In Pumla Gqola’s latest book Rape: A South African Nightmare, the Wits University-based scholar asks potentially one of the most important questions ever posed in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa: “What does it mean to ask President Jacob Zuma to take anti-rape work seriously, after we lived through the brutalisation of Khwezi in more than one way?”
Khwezi is the name given to the woman who laid a rape charge against Zuma in 2006. This rape trial was, perhaps, a turning point in our post-apartheid imagination, revealing how heavily imbued our country and its citizens were in a culture of rape and victim-shaming. In Mmatshilo Motsei’s book, The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court: Reflections on The Rape Trial of Jacob Zuma, she writes that “it was waking up to the headline ‘Burn the Bitch’ at Jacob Zuma’s rape trial on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2006, twelve years into South Africa’s new democracy, ten years after the implementation of the new Constitution and fifty years after women marched to the Union Buildings to demand their rights, that the pervasive disrespect for women and women’s rights was brought home.”
One cannot help but remember the many disparate groups that emerged in support of Zuma. There was the African National Congress’ Women’s League, the privately established ‘Friends of Zuma’ and Julius Malema along with the then ANC Youth League who beckoned us all to ‘kill for Zuma’.
Gqola continues to probe us into reflection when she asks “what does it mean for this to even be a call, and/or reality, especially for those of us who believe Khwezi?” Perhaps the answer is made most clear in the violent pillaging of state resources by a kleptomaniac president and his cronies. It is inherent in the phallic destruction of a country’s liberation narrative through the rampant accumulation of wealth and influence. It is manifest in the dismissal of a damning report against Zuma by the Public Protectors office, the same office that is fundamental to our conception of democratic governance and the separation of powers. The answer is also made manifest in the horrifying trajectory taken by the leadership of South Africa’s current student movements.
Take, for instance, Chumani Maxwele, the infamous poo thrower, who is often framed as the catalyst of student protests across the country. It is difficult not to see the direct ancestry between him and the ‘alleged’ rapist leading the state. Maxwele’s brand of bigoted patriarchal leadership is unfortunately an all too familiar feature of student politics at the moment. His anti-woman, and by implication, anti-LGBTQI brand of politics is the visceral feature of most student movements across the country, where the student revolution has morphed into a crude formulation of ‘big man’ politics.
Despite claims of being representative of an intersectional revolutionary praxis, the kind of political action displayed at the moment is one that is consistent with the brutalisation of a queer woman named Khwezi by our country’s number one and his supporters. It is reminiscent of the ways in which Maxwele and others violated black queer women at Witswatersrand University after they had questioned the legitimacy of a secret #FeesMustFall meeting that was almost entirely made up of men. It is also reminiscent of the ways in which Maxwele silences the UCT’s Trans Collectives’ bold statement about him allegedly being a rapist and a routinely violent male in his private life.
This young man, who has absurdly styled himself as the contemporary of Nat Nakasa, is the exact by-product of a state broken by a president who is deeply anti-intellectual and committed to the violation of his own country’s resources in an attempt to line his own pockets and build an empire furnished by corruption and greed. This young man is the result of a liberation party whose political hegemony is in decline, a liberation party that is clumsily trying to stitch together a coherent narrative around why it should sustain a kleptomania presidency.
Likewise, Maxwele is the product of bigoted formulation of student politics that is unclear about its own political and philosophical principles. He is the outcome of a student movement that has rendered terminology empty while cynically keying in buzzwords like ‘decolonisation,’ ‘black love’ and ‘revolutionary violence’ without thinking through the implications of these terms. This is not to say these terms are not useful in guiding our political imagination as young people, but there has been a tendency to decontextualize buzzword phrases like ‘Fanonian violence’ outside of their intended meanings.
If one took the time to carefully read Frantz Fanon’s seminal book ‘Wretched of the Earth’ beyond the chapter ‘On Violence,’ one may realise that he does not advocate violence for violence’s sake. In fact, the final chapter of the book reveals the deep trauma and brokenness that both the colonised and colonisers were faced with after the Algerian revolution. This lack of complexity in dominant student movement spaces is perhaps one of the most worrying features. Instead of thinking through the overlapping grey and difficult questions, one can see real regression into a crude form of identity politics, obsessed with individual personalities as opposed to collective mobilisation. Zuma and Maxwele embody, in many ways, the postcolonial realities that South Africa has woken up to.
