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Culture, Reality

We Are Not Road Signs

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / Illustration by Trevor Paul / 06.02.2012

On the 17th of February 2008, Nwabisa Nqcukana was attacked by a large group of men whilst making her way through Noord Taxi Rank in a mini-skirt. They stripped her of her clothing, tore her underwear and began to indecently assault her: groping her breasts, pouring beer over her head, sticking their filthy fingers into her vagina.

Two weeks later, Redi Tlhabi and assault victim, Nwabisa Ngcukana led hundreds bare-thighed women on a protest walk through the now notorious taxi rank. Skirts and shorts hems high above their knees, placards waving wildly above their heads.

“We are not road signs. You will respect us.”

The taxi drivers and rank hawkers responded with their own brand of mild amusement and derision; pulling down their pants, flashing their asses and swinging their Neanderthal cocks. It humoured them, these woman who think they have control of their bodies. Who don’t view a naked leg as an invitation to have sex. “If you are wearing a miniskirt, you give the impression you want to be raped,” commented taxi driver Thulani Nhapo. “You respect yourself when you wear a longer skirt. We respect women who respect themselves.”

The crowd at the Mini-skirt March was mostly female, and largely black. The issues, which at the face of them should appeal to most, if not all women, were subjected to some internal intellectual distillation process, and separated as a poverty issue, a black issue, a taxi rank issue.

Fast forward to mid-year, 2011. Women are gathering en mass worldwide in a campaign sparked by a comment made a policeman while addressing campus safety, “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” In Cape Town, four years after the Mini-skirt March and in stark contrast to it, the Slutwalkers occupied the Sea Point Promenade. Now a mainly white crowd, with the ocean as backdrop. No taunting taxi drivers and hawkers, no male genitalia imposing its dominance. Now happy (crappy), posed statues instead of overflowing rubbish bins, rodents and rapists. Slutwalk, riding on the current of an international campaign; drew more attention and controversy, and ignited more debate.

2011 was South Africa’s year for borrowed relevance. First, Slutwalk then the Occupy movement. Imported with their foreign roots intact, the organisers identified in them unifying global causes, causes common to all South Africans without looking within the country for stimulation or nuance. And so while the campaigns drew more media attention than 2008’s Mini-skirt March, they were possibly less reflective of South Africa as a whole. I could insert a couple of harrowing rape statistics here, tell my own personalised story of sexual assault ( to like, add credibility, y’know), but what really stands out to me here, is the inability of South Africans to recognise issues that are common to them, regardless of race and class; but rather find some kind of shifting middle-class comfort and familiarity with international campaigns. The thing is, rape doesn’t discriminate; but for some reason, the majority of the middle-class relates better with to woman and sex issues abroad, than the ones that happen in their own country everyday.

Stuart MacDonald, one the SlutwalkCT organisers is quoted as saying “ the movement stems from the notions of western bourgeois morality; and the universalisation of these sort of ‘middle class values’ is often looked at with suspicion in countries that were once colonised.” So although the right to not be raped should be inclusionary of all woman, it is still seen as a “middle class value”. Where does this leave the rural or township woman, who statistically is at a greater risk of falling victim to rape and abuse? In order for her to be safe, or feel safe, does she need to embrace “western bourgeois morality” as readily as our middle class does? And how does this middle-class view the poorer woman? Is she poor first, and female second? Is this why we find it easier to identify with our foreign counterparts?

In South Africa, even crime is subject to taxonomy. When murder occurs, we are quick to attempt to classify it. White genocide, black-on-black violence, poverty related. The same thing is done with rape. Fiona Snyckers claims in an M&G article that women “experience gender violence and discrimination differently according to whether they are rich or poor; and whether they are black or white.” South Africa is seen as largely patriarchal society, and a lot of it stems from traditional and cultural practices (read black), and so when a black woman is harassed at a taxi rank, it ticks all the relevant boxes (poor, black, disenfranchised) and becomes a little okay – if only through its distance from us and its prevalence.

On the 30th of December 2011, two girls walked out of a shop at Noord Taxi Rank, and were met by a group of sixty to seventy howling, leering men. They chanted songs as they groped the girls and attempted to strip them. Armed with sexist slurs and camera phones, they followed the girls who ran into another store to buy leggings. Eventually, after half an hour of humiliation, they were rescued by the Metro police. Since then, many people have come out to “condemn” the attacks. The girls have pressed charges, but to date (even after identifying some of the men on CCTV footage), no arrests have been made. No marches, no mass indignation, no protest action. Have we resigned them to their fate? In our silence, have we decided that although we could march for Slutwalk, the taxi rank is a step too far? Who needs to be raped in South Africa and where, before it becomes a national problem?

*Illustration © Trevor Paul.

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