Voices

Malema and his trolls may not physically abuse women, but their words resonate violence

2018-12-03 00:00

There was a dictator who believed access to every woman’s body was his right.

One of these rebuffed him and she, Minerva Mirabal, was denied a licence to practise as a lawyer for 20 years.

She was repeatedly jailed and ultimately paid with her life.

She and her sisters Patricia Mercedes, Antonia Maria Teresa and Bélgica Adele (Dede) were part of the resistance against Rafael Trujillo.

Trujillo ruled the Dominican Republic for 31 years, from 1930 to 1960.

What Trujillo saw, Trujillo believed was his if he wanted it. He controlled women’s bodies and lives as he did with much of the resources and the economy of the Dominican Republic.

Trujillo ruled by terror, reinforced by special forces whom he sent all over the country to spy against Dominicans and quash any possible resistance.

He sent special envoys to all regions to bring him women to satisfy his lust.

The Mirabal sisters were renowned for their beauty. They were called Las Mariposas, “The Butterflies”. Minerva’s beauty attracted Trujillo and he pursued her relentlessly.

She rebuffed him.

Well, if the woman did not want him, she would have to pay. He prevented her from practising as a lawyer.

The Mirabal sisters, with their compatriots, resisted the Trujillo regime. Repeated imprisonment and torture did not deter them.

On November 25 1960 three of the four sisters – Minerva, Patricia Mercedes and Antonia Maria Teresa – were beaten and thrown off a cliff, with their driver.

For many decades, feminists and women’s movements in Latin America and the Caribbean commemorated the Mirabal sisters on November 25.

In 1981 a Latin American Feminist Encounter, held in Bogota, Colombia, adopted November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Feminists and women’s movements all over the world followed. The UN adopted the day in 1999.

This led to a campaign of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, starting on November 25 and ending on December 10, International Human Rights Day.

Fifty-three years after the death of the Mirabal sisters, Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan journalist, wrote in Children of the Days: “In memory of them, today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. In other words, for the elimination of violence by the little Trujillos that rule in so many homes.”

What is the state of the 16 Days of Activism in South Africa, a country with one of the most advanced constitutional affirmations of gender equality and policy attacks on gender-based violence in the world?

Has this constitutional, legal, policy and institutional framework created an environment in which women can walk with a sense of personal freedom, that we are protected against patriarchal violence?

Given the high levels of violence against women, the answer is a resounding “No!”

Every day new reports of violence against women, often worse than previously imagined, surface.

Many politicians participate in public expressions of misogyny and phallocentric expressions of power against women.

Now, with the country preoccupied with uncovering unprecedented looting of public resources and trading of political office for financial benefit, we see heightened levels of ethnic chauvinism disguised as calling out corruption, racism and misogynist language and violence.

Some who have been fingered in corruption have sought to divert public gaze away from themselves by attacking others.

This has included relentless attacks on Pravin Gordhan and others associated with the clean-up of public institutions.

For this article, corruption and state capture in the Jacob Zuma era are taken as given. That is not the present concern.

It is correctly receiving considerable attention. But, all too often, other features are neglected.

Central to Zumaism is hyperpatriarchy manifested notably in the rape trial, which saw enthusiastic participation of leaders of the ANC, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and some who are now in the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who collectively engaged in creating a threatening atmosphere for women and anyone who stood in solidarity with Zuma’s rape complainant, “Khwezi”, real name Fezekile Kuzwayo.

Zuma’s aggressive masculinity was embodied in his “favourite song”, Umshini wami, which became emblematic of violation and phallic power. (Guns, we know, are always associated with phallic power.)

Some of the people who were involved in that moment are now playing a similarly threatening and terrorising role against journalists and commentators, especially focusing on women who expose alleged EFF misdemeanours.

Addressing EFF members and supporters outside the Zondo commission, where Gordhan gave evidence, Julius Malema, president of the EFF, announced a list of people he referred to as part of the Cyril Ramaphosa defence force.

It was reminiscent of the Malema of the Zuma rape trial era, who was prepared to kill for Zuma, the man who told the nation: “If Zuma is corrupt, we want him with his corruption.”

He was standing atop a truck, dressed in red. It is the same man we have seen before.

The man who used every available opportunity outside the Johannesburg High Court and beyond to tear into the rape complainant as an agent sent by others to destroy Zuma.

This Malema, as he did before, asked members and supporters of the EFF to deal with those members of the Ramaphosa defence force.

Despite his apology for backing Zuma and for the terrible things he said about Khwezi, the truth is that this Malema has never left.

He has always been there, lurking just beneath the surface, given to violent outbursts in Parliament and threats against political opponents, especially women.

Malema tempered his war talk with sufficient words to leave room for plausible deniability – “do not harm them physically, take them on intellectually”.

Following that, the EFF’s army of trolls was unleashed on those named by the EFF’s “commander in chief”.

These defenders of the EFF “revolution” used graphic language to attack journalists, especially women.

