“Our Perfect Wedding” and the normalisation of predatory relationships

Last night, Mzansi Magic decided to air, for the second week in a row, a predatory relationship between an older man and a younger woman on the hit reality show Our Perfect Wedding. It’s probably worth noting that the first time I watched the show, they were airing an episode with an older man who had met and begun dating his fiancee when she was 13 and he was 21. In the duration of their relationship, he had had three children with three different women, but the bride had felt lucky that a light skinned man like him wanted to be with a dark skinned woman like her, and felt that the fact that they hadn’t had any children together was a personal failure on her part. So suffice to say, OPW has been guilty of airing these kinds of episodes for quite some time.

However, this week’s episode pushed the boundaries beyond the limit. It featured a couple in which the woman had been 14 and the man 28 when they began dating. The groom was a taxi driver at the time and confessed to deliberately targeting young school girls for sex. He would have sex with three or four of them in one day. Yes, during the #16DaysofActivism against gender based violence and child abuse, Mzansi Magic decided to air an episode in which a man confessed to multiple counts of statutory rape on an entertainment show which attracts more than 1 million viewers.

The episode has sparked legitimate outrage ranging from discussions around how the episode contributes to rape culture by presenting such relationships as legitimate, to petitions calling for the removal of Our Perfect Wedding. But most importantly, the episode has led to a serious discussion on how normalised statutory rape and predatory relationships are in South Africa.

For the producers of Our Perfect Wedding, statutory rape is seen as just another way to generate views and as far as they’re concerned, if a predatory relationship ends in marriage, then it’s perfectly acceptable. Or perhaps, this is not just the viewpoint of the producers of OPW but is rather symptomatic of the attitudes towards predatory relationships as a whole in our country.

A big part of the problem here is in the fact that for many of us, we were sexualised from an unacceptably young age by much older men. I received my first sexual advance, from an adult man who appeared to be into his thirties, when I was nine years old and began receiving advances from older men regularly from when I was about 12 or 13. This early sexualisation is indicative of the fact that for many men, teenage girls are not seen as the children they are and are denied their innocence from the moment they hit puberty.

It’s also seen as normal. As girls we began to alter the way we dressed in order to avoid unwanted attention. From about 14, whenever I arrived at a mall early to meet my friends I would hide in Exclusive Books to avoid creepy older men who hit on me. Time and time again, girls who dressed in a certain way or acted a certain way were condemned and any attention that they got from older men was blamed solely on them.

To make matters worse, I’ve often found that conversations around sugar daddies don’t focus on how predatory it is for older men, often well into their thirties and beyond, to target young school girls who usually come from poor backgrounds by paying for their expenses in exchange for sex. Instead, they focus on teaching the young, vulnerable girls to stay away from these men. The onus to prevent these relationships is placed on the girls, rather than the men who exploit and abuse them.

The discussions that are now being generated from this particular OPW episode are important ones, because they are ones that are strongly condemning the motives of men like the groom, and are seriously questioning the kind of society we live in that airs a confessed rapist as entertainment without ever holding him accountable. People are openly coming out, saying that what happened on OPW last night was not okay, and making sure the producers face consequences for it. And I firmly believe that one of the first and most important steps to take in fighting gender based violence and child abuse is to seriously challenge anything that presents such practices as normal

Oppression as an “experience” for the privileged

Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe caused considerable outrage this week when she claimed that she sometimes skips meals so she can be in solidarity with those who are starving in her country. Her comment was particularly shocking given that her husband is partly responsible for the high levels of poverty in her country and that she has become so notorious for her costly shopping trips in Europe that she has been dubbed “Gucci Grace”.

To be honest, I don’t find Mugabe’s comments surprising at all. While Mugabe may be the most blatant example of someone condescendingly flaunting their privilege by treating oppression like an experience, she is far from the first. The mentality that Mugabe displayed is unnervingly common and is the very same mentality behind concepts like the CEO Sleepout, where CEOs of multimillion rand corporations spent a night in the streets of Sandton to “experience what it’s like to be homeless”. It’s the same mentality behind social experiments as seemingly harmless as the Fat Girl Tinder Date experiment, where a thin, conventionally attractive women used her thin pictures to get dates with men on Tinder, donned a fatsuit for the actual date, and then recorded their mostly negative reactions towards her. Because apparently, this is somehow an accurate reflection of how actual fat women try to get dates.

I can see how the intentions may seem noble at a surface glance. The participant recognises that they are in a position of privilege and that those who are not in the same position as them are suffering as a result of their marginalised position. This recognition is an important and necessary one that must be taken in order to address inequality in our society.

