What is the Price of Freedom?

The price of the freedom we have had as a country since 1994 is disappointment, even disappointment with ourselves: that we have not done as good a job as we expected compared to our former oppressor.

In some instances challenges and problems have arisen just when we thought we had arrived, problems which seem like they are not of our own doing such as HIV/AIDS as a social phenomenon, and its magnifying-glass on sex and sexuality; aspects which remain sacred, even as the world attempts to make them a free-for-all. HIV has forced us to re-examine our attitudes and conversations around sex, whether these have been correct all along.

It has made visible the shame of our sin: Our father’s slept around, not every one in my family is a ‘proper’ blood relative, that families are not neatly packaged as the wedding and funeral ceremonies make them up to be, but they are rather invented on the basis of what we want from them. That there are also contrived silences and demands for order that inhibit truthful behaviour, and acceptance of one who has made a mistake.

It drew attention on our motives of having sex. For the pleasure of men, often at the expense of women, as well as the oppressive norms over women that men have turned a blind eye on.

By extension, then, it also drew attention to our struggle for liberation. Were we really serious about ridding our world of injustice inflicted by the white man? Why then did we not look introspectively and question if the way we treat our women (our wives, mothers, and girl-children) in the home is not the same, if not worse, than the humiliation we endured from the white race?

From this angle, we are inclined to wonder: is this sudden publicity on rape necessarily a new thing, or is it just an indication of an increase in reporting? I am thinking here about the high school girl who was raped by his teacher on the school premises in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal last year in September. The 17-year-old girl claimed that her grandfather informed her father of the incident. Her father then spoke to the teacher and they agreed that the teacher would pay him with 3 goats and 2 cows.

The temptation to be outraged in this instance is to be expected—one can even say warranted—given the violent nature of the crime. But besides the emotion it does not bring us to a point of resolution, resolution not in the legal sense of having justice prevail, but the resolution within ourselves, the kind that allows us to see how we as a people have allowed the situation to take place. There are ways in which our contemporary public culture suppresses the story even before it has been properly told.

Let us take a closer look at the story, as reported by the SABC News on primetime TV:

In the insert, we are shown the school girl, with her back towards the camera, and her school in the backdrop. In a strained monotone, the reporter begins by saying “Jabu says her ordeal started two weeks ago, when a teacher at the school dragged her to his cottage in the school premises.”

The tone has to be strained precisely because rape is an everyday occurrence in South Africa. Given the regularity of reporting, the reporter strains to give this one case special recognition. She is pleading for the viewer’s attention. But her plea is undermined by the fact that she refuses to tell the full story. Jabu’s character sounds like every other victim we hear about in the media, there is a falseness—dare I say boredom—in how she has been characterized.

The words used, “ordeal” and “dragged” are vivid and suggestive. They actually reveal the reporters intention, which is not objectivity, as she may have us believe in her monotone. Clearly her stance is that of moral outrage. In this sense, it matches our own position as concerned viewers. We are all in agreement about the deviant nature of the crime, and need no convincing in this regard. So the tone of moral outrage, as enticing as it may be, does not say enough,  it does not go far enough in helping us understand what has really happened.

The reporter then races through the details of the incident, to bring us to the height of the drama where she exclaims, “ a deal was struck”—these are now her own words—“to stop Jabu’s father from laying a charge. Jabu’s father confirmed he accepted 2 cows and 3 goats from the teacher”. The incident is then left there, the remainder of the report investigates the action to be taken by the Department of Education against the teacher.

Because the insert re-plays the sense of moral outrage already lingering in the viewer’s mind, we remain unchanged by it, only that we are left feeling slightly confused as we do not know exactly why we have been told that the father was given 3 goats and 2 cows, and what are we supposed to make of that piece of information.

There is a failure of perception in depicting the crime and its resolution as senseless and bizarre. The reporter does not, and cannot risk portraying the victim unfairly, so the solution is that the parts that don’t quite fit the usual format of moral outrage are rendered bizarre. In the end important questions remain unaddressed: What has prompted the teacher to do such an act? What motivated the father to resolve the matter in the way that he did?

In traditional Zulu life, inkomo (the cow) in the kraal of the household were the pride of the home. While the king was the symbol of the authority, glory and essence of that life: the inkomo was more than that—it was life itself. Besides providing the traditional person with food, inkomo stood as a symbol invested with spiritual, political and economic significance.

To settle political disputes between clans izinkomo were exchanged, with the understanding that once ‘your cows were now in my kraal’ we have become basically families, we can therefore no longer be at war. Excellence in military intelligence and agricultural production were rewarded with cattle, the number of cattle you owned was linked to your labour activity, and thus your economic status.

Cattle were also seen as a link between the visible and the invisible worlds. To purify both yourself and those you have defiled you would use inkomo. The cow was therefore imbued with spiritual significance. The loss of one’s cows was equivalent to losing one’s child.[1] So the transaction between the teacher and father can be looked at as an act of penitence, appropriate to the traditional order of things.

We are easily forgiving towards the news reporter who has imposed her moral outrage on us, based on the grounds of her good intentions, perhaps even because of the hasty format of TV news bulletins. Inescapable though is the violence that it is broadcast on our screens and is replicated in a more subtle way.

What is missing in the situation and the representation of the psychology of the teacher and father—which makes the story false—is any will to understand traditional reality as one of the many realities of South African life.

The story is controlled by another story which the media is not telling. For, while it is willing to tell us about a poor girl from rural KwaZulu-Natal, it is a good deal less willing to tell us about the duality of ethnic and civil citizenship, between traditional authority and civil courts of justice, that is enshrined in our constitution. This duality is something which our culture of constitutional democracy has itself ordained as a viable compromise in securing the respect for older African forms of government. Both of these forms of citizenship carry different understandings of rights—where civil justice speaks of the right to life, the right to a fair trial, the traditional viewpoint is concerned with the right to have isithunzi (dignity) of one’s home restored. Indeed the gesture of exchanging cows can be looked at as an important trade-off in restoring isithunzi of the father’s home. Under this perspective, the retaining of isithunzi is important in securing a livable future for the girl too—a future in where she can marry one day, and have someone pay lobola for her.

The media’s failure in this regard, is our own failure in this constitutional democracy to reflect on South African (and in particular black reality) as complex and differentiated.

There seems to be at play in the incident difficult questions, that pull us in ways perhaps that we are not yet able to come to terms with. They are part of that formless void that makes us nervous as South Africans, lest we do not come to a remedying solution.

Indeed the humiliation the young girl has already endured reassures our call for justice. But in evading this complexity—which is nothing more than the complexity of our inner selves dying to speak out—so much is lost. We become silent and unsatisfied. Oh, this vulnerability makes us so prone to being sold a cause—of whatever agenda—like being bussed to a rally, or thrown a free tshirt; a cause that is not entirely in-tune with our own.

We always seem to make the irrational demand that the nation’s most oppressed (the rural and traditional) behave itself at all times with a skill and vivacity we have mastered with regards to the constitution, yet we also refuse to give him access to those very rights. This minority (whose attributes are consistent with his skin) must behave differently, and should know better than to conduct himself like a caveman. But it is us who have sealed him in his position of incomprehensibility.

The story finds itself trapped in the South African aspiration of constitutional life and by the South African anxiety to find verdict for the victim, that it cannot pursue its own implications. This is why the girl must be redeemed, not by cause of justice where suspects are innocent until proven guilty, but by excessive use of emotionally charged speech, that does nothing but re-cycles the violence, and prompts people to take justice into their own hands.

[1] See H I E Dhlomo, ‘Inkomo in Zulu Life’, Ilanga 6th & 13th December 1947