Profile of Wits Vuvuzela journalist: Nokuthula Mabena


Nokuthula Mabena is the first in her family to attend university and graduate with a degree. This video follows the reactions of her friend and family.


Produced by: Naledi Mashishi


To go forward, we must go back

This piece in its edited form was published on the website OkayAfrica under a different title. This is the original piece.

On Sunday night, I was casually scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the picture that has since reverberated across the country. The picture was of 13 year old Zulaikha Patel with her arms in a defiant cross in the air, framed by her massive, beautiful afro. From the moment I saw that picture, and heard of the protests happening at Pretoria Girl’s High, I knew it was not just about the black students’ right to wear their hair the way it naturally grows out of their heads. It was about the institutional racism that permeates Model C schools and suffocates the black children caught in those spaces every day. It was about a battle that I only knew too well as I had spent 12 years of my life fighting it.

I had spent the first 5 years of my life at a model C school in Sandton, Johannesburg and then spent the rest of my schooling at an elite private girls’ school in Parktown. I too had been subjected to rules which forbade wearing my natural hair, watched my fellow black classmates get detention for speaking to one another in their home languages, and in many ways both big and small felt my blackness being undermined constantly. The effect that these schools had on me was a deep sense of insecurity both in my blackness and in my sense of self. I was constantly in a space where blackness was degraded often through insidious throw away phrases like “this is not Soweto” when us black girls made too much noise or through my white classmates putting on a “blaccent” whenever they were pretending to be poor or ignorant for a humorous effect. It was degraded in bigger ways too, such as a teacher defending colonialism and saying those who were against it were “absurd”. Or a group of black pupils using the library the same way other students did everyday being kicked out for making it look “untidy”.

So, when Patel’s picture came out, I felt two things. The first was a deep sense of understanding of the situation she finds herself in. The second was a deep sense of shame. Over the past few days many have already commented that we should not be romanticising the protest action. Instead we should be outraged that little girls, and just how small Patel is was one of the very first things that struck me, are having to fight a battle that should have been fought 22 years ago, and if not 22 years ago then it should have been fought by us.

As a student there is very little power that one has in a model C or private school. However, as alumni we have a little more say, especially since our schools are always asking us for donations. Not only do we as alumni have more political power within the actual schools, we have an amount of institutional knowledge and memory of the institution that current pupils may not have. As adults, we are in a better position to deal with the backlash such a campaign would garner than a group of 13 to 14 year old girls still dealing with the emotional turmoil and self-discovery that comes with puberty. Already, the girls involved in the protests have been accused of being disruptive, undisciplined, caring more about fashion than schooling, among other accusations from the very vocal naysayers of the protest action. What the backlash both from their peers and from critics around the country could be doing to these girls’ self-esteems is something we have yet to discover.

Rather than focusing on the extraordinary bravery of the young girls, bearing in mind that this does deserve to be commended as it did take an incredible amount of courage many of us did not have in school to do this, we should be asking ourselves how much we have failed for a group of 13 year old girls to get to the point where they had to take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps, as the black alumni of model C and private schools, we should be asking ourselves if we could do more. Should we heading back to our schools and challenge rules such as the Codes of Conduct which not only forbid natural hairstyles, but any cultural or religious ornament, garment, or hairstyle that does not fit neatly into the colonial often Christian culture of these schools? Should we be going back and demanding that blackness not just be treated as an aesthetic to be whipped out for the annual cultural evening but as a lived reality that demands to be given the same respect both in the school’s culture and in the curriculum?

These conversations are already starting to be had by black alumni, and I’m hoping these protests will encourage more of us to look back at our highs chools and seriously consider changing the environment there. Recently, I was rereading the book series that spawned the hit television series Game of Thrones and one of the lines that a priestess said in a prophecy was “to go forward you must go back”. I truly believe that as black alumni in particular, if we wish to see an end to institutional racism in our country and move forward from the injustices of the past then we must go back and start at our former high schools.


“Why didn’t you report”

This article was originally published in the Oppidan Press in February 

There’s a very specific set of reasons I decided not to tell anyone outside a small group of people in what was supposed to be a safe space about my sexual assault. One of the reasons is that I had decided not to report, and I did not want to have to answer the above question. Simply put, there are very specific and personal reasons why I decided not to report. These reasons, as well as the incident itself, were something I was perfectly content to forget about. Until one day, the Student Representative Council found itself embroiled in controversy and I found myself having this incident used in a personal attack against me by a student.

The personal attack was a shock to my system. It forced me to once again think about exactly what I had been trying to forget. I started remembering the sexual assault. And once again, I was asked by others, and ultimately asked myself, why I had not reported the incident. Perhaps, most importantly, I once again began to radically question the notion that survivors should need to report at all.

It is a narrative that we often hear. We are often told that over half of all sexual assault victims do not report their assault and that over 90% of all perpetrators do not spend even one day in jail. We are often fed the idea that if we are assaulted we should report it, and if we report it the perpetrator will go to jail.