However, the second a privileged person wants to “try on” the oppression that a marginalised group faces problems arise. Certainly, an argument can be made that such an “experience” can be a humbling experience that many privileged people need. But at the same time, such an argument ignores that it is completely insensitive to the lived experiences of those whose oppression is being tried on.

As one fat girl said in response to the fat girl Tinder date video, at the end of the day the girl in the video can take off the fat suit and the makeup and go on being thin in a world that caters to thinness and treats thinness as the standard of beauty. Fat girls don’t have that option; they are fat 24/7. The same can be said for homeless people with regards to the CEO Sleepout and starving poverty stricken people with regards to Grace Mugabe’s comments. To pretend that one gains an understanding of oppression after experiencing it for a few hours is a short sighted one as such an experience is extremely limited.

[image of the CEO Sleepout which took place in Sandton in June]

Grace Mugabe may feel the hunger pangs for a few hours but she does not experience the desperation that comes with not knowing where your next meal will come from. The CEOs may have felt some of the discomfort that comes with sleeping outside but they were provided with warm sleeping bags, jackets, beanies, and security, as well as fires for warmth and billboards surrounding them to block off the cold wind. These are luxuries that homeless people do not have. “Trying on” oppression for a few hours does not give one a fraction of an idea of what it’s like to actually be oppressed, and to pretend that it does is the height of privilege.

In an age of social media, where information is highly accessible and marginalised people are speaking out about their experiences, reading the testimonies of those who face oppression on a daily basis is more insightful and far more informative than trying on oppression could ever be. Even in the case of the homeless who the organisers of the CEO sleepout wanted to help, I believe that it would have been far more empowering for the homeless to have been given an opportunity to share their stories.

I feel that efforts like the CEO Sleepout and Grace Mugabe’s comments take the focus away from where it should be and put it firmly on the privileged people who are “selflessly sacrificing” to experience oppression. The marginalised are once again being sidelined while the privileged steal the spotlight.

While I believe that the privileged absolutely should be more proactive in the fight for equality, I believe that we need to be critical of the approaches we take. Rather than taking seemingly noble gestures at face value, we need to be questioning whether or not these gestures are empowering to those they claim to empower or are done from a shallow, extremely privileged perspective.

 

We need to talk about Burundi

As a result of the underwhelming media coverage, we are often kept in the dark when it comes to tragedies that happen on our own continent, leaving us shockingly ignorant to the desperate situations that many African countries are now in. One such country is Burundi. Since the Paris attack on Friday night, which left at least 120 dead, I have seen many on social media ask but what about Burundi? It’s a fair question, given that the country is now facing dangerous levels of violence and political instability. If we are hoping to take seriously the amount of innocent lives that are lost to senseless violence, we need to have a serious conversation about what is happening in Burundi.

The small, hilly, landlocked country is in the midst of some of the worst violence it has faced since its civil war ended in 2005. Since April, at least 240 people have been killed with bodies being dumped in the street on a nightly basis. Over 210 000 people have fled to neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania. There are also fears that the escalating violence could be the tipping point that leads to a genocide between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, similar to the 1993 genocide in Rwanda.

The violence was triggered in April when the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy) announced that President  Nkurunziza would be running for a third term. Such a move went against the 2000 peace agreement that was used to help end the civil war, the Arusha Accords, which stipulates that presidents may only be in power for two terms. The announcement was seen as a power grab by many and led to the capital, Bujumbura, being rocked by protests which resulted in 19 deaths. Shortly afterwards, there was a military coup led by General Godefroid Niyombare who was the chief of intelligence. Although the coup failed, it managed to instill paranoia among Nkurunziza and his advisors.

[Protests in Bujumbura against President Nkurunziza running for a third term]

Nkurunziza won the presidential election in July but the controversial win was seen as illegitimate by many. Since his win, killings, tortures, detentions, and other government sanctioned human rights violations have increased as the government attempts to crack down on its opposition. To make matters worse, government officials have been quoted making statements that echo those made during the Rwandan genocide. Most notably, the senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo, said about the regime opponents, “Today, the police shoot in the legs … but when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work,’ do not come crying to us,”. The word “work” was used during the Rwandan genocide to describe the killings of 800 000 Tutsis at the hands of the militant Hutu extremists.

