The shocking incidence of gender violence in South Africa and the rising tide of homophobia in Africa were recurring themes at the 2014 Time of the Writer Festival in Durban last week. The festival, now in its 17th year, was hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The tone was set by Professor Cheryl Potgieter, who opened the festival. “Why have we been so silent?” she asked the audience, referring to the new slew of homophobic legislation introduced across Africa.
Indian writer Satyajit Sarna picked up on this thread during his opening address, stating clearly: “Freedom is not going to fall in your lap. Freedom is something you have to fight for. You have to confront what is wrong; you have to fight for your love.” In India in 2012, the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman led to major local and international protests, casting a spotlight on rape in that country. This month the Delhi High Court dismissed appeals against the convicted rapists’ death sentences. Sarna’s debut novel, The Angel’s Share, contains a scene where a lawyer watches the shameful cross-examination of a rape accuser in court by a defense attorney. The lawyer observes that no one steps in to defend her − not the judge, not the prosecuting lawyer, nobody. In another scene a young law student brags about having sex with a girl and not sticking around afterwards. “Nailed and bailed,” the student says as he sums up his sexual experience. The next day he is accused of rape.
In a panel on the second night, titled Mzanzi Women Voices, South African writers Angela Makholwa and Praba Moodley engaged in a fascinating conversation about gender violence in their fiction and in South Africa. Makholwa read an excerpt from her book Black Widow Society, a crime novel about a secret organisation of wealthy women who conspire to kill off their abusive husbands Moodley also read a section from her book, titled The Ties That Bind where a recently widowed woman is leered at and preyed upon by a family member. It was chilling excerpt, to say the least.
When interviewed, Makholwa said that in around 2005 there was a number of high-profile cases of women accused of killing their husbands. “I kept thinking that they once loved their husbands. What happens, on that day, to a woman when she decides to murder her husband?” When asked if the book was a commentary on the high rate of gender violence in South Africa, Makholwa answered, “It is a very pressing problem”. “People like to think of it as affecting the lower echelons of society,” she said. “That is why I purposefully made my book elitist, because the wealthier the woman is who is experiencing domestic abuse, the more likely she will try to hide it.” Makholwa made the point that the issue of gender-based violence needs to be talked about and engaged with by both women and men. During panel discussion with Moodley and Makholwa, the topic, inspired by Makholwa’s book, turned to the idea of “extreme measures for extreme times”, and touched on the idea of fighting violence against women with violence. Both women spoke about the poor service police offer survivors, as well as society’s role in fostering such attitudes and tendencies.
The Thursday evening programme offered up Niq Mhlongo and Kgebetli Moele who took part in a session titled Chronicling the Contemporary South African Story. The Con wrote about Moele’s new novel, Untitled, in January. During the discussion, he described how the novel had begun as a long poem written to his girlfriend, who had recently survived a rape attempt by someone the couple new well from their community. Moele said that he wrote the poem in an attempt to help himself and his girlfriend deal with the trauma of the event, and that in writing it he was trying to voice the helplessness that both he and his girlfriend felt at the time. As he progressed, the poem took on a life of its own and became Untitled. Moele spoke openly about men who preyed on young girls in his community and how difficult it was to stand up to it, particularly when the community often sides with an older male in the case of an accusation being made.
As Lunga Mkila wrote for The Con, Untitled tackles the issue of teachers preying on young girls. These teachers know they are beyond reproach and that, if the affair comes to light, the community will gang up against the victims. “Take, for instance, the story of Little Bonolo, who is raped by a teacher,” writes Mkila. “Instead of outrage against the abusive educator, the community said that ‘she wanted it’, but how can an 11-year-old girl want to be raped? “Little Bonolo’s tearful tale of rape and the way bureaucrats are complicit – be it the police or the education authorities – is a familiar narrative in the country,” wrote Mkila.
They say artist’s hold up a mirror to their society. If that is the case then South Africa is in deep trouble. It’s clear that South African and international writers are grappling with high rates of gender violence and rising tide of homophobia and are attempting to contribute to a debate we really need to have − especially in South Africa.