on Mthimunye. In 2012, in the face of the High Court ruling, the ANC secretary for the Nkangala region, Tommy Nkoana, argued that the ANC could not take a position as it would be ‘“judgmental” and “passing a verdict” if it stopped Mthimunye’s deployment to Emalahleni. Emalahleni spokesperson Lebohang Mofokeng similarly argued that they could not comment on the allegations against Mthimunye because they were ‘his word against the media’.
“This case has all the hallmarks of patronage and protectionism from the ANC in Mpumalanga, it is inconceivable that a person with a track record like this could continue to advance in his career without strong political support. It is corrupt” says Sam Waterhouse of the Women and Democracy Initative.
Lisa Vetten, a gender violence specialist points out: “One of government’s messages for the 16 Days of Activism is #CountMeIn which urges people to take various sorts of actions against gender-based violence. They could do no better than to act on their own message by taking action against Mthimunye in terms of the Public Service Commission Act. He is blatantly unfit to work in the public service. Retaining, promoting and protecting him makes a mockery of every government campaign telling women to speak out.”
Action must be taken
- Mthimunye’s deployment to various municipalities is linked to recommendations of the ANC deployment committee and is overseen by the ministers and MECs of cooperative governance. Relevant ANC structures must account for their continued support of Mthimunye and his deployment in senior positions regardless of the multiple charges that he’s faced.
- Repeated appointment of Mthimunye also points to a gap in appointments processes and lack of accountability of the municipal councils and the Provincial Legislature. An accessible public record of people who’ve been disciplined and dismissed, or resigned prior to completion of a disciplinary process can increase political accountability. This should apply to senior appointments at all levels and arms of government.
For comment contact:
- Sanja Bornman, Lawyers for Human Rights, 083 522 2933
- Sam Waterhouse, Women and Democracy Initiative, Dullah Omar Institute, 084 522 9646
- Lisa Vetten, gender violence specialist, 082 822 6725
Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA)
|RELATED MEDIA STORIES|
|About the #NotOurLeaders campaign
During this year’s 16 Days of Activism, the Women and Democracy Initiative (WDI) of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), and gender violence specialist, Lisa Vetten, turn the spotlight on political representatives accused of sexual violence and the practices that protect and enable their sexual misconduct and abuse. By contrasting the range of incidents reported with parties’ inconsistent – even non-existent – responses, the campaign aims to demonstrate the chasm between political-speak and political actions on sexual violence.
The campaign emphasises the need for strong political leadership by all political parties and representatives in tackling the pervasive problem of sexual violence in South Africa.
Perhaps it was the decided lack of content or reality displayed by President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address last week that allowed for picking on Thandile Sunduza, MP, to become the country’s favourite pastime.
SONA is the high theatre of politics: red carpets, swanky clothes, obscure figures and even more nebulous promises. This year was no different – save in one crucial aspect. South Africans participated in the character assassination of a female MP, who happens to seven months pregnant, with such ferocity that Sunduza landed up in hospital due to the emotional torment she suffered at the hands of internet trolls and serious newspapers alike.
I have seen various arguments attempting to mollify the sheer horrific impact that this has situation had. They have all, in various ways, attempted to justify and underplay what this was: the objectification and denigration of a woman for how she dressed. Had Sunduza not collapsed and had the life of her unborn child not been threatened, I wonder whether the same people would have attempted to blithely justify their mob-mentality in attacking her so. But, for those of us who monitor these things, attacking a female politician for anything other than how she does her job is commonplace in South Africa’s political discourse.
Some of the more amusing arguments I have seen have included: (a) that she was being criticised for her choice of fashion against an objective standard – not that she was female; and (b) that being an MP means she is expected to set an example and her choice, which was an allegedly poor one, made criticising her fair game.
The first argument is flawed on two grounds.
Firstly, the objective standard is hardly objective like all. As I wrote in an article about whiteness and excellence, our understanding of what is acceptable and what isn’t is as a result of socialisation and prevailing dominant cultural attitudes. These cultural attitudes are not value-free: they are as a result of complex power relations which shape our views on things like rights, culture and even fashion. That a ‘fat’ woman should not wear something ‘figure-hugging’ is as a result of the hyper-marketised projection of only people ‘in shape’ being allowed to wear such clothing. That in previous times, women ‘with curves’ were considered as being desirable and encouraged to show off their curves – and tin women were looked down upon – is indicative of how fickle, and thus unreliable, these ‘standards’ are.
This also covers the pithy argument that she must set an example. In any case, if we were going to criticise her for anything, shouldn’t we be focusing on her track-record and performance in Parliament as opposed to whether her dress fit her? If we are trying to set examples, this episode basically tells young women that they must be seen and heard to say and do the right things and they’ll be okay: dare to be different and you’ll be crucified. Imagine how this is viewed in hindsight. On the occasion that the biggest policy speech was being made in our political year, a few months before the election, most people were frothing at the mouth over how a largely-unknown MP looked. So much for wanting to create a new generation of female leaders in South Africa.
Second, the fact that she is a woman cannot be separated from the criticism levelled at her fashion choice. While I loathe essentialisation of this kind, this inseparability comes about in two respects.