We are not often told of the second hand victimization that we are likely to experience while reporting. The second hand victimization that leads to survivors being treated carelessly by the authorities they report to, and that leads to being questioned on every decision made that led up to the incident itself including the survivor’s choice of clothing, company, and sexual history. We are not told of just how often it is that the perpetrator gets off, despite being reported, while the survivor is left with new scars.

This is not to scare off any survivors who do want to report their assaults. A survivor who wishes to report should of course be given all the support they need. Rather, this is to say that the decision to not report is one that many survivors make for a variety of reasons. And all of these reasons are valid.

There are a number of societal factors that make reporting difficult. The one is the pervasive idea that there is a “perfect victim”, a morally upright woman who is assaulted while doing something as innocuous as walking down a street. Survivors who don’t fit this mold are often subjected to victim blaming. Another is the fact that the majority of perpetrators are known to their victims and this may deter a survivor from reporting them. Another is the fact that many survivors are assumed to be lying because of the myth that women lie about being raped out of revenge because they feel guilty about having sex.

The belief that a survivor needs to report in order to prevent the perpetrator from assaulting again is one that is rooted in rape culture, as it places responsibility for the perpetrator’s actions on the survivor. Regardless of the reasons, a survivor’s choice to report or not report is a decision that should be respected by all parties. And perhaps, before one questions the validity of not reporting, one should first question how our society treats those who do.


Why I would have an abortion

The #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag last week forced me to once again ask myself the uncomfortable question: what would I do if I had an unplanned pregnancy? Specifically, what would I do if I woke up tomorrow and discovered that I was now expecting. It’s a conversation that I believe that every woman needs to have with herself at least once, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to have it. I’ve had several late periods and one missed period altogether since I became sexually active and all of those times, despite knowing full well that I had used protection, I remember being filled with terror at the possibility that this time could be it.

When I was a lot younger, I used to be pro-life and firmly believed that abortion was murder. Since then I have been doing a lot more research into the whole thing. Right now I’m pro-choice, as I firmly believe that every woman should have a right to make decisions regarding her own body. But I’m not here to discuss the ethics of abortion. I’m here to talk about something that is rarely even mentioned in the abortion debate.

At some point in my life, I came to the conclusion that while I am pro-choice, I personally would not have an abortion. I would rather give my baby up for adoption. After all, pro-lifers were always going on about how there are thousands of infertile couples who had the means and will to give a baby a good life and were desperate to have one. And certainly, I had heard of numerous infertile women who tried unsuccessfully for years to have a baby. I even personally knew two girls who had been adopted and they both seemed to live happy lives. So of course, adoption seemed to me like a win win solution in the event of a disaster. There is only one problem I didn’t consider at the time. I’m black.

It came as a shock to me to discover that statistically speaking, black babies represent the highest number of babies in the adoption system yet they are the least likely to find good homes. I remember reading a Sunday Times article a few years back that gave exact numbers. At the time there were 500 children available for adoption. Of these children, 95% of them were black. There were just over 350 prospective adoptive parents. Of these parents, only 37 of them were willing to adopt black children. Thirty seven. Let that sink in. The vast majority of those infertile couples who are so desperate to adopt a baby are only desperate to adopt healthy, able bodied white babies, and many would rather wait years for that perfect white baby than adopt a black one. Add on to that the fact that adoption in South Africa is an extremely difficult process and the possibility of finding that perfect adoptive family for my unplanned child seems ever more unrealistic.

If I had to have a child and put him/her up for adoption, they are likely to end up in the foster care system. The foster care system in South Africa is a mess to say the least. They are likely to end up in an overcrowded home for children, moved around from home to home, and are at a very real risk of coming under the care of people who would abuse them either mentally, physically, or sexually. Or all three. I’ve read articles of kids in the foster care system who have been beaten, introduced to drugs, or even pimped by their foster parents. I know that there are plenty of fantastic foster parents out there but this is my hypothetical child’s life here. I’m not willing to take those kinds of chances, especially when I won’t have any kind of say.

I once did know a pair of twins who were fostered by my step grandmother from when they were two years old. She tried to adopt them but was unable to because she was too old. They lived a happy life with her and grew up in a loving, supportive environment. She eventually died when they were 13 and they were immediately taken away after her funeral. My step mother and father tried desperately to get them back and even decided to adopt them but the process and their distant family made it impossible. To cut a long story short, they were unable to adopt the twins and we have not seen them since. Last we heard, one was failing school and the other was seeing a much older man who may have gotten her pregnant. Those kids were torn away from the only family they had ever known, never to see them again. I would never want my own child to go through that.

So I have now decided that if I ever have an unplanned pregnancy, and if I cannot raise the child myself, I would have an abortion. As a black woman, adoption is simply not an option for me and I honestly think that this is something more black women need to be warned about. That’s why I get so annoyed when pro-lifers say just put the baby up for adoption because for black women, there is so much more that we need to consider before we can do that.

And honestly, if as a pro-lifer you have an issue with my resolution, I suggest you don’t shame me for my decision unless you’re willing to have a serious discussion about the adoption and foster care industry.