Such comments cannot be taken lightly. Burundi has had a 40 year long history of armed conflict which has included genocide against the Tutsi minority. It was once joined with Rwanda under the name Ruanda-Urundi and was first controlled by the Germans and then by the Belgiums. Under colonial rule, ethnic divisions which favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus were institutionalised in order to control the Hutu majority and reinforce existing power structures. This entrenched tensions between the two groups. From 1972 onward Burundi was wracked by genocide and civil war until 2005. An estimated 300 000 people died as a result of the violence. A number of peace talks and agreements were needed in order to ensure peace, and one of the most notable ones was the Arusha Accords.

The situation in Burundi is becoming more desperate by the day. Although the UN is currently threatening to impose sanctions on the country, it has admitted that it is ill-equipped and poorly positioned to deal with a possible genocide. A number of international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that Burundi is at serious risk of sliding back into conflict. The Belgian government has also slashed aid to Burundi and told its citizens who are living there to return.

[Protesters gathered at the funeral of Emmanuel Ndere Yimana, an opposition supporter who was assasinated]

Although the AU has created the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) to deal with the exact kind of crisis that Burundi is facing now, and South Africa has previously pledged to contribute at least 1800 military personnel to it, President Jacob Zuma has now been strangely quiet on the matter. This is particularly concerning given that a senior SANDF official has stated that South Africa has the military capacity to deal with the crisis.

Now, we could certainly have a long conversation about whether or not military interventions are always the best way to go about things, especially considering the effect that US military interventions have had on Middle Eastern and Asian countries. However, what is frightening is the fact that conversations surrounding Burundi are not happening as frequently and as publicly as they should be.

I find it deeply concerning that it took the Paris attacks for many to even mention Burundi at all. If we are going to take seriously the value of human lives in Africa, it should not take a tragedy in the west to make people start paying attention to tragedies on our home continent. With any hope, the conversations that have been sparked surrounding Burundi will allow us to take seriously the need to prevent the situation there from spiraling into another civil war, and as South Africans, we can begin to seriously question why our own government has been so silent on the matter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Information about specific government sanctioned human right’s abuses in Burundi
Broad history about Rwanda and Burundi
More detailed overview about the history of conflict in Burundi
More detailed overview of current crises

How the ANC Women’s League is Failing Women

An edited version of this post was published by “Africa is a Country” under the title “The ANC Women’s League is dead”. This version can be accessed here

Last Friday, Twitter was in a frenzy about the ANCWL’s march against the now infamous Mabulu painting of President Jacob Zuma, which the Women’s League held to “protect the president’s dignity“. Contrary to some, I do not have an issue with the idea of marching against this painting. The painting is disgustingly misogynistic and I have written before on how violence against black women is normalised in South African satirical art. If they were protesting against the disgusting depiction of the black woman in the painting and how we as black women are tired of seeing ourselves beaten, raped, and brutalised in the name of male artists’ social commentary I would have been okay with it. The degrading way in which Jacob Zuma was depicted could have even featured as a secondary issue. What I was not okay with was the fact that Jacob Zuma’s degradation was the only issue the march was focused on. I was not okay with the fact that once again, black women, whose pain and suffering is treated so carelessly by male artists such as Ayanda Mabulu, did not feature, even in a conversation started by other black women.

It was not terribly surprising. These days, the organisation’s silence is often more powerful than their actions. The ANCWL has been noticeably absent when brazen misogyny has reared its ugly head within the ANC party, ranging from serious incidences, such as the Jacob Zuma rape trial of 2006, to the misogynistic comments often made by leaders of the ANC. When male ANC leaders feel comfortable calling women dirty panties, attacking the weight and clothing choices of female parliamentary speakers, and referring to single women as deformities unchecked, it is an indication of a serious lack of dialogue surrounding patriarchy within the ANC.

Most disturbingly, even when the ANCWL does tackle gender issues, many of their efforts still seem to miss the mark. The most recent example would have to be their stance on virginity testing and ukuthwala. While they rightfully condemned ukuthwala, the bastardized Xhosa practice of kidnapping young girls in order to force them into marriages with older men often for her family’s profit, they retracted their earlier condemnation of virginity testing by stating that it is a valid method of preventing HIV infection and teenage pregnancy, and that as a “pro-choice” organisation, they believe that if a girl wants to participate in virginity testing then she should be supported in her decision.

This stance is problematic for a number of reasons. It seems to completely ignore the fact that the areas with the lowest rates of HIV infections and teen pregnancy are areas where comprehensive sex education and reliable birth control are readily available. It places the onus of preventing HIV infections and teenage pregnancy on the girl’s ability to keep her legs closed and not also on the boy who shares half the responsibility. It also fails to problematize virginity testing as a whole as well as the mechanisms at play surrounding a girl’s consent. For example, if I am not comfortable with virginity testing but I know I will be branded isifebe and ostracised if I don’t participate in it, one must question how much of a choice I really have. If one can safely say that this sort of slut shaming does not happen in communities where virginity testing is common in reaction to those who do not to participate in it, then, and only then, can one really speak of a woman’s choice in the matter.