For a while now, there has been a definite ethnic tone in the EFF’s politics, disguised as part of antiracism politics.

This has marked the attacks on Gordhan and Ismail Momoniat of the Treasury, disguised as an attack on dictatorial actions, undermining Africans.

Of all people who have been attacked, men and women, none has come under attacks as vicious as those directed at Ranjeni Munusamy of the Sunday Times, Pauli van Wyk of the Daily Maverick and, of course, Anisha Gordhan, Pravin Gordhan’s daughter, accused of being corrupt.

The army of trolls that followed Malema’s command “to take them on intellectually” has interpreted this as an instruction to stoop to a level of misogyny and violent language that has not been seen for some time.

Both Munusamy and Van Wyk have been directly threatened with rape.

Someone tweeted that Munusamy should be f**ked in the arse to teach her a lesson. Van Wyk was said to need to be raped to teach her to shut up.

Threats of sexual violence or references to women who are not getting “it” – sex – have been common among supporters of the EFF.

Not once have leaders of the EFF condemned such tweets. As before, in his period as president of the ANC Youth League, nowhere has Malema said “not in my name” and distanced himself from those who attack women, believing they are “defending the revolution”.

There have been crude references to race and ethnicity of people with whom the EFF disagrees.

South Africa is steeped in a painful history of racism that continues to mark our daily lives as a society.

Yes, racism must be called out and we must all act against racial supremacy and dominance. But it is important for us to be vigilant to manipulation of race for nefarious purposes.

Some of the acts of crude race-baiting or attempts to use people’s race to silence them have come from senior leaders of the EFF.

Following the publication of an article she wrote on the alleged link between EFF and VBS, Van Wyk interacted with many people, especially the EFF base on Twitter.

In one such interaction, the EFF’s national chairperson, Dali Mpofu, tweeted “I am not your garden boy” and finished by saying something in Afrikaans.

Of course, he has every right to call out racism and indeed, refuse to be subjected to it.

What is significant in that particular exchange was that at no stage did Van Wyk act in a manner that suggested she was racist or acting in a superior manner.

Her identity as someone of Afrikaner descent supposedly gave Mpofu reason to shut her up.

This has also been evident in interactions with Munusamy. She has been subjected to a barrage of attacks as “this Indian”.

For two years Anisha Gordhan has been under attack from apologists for state capture and, recently, by the EFF.

She has been presented as an extension of her father and the means in which he supposedly engages in corrupt activities.

Trolls have often questioned if she is married and, if yes, have said her husband is a weak man who needs to be assisted in bed, or she is a woman who is unmarried because she is busy enabling her father to steal.

These crude remarks are often written in African languages, presumably to exclude those who do not speak such languages and to build a sense of commonality among those Africans who participate in this kind of discourse.

These threats of sexual violence, or prescriptions of sex for women who participate in public conversations, are voiced as the dominant insult because they are said to be sexually frustrated.

Responding to Van Wyk’s tweet “Malema should take responsibility for the violence of his supporters”, in response to reports of direct threats to Munumsay, Malema fired “go to hell, Satan” to the amusement of his followers.

It is difficult to see how Malema can claim not to know the link between violence and women who are called “Satan”, that is witches and/or evil.

Speaking to the crowd after the EFF laid charges against Gordhan, Malema proceeded to explain that his use of insults, such as calling Gordhan a “dog of white monopoly capital” is political talk, understood by politicians.

He is not violent and does not encourage violence, only intellectual war, he said.

Judging by his comments in Pretoria, Malema tries to dismiss the notion of violence conveyed by words.

He tries to portray violence as only physical. This is a deliberate ploy to minimise the meanings of his statements.

Not unlike US President Donald Trump, Malema refuses to see the link between his words and actions of others.

He mocked reports of Munusamy, who was threatened by three men, following the harassment she has been receiving online.

“Ranjeni wants attention,” he said in a style reminiscent of Trump.

Malema’s posture is similar to that of Trump and other little men of history who have boosted themselves by using aggressive masculine language and glorifying violence.

The EFF has postured as a revolutionary party, styled after Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and Vladimir Lenin. But none of these figures was boastful or theatrical.

They did their work with modesty and respect for all human beings.

No doubt, Malema also picked up a bit from Mao Zedong, albeit the worst characteristics, such as when he refers to people as “dogs of imperialism” or “white monopoly capitalism”.

Words have power. Malema knows this and he chooses his words carefully for their effect.

The language of violence is no less violent simply because it has been dressed in radical-sounding demagoguery.

In this period when we stand up against violence, when we remember those sisters who stood against Trujillo and many others, we must find ways to resist the thuggery (in the name of “revolution”) that aims to silence us.

We claim our right to our bodies and bodily integrity.

Our bodies are not battlefields. We will not be silenced by Trujillos in homes or those who appear on our ballot papers.

We speak, write and act to serve the vision of freedom that has guided the many great women who have gone before us.

Gasa is adjunct professor of public law and a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. Gasa’s work focuses on land, politics, gender and cultural issues

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December 9 2018