Our vulnerability is our power

By Kwezilomso Mbandazayo (Women’s Rights and Gender Justice Programmes manager)

On the 7th of May 2016, I sat around with sisters and reflected on the meanings of the rape trial that was supposed to be against Jacob Zuma, his ultimate victory ,the very public win of patriarchy and our vulnerability in that loss. It was the eve of the 10th anniversary since Judge Willem van der Merwe’ handed down the judgement that found Jacob Zuma not guilty of rape in 2006.

Fezeka my sister,my friend, and the woman who borrowed my name for safety, who during the course of the trial and for years after was known as Khwezi*, the woman who spoke out against Jacob Zuma was in the room. Survivors in many other cases, those who reported their rape through the criminal justice system and those who did not report were in the room. Women who are scared of being raped for the first time, and women who are scared of being raped again were in the room. We also consciously carried the wounds of the millions of other women, our loved ones, our sisters, our lovers who were not physically there with us, but whose lives were in the room.

We wept, we sang ,we talked and we held each other as we remembered. We remembered all the kangas in our lives,how we wrap ourselves in beautiful fabrics and spirits, and how we are unwrapped and torn apart whilst naked when we are alone.

We honoured Fezeka for giving us the permission to be brave, we honoured each other for being able to still breathe.

As I looked at Fezeka, and the journey that she has lived, the exile, the loss of opportunity, the punishment for daring to speak against Jacob Zuma, her refusal to be bribed and to be silenced…all took me to multiple planes.

I felt a sense of loss and helplessness, while recognising the beauty of our collective resistance, yet contemplating the weakness and vulnerability when we are alone.

The vulnerability…

…Is in understanding the true nature of Black womanhood. It is the inconvenience and sin of my being. I know that walking around with this cursed body is truly a very dangerous exercise. This is more so when I open the trap in my face, illustrate that I have a mind that works and sometimes delude myself enough that I walk with some kind of swagger, some pride.

The ugly truth is this: in the scheme of everything, Black women are expendable. We are raped and killed in our homes, in the homes of those we love and trust, in places of learning, in places of worship, in places where we walk and work; we die giving birth, we die when we don’t give birth, we are landless and disposed.
We are black. We are women. We are nothing.

When we are alone with lovers and brothers and uncles and strangers, our vulnerability in the face of this brutality when we are alone is amplified. Our need for movements that move and embrace, and act and speak swiftly without fear is necessary for us to be alive.

On the 16th of December 2011, downtown Jozi, at 10:30 pm I put on my slippers.
I listened to a woman screaming whilst simultaneously hearing the thumps. Instinct said go out and help her, self-preservation said you are her. Uthe akukhala esebhokhwe, (when her howl resembled that of a goat being slaughtered), the contemplation stopped and the next minute I was a metre away. The passage way was covered in blood, her tiny frame being dragged by her braids. As I plucked up the courage to use my eyes, he pulled her face towards him making eye contact, followed by his clenched fist closing her eyes again.

The violence carried on for at least another three minutes, and now with all the neighbours in full-view and he instructing us to “call the fu#*g police”.

There was something surreal about that moment, something theatrical. He kept looking around at his audience before every “shocking” moment. The scene ended and continued. She went inside the flat — he continued to beat her, she went outside, he continued.
The security officials finally removed him from the scene. But in three days — yes, we saw them shopping together.

I am also guilty of the murmurs that followed that assault from us, the audience. Why had she left with other men? Why didn’t she leave him? Why did she go back into the flat? How could she forgive him?

My NGO education kept telling me I should have done something, called someone. Who was going to convince this young black girl that she was worth more? That she deserves more, that she is beautiful and strong and can make it against all odds? I was armed with knowledge, armed with a little black book of feminist activists around the country who would jump when I called. But I couldn’t. I got cold and watched her.

Who is she?
She walked around black with womanhood, drank alcohol and flirted with another man.

Beat her Sir, please put her in her place. If not you, the police will, the next man will, her white madam will, and her master will put the cherry on top and donate a grant for her “development.” He will make possible the choice, she may be able to leave an abusive relationship and knit something.