While the ANC has some of the most progressive gender policies, there is a serious disconnect between what the party’s stance on gender is on paper and what its leaders are saying in public. Considering that more people are likely to listen to leaders than they are to read a 33 page document, this disconnect is a dangerous one, and one that the ANCWL should be doing more to address.

It is disappointing to say that the ANCWL in 2015 is a far cry from the anti-Apartheid organisation that earned its place in history under the leadership of women such as Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The organisation of late has failed time and time again to check misogyny within the ANC and has made shallow attempts at best to check misogyny outside of it. Therefore, if the ANCWL wants to take seriously its role as an official voice for women, some serious introspection is needed.

Reclaiming “Political correctness”

One of the most annoyingly overused terms in modern times is without a doubt “political correctness”. The term has come to be used as a pejorative meaning speech that avoids language that might cause offense, particularly to already marginalised groups. Popular examples include changing B.C, meaning “Before Christ” to B.C.E, meaning “Before Common Era” as well as changing anything with the prefix “man” to more gender neutral terms.

There are obvious problems with this usage of “political correctness”. For starters, it ignores the very real ways that language has been used to oppress marginalised groups and seems to suggest that critiquing and altering harmful language is somehow oppressive towards the people who want to continue using said language. It also disguises existing oppressive viewpoints as “the truth” and paints those who critique them as shrill, irrational, and too easily offended. It is no surprise that those who speak out the loudest against political correctness are often the most privileged who are unaffected by certain systems of oppression and will obviously not be offended by a form of violence that has never targeted them.

What interests me the most about political correctness is the way that the term has been bastardised over the years. One of the earliest usages of the term as we know it today came from black feminist Toni Cadre in her 1970 book The Black Woman where she stated “a man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too”.

What did Cadre mean by this statement? From my understanding she meant that one cannot claim to be against oppressive systems and say all the correct, socially acceptable things that allude to that while simultaneously buying into and perpetrating those systems. Another interpretation of Cadre’s usage states that when she spoke of “political correctness” she was really referring to codified language that sounds socially acceptable but is really just a smoke screen for an oppressive bias. In other words, “political correctness” is when someone says “thug” when what they really mean is “n*****”.

There are a number of politically correct terms that we use in our everyday life. One of the clearest examples is “thug” which is a racially coded term almost exclusively used to describe black people whether they are protesting or getting killed by a racist vigilante while walking home after they’ve purchased an iced tea and Skittles. Another example is the use of the term “ghetto” that is almost only ever used in association with black people or black culture.

But I believe that political correctness extends beyond this. It’s not just about using words that are convenient, coded replacements for more offensive words. It’s about carefully constructing language as well as picking and choosing facts that portray an oppressive ideal in a way that will ensure the general public does not understand what’s going on but a member of the targeted group often will. It’s a newspaper knowing that they can’t call Nicki Minaj an angry black woman for speaking out against racial bias in the music industry so they opt for an unflattering picture that conveys that stereotype instead. It’s a news outlet knowing that they can’t call a rape victim an irresponsible slut who was asking for it outright so they instead opt to mention what she was wearing, how much she drank, and possibly her sexual history so that the reader draws that conclusion themselves.

This definition of political correctness is one that is far more relevant and far more harmful than the idea that it is somehow inconvenient and ridiculous to have to not to use certain language at the risk of offending someone. This definition of political correctness is one that we see in action in our media and our language everyday while the other is a silencing tactic employed by those who are too privileged to understand the nuances of oppression and how these nuances play out in our language. While both definitions see political correctness as a social concept that must be problematized, the one excuses oppressive ideas and blames marginalised people for being offended by their own oppression while the other recognises the subtle ways that the oppression of marginalised people continues to play itself out in our everyday lives. In an ironic twist, the bastardised definition of political correctness is, in and of itself, politically correct.

Therefore, the term “political correctness” is one which should be reclaimed by social justice circles as it aptly describes a particular type of microaggression that marginalised people encounter. In a world where overt bigotry, particularly in relation to race, gender, and sexuality, is often rendered unacceptable in public, political correctness ensures that marginalised people remain so in subtle, and insidious ways. Reclaiming “political correctness” for ourselves gives us both a means of identifying this type of microaggression and allows us to beat bigots at their own game. We know what they really mean when they tell us we’re being “ratchet”. And we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.