The lady’s not for burning

The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court is a battle of ideas and behaviour; a battle against, not of, violence Mail & Guardian reviewers examine meaning and myth in Mmatshilo Motsei’s The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court

wen Ansell About 55 000 rapes were reported in South Africa in 2005/06, along with close to 10 000 indecent assaults. Many of the latter may also have been rapes: of men, or with bottles, knives or guns — prevailing legal definitions did not permit the “rape” label for those. If you are part of the majority population (according to Statistics South Africa, 51% of us are female), South Africa is a dangerous place to live.

Just how dangerous, was highlighted by events inside and outside the court where one particularly well-publicised rape case was heard in March last year. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, deputy president of the ANC and former deputy president of the country, was on trial for the rape of a young woman identified as “Khwezi”. The court acquitted him. But, throughout the trial, mobs of supporters, many of them bussed in from Zuma’s base in rural KwaZulu-Natal, menaced the complainant, her family, legal team and supporters. Their chant — reproduced on a particularly ill-judged Sowetan front page that the photo-burning mobs then brandished as a placard — was “Burn the bitch!”

Women and men picketing for a fair trial faced a barrage of abuse. It sometimes seemed as if every passing hand was making gestures of throat-slitting or pistol-firing in their direction. The verbal and ideological violence continued long after the verdict. (Rapes, of course, had never stopped.) Calls for South Africa’s next president to be a woman met such gender-specific vitriol that Thenjiwe Mtintso, South African ambassador to Cuba, coined the term vrou-gevaar (women peril), in parallel to the swart-gevaar (black peril) psychosis infecting the supporters of apartheid.

The Zuma trial let loose the stink of some odious aspects of life. But it also highlighted a still-unsecured front in our liberation war: the struggle for gender equality. And if “Burn the bitch” was the literary expression of the enemy, Mmatshilo Motsei’s book sounds the clarion call back to battle.

It’s a battle of ideas and behaviour; a battle against, not of, violence. In 200 meticulously researched and passionately (but also wittily) written pages, Motsei examines the gender images and self-images men and women create and hold, where these images come from, and how they are expressed in behaviour.

Though the Zuma trial is the anchor for her argument, she considers many broader issues, including patriarchy in religion and popular culture, and the impact of globalisation and militarisation. She debunks — tragic that it must be done so repeatedly — the myth that women “ask for it”. And she kills the canard that African cultures are inherently sexist, drawing on authorities to the contrary from gender studies academic Molara Ogundipe to traditional healer Credo Mutwa and veteran Alexandra community leader Drake Koka.

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