As I reflected on how the permission feminists have given me, makes it easier to speak in the “I” to emotionally block myself from feeling pain, to dance in the storm I remembered how, without the collective, I am unable to act with another. I die silently when the violence is primarily being felt by another, I have no real tools to instantly defend. I live through the violence being in this body.

The power can be in…

When I meditate on WHY that moment of a violent interaction has left me with such a scar, I feel stupid. Everyday I watch blacks crawling the streets of Johannesburg, packed in taxis, waiting for grants, waiting for matchboxes to live in, waiting for drugs, waiting for food.

Black women wait.
Maybe, a full recognition of our non-existence, maybe once the survival stops, when even the matchbox won’t shelter, when the clothes don’t fit and the hunger is never mediated. Maybe when we succumb to our nothingness, we will cease to wait.

I was 19 years old when the call came in. We had all seen the Sunday newspaper beforehand, a woman had laid a charge of rape against Jacob Zuma. We all saw how at first Jacob Zuma had denied knowing her at all, to his move that the “sex” was consensual. Then we were called to serve. We were called to put our bodies, where our growing Black feminist mouths were.

The One in Nine campaign, a space that is responsible for much of my analysis and understanding of the world, was formed. It was in direct response to the need to support the survivor in the case. The Campaign was formed to say we believe survivors of violence.

As feminists, we had pre-empted the backlash against Fezeka. We knew that many would be in support of Jacob Zuma; we knew that many would make this case about everything BUT the violation of Fezeka, and justice for her; we knew that we had to stand with Fezeka and say we believe you.

Nevertheless, I could not anticipate the extent of the intensified backlash against her. I never expected that the courts would be lined with tens of thousands of supporters, mostly women — strategically placed by a patriarchal system at the forefront for Jacob Zuma. I never imagined that Judge Van der Merve would choose to wage a war against all Black women who have ever been raped, identify as lesbian, living with HIV and have dared ever to consent to sex, instead of stating the motion that “the State has failed to prove their case beyond any reasonable doubt and therefore I find for the accused.”

I did not imagine the impact that case would have on my life, and that the One in Nine Campaign would be such an important space for mounting resistance, and for constantly crying out in the midst of everything else, and with the risk of being the unloved — that “we believe you.”

I did not imagine how in a country, I was very excited about, which boasts the protected rights and freedoms of all, a country where I had dreams of being a constitutional court justice, a woman would once again be forced into an exile for years, after the courts had completely decimated her character.

It started a stream of consciousness that goes back and forth since that moment. A stream that lies within recognising our (in) visibility and (non)existence.

Echoes of black feminists have time and again reminded me of our unique position. A change of our PLACE can only come from fighting the world; we can no longer wait for the master to give us tools. We will make new ones and fight for our re-birth.

In ten years since the case against Fezeka we have seen analysis on violence in various ways, we have seen the emergence of new and old methods of struggle, women men and non-binary folk have taken to the streets to cry “we believe you and we are you.” This has most recently come in the shows of solidarity on various university campuses. It is to be found in the terminology of rape culture, the re-energising is part of a string of “we believe you” that Fezeka inspired in us, that we the women who surrounded her made possible.

Did our interventions change Fezeka’s life for the better? Did she experience some kind of justice? Was the sisterhood enough? Is the sisterhood ever enough…

From elite university spaces, to shopfloors, to under the koppie, to rural and urban South Africa, to our own NGO institutions — we are organising.

In our nothingness, a feeling of rage has ignited in new ways. Patriarchal power has further consolidated, and the ease with which we move to the pavements has diminished. While, the ease with which we write about and analyse the pain of others has increased. Black feminist organising has ceased to be “dirty.”

To live the freedom we fight so hard for, means, we cannot be alone,we cannot afford not to organise, never to make careers from the pain of women but to breath and live. Within the space of Oxfam South Africa, for many of us movement building comes from this place of being, a place of knowing, a place of rage and our inability to wait and to keep persuading women to wait.

Our re-birth must be inspired by Fezeka, and all of us who have broken a little bit, and with visible scars, we still cry we believe you because we are you.

As we remain bruised and broken, we are also beautiful and brave.