Black South African women know what it is to live under the constant threat of being in danger of violence and rape at any particular moment in our lives. Nowhere are we safe: not in our homes, places of worship, running errands, out for leisure, nor in our workplaces.
This past week has shown us that even in police stations, a woman can be killed by a violent spouse at the very moment in which she seeks protection from the law, presumably on the watch of armed police officers, tasked with protecting all citizens, especially those who are vulnerable.
Since Monday, September 7, there have been media reports almost daily about horrific gang rapes in this country. In Tsolo, in the Eastern Cape, police are hunting 11 suspects who gang raped a 17-year-old girl. The victim was attacked on a soccer field last Friday after walking a friend home, and raped by the men in three different groups. The pain and terror this survivor must have gone through is unimaginable. None of the suspects have been arrested.
Also last Friday, in Cape Town, a group of six boys aged between 13 and 16, gang raped and sodomised a mentally disabled woman, whom they had stalked, chased and dragged into bushes in broad daylight as she walked home from the shops.
These attacks, in the space of less than a week, make the treatment of a woman journalist by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the party’s MP Mbuyeseni Ndlozi’s defence of it as “not harassment” all the more despicable.
Nobesuthu Hejana was covering the EFF protest outside of Clicks. In a piece to camera for eNCA, she is trying to interview a group of the party’s members, mostly men. When in shot, they start shooing her away. When she refuses to move, as is her right, this quickly escalates to the group of men putting their hands on her, and then shoving her away from the entrance to the Clicks store being blockaded.
In a tweet, Ndlozi defended this incident by stating: “I really do not see harassment here. Merely touching her is not harassment. The touch has to be violent, invasive, or harmful to become harassment!”
This is a shameful statement given the backdrop of gender-based violence, perpetrated by mobs of men, which made the headlines in less than a week, while the protests against Clicks were ongoing.
This begs the question: who is Ndlozi, as a man in a country saturated with gender-based violence, to deem himself the arbiter of what degree of unwanted physical touch is acceptable?
Women journalists are not exempt from such violence in performing their duties. In 2011, CBS journalist Lara Logan was gang raped in Cairo with flagpoles and sticks by a mob of men while covering the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. Bystanders filmed the attack with cell phones and cameras, instead of assisting her. Several other women were attacked, harassed, and sexually assaulted during those protests and revolution in Egypt, including journalist Mona Eltahaway, who was sexually assaulted and had her writing arm broken by security police.
Gender-based violence against women journalists is a global problem. A Unesco report, published in 2013, lists four ways in which women journalists are most commonly the victims of violence: 1) during the course of reporting dangerous events such as wars and uprisings, 2) through sexual violence, used to discipline and punish, 3) state-sponsored violence in the form of arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture, and 4) online trolling and sexualised and other hate speech on the internet.
According to the report Women Journalists and Freedom of Expression, published by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, attacks most commonly reported by women journalists are “rape in retaliation for their work, sexual abuse in captivity or detention, and sexual violence by mobs against journalists covering public events”.
Back at home, the EFF has been one of the main harassers of women journalists and public figures with voices who dare to speak out against them. The party was found in 2019 to have contravened the electoral code by the Johannesburg High Court, after its leader, Julius Malema published the private phone number of political journalist Karima Brown on Twitter, unleashing a series of death and rape threats against her. Brown called the high court ruling a “victory for media freedom, a victory against sexism, and [a] victory for women in journalism and protection and freedom of the media”.
More recently, the EFF has on Twitter labelled public intellectual and former public protector Thuli Madonsela a “coconut” who should “find the nearest hell”.
What EFF responses to these three women reveal is a now-consistent pattern of misogyny, ironic in this latest context of the protest against Clicks, in which they purport to “defend” the degradation of black women by the Clicks advert, by degrading black women themselves.
Their online bullying of black women journalists and thinkers has now morphed, in full view of the nation, to physical intimidation.
The EFF owes black women and the journalists they have degraded an apology, and needs to deeply introspect on the ways in which it treats dissident black women.
There is no such thing as “harmless” touching without consent. Unwanted touch and shoving, especially by a mob, is violence. The EFF has shown itself to be on an escalating collision course with black women who dare to speak against them. From hateful speech, to online trolling, to rape threats, and now, pushing and shoving. What will the next sinister step in their violent, bullying progression against black women be?
Dr Barbara Boswell is a writer and associate professor of English at the University of Cape Town, where she teaches and writes about gender-based violence and representations of race, gender and sexuality. She is a former journalist and writes in her personal capacity as a survivor of sexual assault.