On one hand, no man would ever be subjected to this kind of scrutiny. Even if they were, it would be transient at best. Women seem to be in a special class: that we can criticise them for what they wear because women are concerned with fashion and that makes it okay. Actually, women should not mindlessly be associated with fashion. Like with everything, some care and others don’t. Similarly, if we create fashion to be reserve of women, what does it say about a fashionable or fashion conscious man? That he is womanly? Hmm, think not.
On the other hand, the aggressive way in which Sunduza was belittled is representative of the wider societal problem we have with women in South Africa. It is no coincidence that women are the most disempowered and the most brutalised: we live in a society where women are treated as the lesser, inferior beings and where we – as men but also as a society – can treat them as they wish. For all our lip service to the Women’s march of 1955 and 16 days of activism, we spend a lot of time letting women know where they belong: at the bottom of the pile. It may be hyperbolic of me to suggest that Sunduza’s treatment is in the same vein. Perhaps. But it symbolises how even if we don’t hit women physically, we continue to allow them to be broken down in other ways as well. We objectify them in the worst way.
I hate to take on the role of moraliser-in-chief. But something has to be said about how Sunduza was treated. For the harsh criticism that she was subjected to is not only about her. It is about how we view and treat women in politics and in general. South Africans should take a long hard look at themselves and realise that we have no right nor place to judge. Certainly not in the way that it transpired nor over what we all got worked up over. We deserve better. And so does Sunduza and countless other women.
This article first appeared on News24.com Voices
By Dudumalingani Mqombothi
News is horrified of dew. That is a Xhosa idiom– old as time– carved on rocks. It simply translates: if there is news, it will be heard. The idiom leans, owing to innocent inferred meaning, towards bad news and not good news. A month ago, I eavesdropped on a heated conversation meant for friends and those participating in that discussion, exposing their own wretched soles. I intended to abandon the conversation at the doors of the train and not retell it because that is theft. But every writer is a thief of conversations, gestures, personality and at times writers steal people in their entirety. People show up in fictional books, in their entirety or in parts. It cannot be me. The writer does not know me. We dismiss ourselves.
From the storyteller, when she says ‘explain to me how does one become horny in such heat’, I extrapolate that the day had been one of those gloriously summer Cape Town days or perhaps a winter day when the sun violently bursts through the clouds. The train– as usual– was crowded with not much space to move. The passengers’ bodies face towards each other and away from each other. The crowding makes it impossible to stay clear of human contact. One’s hips brush against another person’s. The person behind you brushes against your bum and the nostrils breath in the breath of the other person.
According to the storyteller, the woman had been standing in the open space between the two electric doors. She wore a black skirt, black leggings and white blouse. She had stuffed her convenient belongings in the bag she hid underneath her arm. Bags have to be hid underneath arms because criminals gash them open with sharp blades and take out of them what they please. She was beautiful my friend. You could tell she was off to an interview or work. The storyteller says to her friends– to me. It is not clear which station she embarked the train. According to our storyteller, she had been there for some time. The woman was not talking to anyone, she did not know anyone, or wherever she was going lay heavily on her mind. I saw the white marks on her black skirt and I thought its nothing. The storyteller says. As the train commuters empty, people appear in complete full, from head to toe. The woman was still there. It was now three stations before the final destination, Cape Town. An older woman calls her and tells her that she has a white smear on her skirt. She twists her neck to have a look and so does everyone. It was semen. Unbelievable. Someone yells. Men are such horny dogs. Another woman yells. The storyteller continues her story because news is horrified of dew. Clearly the guy was not getting it at home. But did he get his thing out and rubbed it against her? She asks.
Another woman shares her story. She had been standing next to a man. The train is crowded. So it is not like I can move to another place. And then this bastard takes out his penis right inside the train and asks me if I want it. I will grab it and show it to everyone if you do not stop it. She threatens him and he stops. Men are dogs. She completes her story.
A friend of mine had told me that this happens in the train. I did not believe her. It is perverted to understand. Inhumane. I could not in my mind frame up a complete picture of a man who gets aroused by a woman in the train and having an orgasm.
On a separate day, I embark the train in the afternoon. A girl, who looks not older than 20, embarks the train. She wore a mini skirt and a grey top. It looked like a work uniform. She stands by the door and places her bag on her calves and takes out her phone and stares into it. She faces the wall of the train the entire journey. Only peering to look out the window– I assumed for her station. The men around her and farther down the carriage yell greetings and perverted compliments at her. She is in a catch-22 situation. She looks away but she hears them talk about her bum and her thighs. She looks at them and will see their horny eyes fucking her.
Men are always trying to get laid, aren’t they? I say to the woman next to me. She giggles and agrees. Shoo. She adds.
To make sense of this sickness I gather close female friends and asked them. My one friend tells me that she wants to slap men that stare and undress her. Another friend wants to cut their penises off. Another friend tells me, with disgust on her face, I feel naked. I can feel their nude bodies against mine.
Another friend tells me that she can feel their tongues slide up and down her back- soiling her- leaving her skin permanently scarred and their slimy hands violently brushing against her skin- bruising it. She feels her skin itch, as if something is crawling underneath.
After talking to them, I sit by the window and stare at concrete bricks placed such that they form a maze. This is an attempt to evade my friend’s feelings and the stories I heard on the train from those women. My attempt comes to naught. Sorrow consumes me. And it continues to do every time I see a man staring at a woman and every time I notice myself staring at a woman.