The post colony is a bizarre space, a space in which patriarchy is rife and multi-idiomatic. It is a site which I think is best described by a meme that has been making the rounds on Twitter lately. It is of a young women responding to the television host of Speak Out after she had been interrogated about where she had presumably hidden the family crockery. I am hazy about the detail because I did not catch the live airing of the episode.
That said, I have been fascinated by the lifeworld that this brief exchange on national television has come to mean on social media. I specifically use the word lifeworld here, in perhaps the way in which German philosopher Edmund Husserl invokes it. I am interested in how this meme has come to frame a set of epistemological questions about how we experience the world. Maybe it would be useful to make a further conceptual leap and suggest that this meme typifies the postcolonial lifeworld. A lifeworld of the sometimes burlesque, unbelievable and perhaps even obtuse hysteria of postcolonial life, a life in which epistemic, psychological and physical violence is accompanied by the prose of magical realism, jazz and laughter.
“Where are the pots?” asks the host. The young woman responds, “There is no pots because I made the things that it cannot make the pots to be done.”
This reads as a bizarre grammatical statement. Odd. Confusing. Obtuse. Yet, perhaps the answer that this young woman gives is reminiscent of the bizarre postcolonial answer that we are constantly faced with in South African politics under the leadership of President Zuma and the mushrooming influence of Maxwele and his contemporaries. I would suggest that the actual phrasing of this sentence allows us, for a brief moment, to think seriously about the role of double speak in the post colony. Further to that, I think that the phrasing of this sentence allows us to think seriously about the role of obfuscation inherent in the discourse around rape culture in South Africa at the moment and across postcolonial societies. That said, I would argue that Twitter is the best prism with which to understand some of the complexities that have come with post-coloniality and the pervasiveness of our violent and rape-centric society.
Twitter and #BlackTwitter in particular cannot be understood as a homogenous entity. In my experience, it has operated as a vibrant, hetrogenous space that can be both circumscribed into the #WokeTwitterati through the intersections of the United States of America and in South Africa along with the sometimes ethically amorphous strands of Twitter that enjoy the good art of the ‘drag.’ I do realise that people curate their Twitter experience in unique and deeply personal ways, so things that pop up on my feed may be completely different to the next person’s. I recognise this, but indulge me on this bizarre thought experiment.
There is something about this phenomenon of ‘dragging’ that allows South Africans to mull over deeply existential political questions while simultaneously laughing at the horror show that is our contemporary status quo. #BlackTwitter is perhaps the most equal opportunity ‘draggers’ in the world. In short, perhaps the ‘drag’ is a form of collective cognitive dissonance. The moment in which South Africans cannot possibly understand *how* in 2016, post-apartheid South Africa, individuals within our society are both entrenched in and actively encourage flagrant forms of bigotry that are coupled with an endless retreat into the grammar of violence. The cognitive dissonance and a burlesque level of disbelief are common on #BlackTwitter, every time one of Zuma’s multiple crimes is unearthed by the media, every time Maxwele flexes his masculinist chauvinism against black women.
Anyone who was listening to the interview between queer student activist Thenjiwe Mswane and Chumani Maxwele on Redi Tlabi’s 702 show can testify to the interplay between the horror and hilarity as Maxwele displayed his deep commitment to mechanisms of Rape Culture. Maxwele has a whole litany of lines that expose his inability to grasp his complicity in patriarchal violence, misogynoir and rape culture. However, the most bizarre is when he says: “I did not assault her by beating her, I just grabbed her away […] I’m not responsible for actions of other individuals and what they did.”
Maxwele, like Zuma, uses the language of rape to vindicate himself. Gqola cites Jane Bennet’s Credibility, plausibility, and autobiographical oral narrative: some suggestions from the analysis of a rape survivor’s testimony. Gqola writes “women’s stories are believed or doubted based on the relationship between plausibility and credibility. This is true inside and outside court.” In other words, “plausibility is about and dependant on the hearer and what the hearer deems possible; it is not about the specific person speaking.” Credibility, on the other hand, is dependant “on how believable the speaker is. To be believable, the speaker has to fall into the category that is seen as possible to rape; it has to be seen as someone who is possible-to-rape.”
Zuma deploys Khwezi’s queerness and bizarre traditional tropes to mystify the violence that was done to her. Raymond Suttner, in The Jacob Zuma Rape Trial: Power and African National Congress ANC masculinities writes:
In April 2006, African National Congress (ANC) president and one-time South African deputy president Jacob Zuma appeared in court to defend himself against a charge of rape. When called to the stand and asked to recall the events of 2 November 2005, Zuma chose to deliver his testimony in his Zulu mother tongue. This was his constitutional right, the right of an accused individual to defend himself in any one of South Africa’s eleven official languages. Yet Zuma’s linguistic choice was laden with political meaning and opportunity. Speaking isiZulu within a court that had thus far proceeded in English highlighted his membership to a particular cultural group and invoked his well-established reputation as a ‘man of tradition’. Furthermore, it drew attention to the courtroom also as a specific (as well as adversarial) cultural space, with Anglophone traditions, European legal origins and an Afrikaans-speaking judge who used Latin legal phrasings in his ruling. In the context of a nation with a deeply racist history, including decades of state-sponsored ethnic management and subjugation, Zuma’s linguistic medium was part of a powerful message: that this trial was also about the politics of culture.
Zuma’s behaviour here best illustrates the multi-idiomatic formulations of patriarchy and rape-culture that exist in the post colony that Zuma accesses. Perhaps Nomalanga Mkhize’s formulation of Neo-traditionalism is best suited to help us puzzle this idiosyncratic formulation of patriarchy. Mkhize defines Neo-traditionalism as “the tendency of postcolonial political orders to express power and statecraft through a toxic mix of conservative politics, culturalist rhetoric and very masculinised political practice […] In the last 12 years, culture has been newly valorised by a wide range of players, from neo-traditionalist Afrikaners and Afrikaans-speakers to the ANC’s project of the African Renaissance, and Christian and Muslim parties.” It is necessary to think of President Zuma in this light and how his particular brand of neo-traditionalism has affected responses to conversations around gender and rape culture. By operating in multiple sites of patriarchy and neo-traditionalism, Zuma was able to access the language that makes Khwezi’s claim of sexual assault neither plausible nor credible to public opinion. Zuma thus operates on an incredibly dangerous nexus of influence, power and customary sexual violence.
Maxwele’s level of influence and power is not nearly as pervasive, but he does operate in the same realm of derivative heroic masculinity, as the catalyst of a national uprising, along with insidious formulations of violent, heteronormative masculinity that are oppressive to queer identities. Despite his claim to intersectionality, any person who has heard Maxwele speak or seen him interact with black woman can attest to his deep commitment to an arrogant formulation of misogynoir. It is clear that in the Redi Tlabi interview, Maxwele does not even understand how he has violated Mswane’s personhood by placing her under a chokehold and grabbing her breasts in the company of other violent men. Maxwele and his cronies have consistently de-legitimitaised the presence of queer and non-binary bodies in the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, and so it comes as no surprise that they would act on their vitriolic hatred of these bodies in an attempt to usurp the narrative of transformation and decolonisation in the country.
Like Andile Mngxitama and others, Maxwele and his cronies assume that blackness is the a priori category that we should be mobilising for, as young disenfranchised black people. They have no capacity to think through the complexity of multiple and simultaneous oppression in the same ways that black LGBTQI persons have to. Maxwele’s bastardisation of Fanonian praxis and Black Consciousness is an attempt to capture the national narrative and catapult himself into history as the liberator of the class of 2015/2016. This bizarre postcolonial pathology is deeply debilitating and a feature of chauvinistic, black men’s behaviour across student movements in varying parts of the country.
So in short, when Gqola asks what it means to have a president like Zuma as the head of state, we should not be surprised that a student leader like Maxwele can emerge. Maxwele, like Zuma, is a dangerous man who should be written out of any narrative of decolonisation and transformation. We should no longer accept that these two men can call our bluff every time we ask about the pots. It is no longer acceptable that Zuma and Maxwele hold us to ransom by saying that “there [are] no pots because [they] made the things that it cannot make the pots to be done.”
Main Photograph: Chumani Maxwele commitment to an arrogant formulation of misogynoir turned violent this week – by Candice Wagener/Wits Vuvuzela