Solace and affirmation: talking about rape with other women

February 7, 2018 By Kagiso Lesego Molope

When I walk into a jewelry store on a sunny spring morning in 2017, I’m curious and then excited. The store is new in my neighbourhood, and to my delight the owner is South African. I begin a conversation about her pieces, pleased to see that she has a workshop in the back where she creates everything she sells in the store. She’s a relatively pleasant person and happy to show me around, but my interest in the merchandise is eclipsed by my curiosity about her. I rarely meet other South Africans in Ottawa, so I’m eager to chat.

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I ask, “Are you South African?”

She pauses before a cautious nod: “Yes,” she says and looks away.

“I thought so!” 

But even seeing how uncomfortable she’s getting, I’m eager to chat on, hoping to put her at ease. The owner doesn’t get any warmer and soon reveals the source of her discomfort.

“I left three years ago and so did my sister and her family. I’ll never go back. The violence! We were robbed several times and I have friends who were raped. So many people have been raped. It’s changed so much. It’s really not the country I grew up in.” She says. 

I wince at that last sentence and then, as if that’s not enough of a sear, she looks me in the eye and says: “And it’s mostly White women being raped.”

I don’t know what to say, but I know it’s a challenge. I gather myself together feeling like I want to hurl myself through the glass. I’ve never been one to know what to say in the moment and all I can throw her way, before marching out, is:  “But you know it’s been like that forever. For me it is the country I grew up in.”

It may seem like a mild response to the North American reader, but this is as loaded as a response can be.

I wish I could say the following fact was irrelevant in our conversation but not only is it relevant, it marks the very thing that killed our conversation before it even started: I am of African descent and the store owner is of European descent. We are roughly the same age and we grew up in the same country, but also we didn’t. She grew up a first-class citizen under apartheid, and I grew up not only a third-class citizen but at the bottom of the third-class citizenship. Our experiences of violence during apartheid are vastly different, so I don’t and won’t dispute her assertion that the country she grew up in didn't have the violence and fear she sees now. 

It’s difficult to pull statistics on violence before 1994. My research constantly leads me to South African Police Service (SAPS) information starting at the dawn of democracy, and many researchers insist that apartheid-era statistics are unreliable. It’s important, though, to point out that violence has always been a core feature in enforcing colonial rule—from the beginning of colonialism right up to the end of the apartheid era. Fear of violence—political or not—has ruled our lives on both sides of the country. The government effectively kept Whites in fear of Africans with warnings of violent natives. On the other side, the side I grew up in, violence from the state was ever-present and relentless. So, it is unsurprising that two women from opposite ends of the spectrum would not find it natural to fall easily into a conversation about what the country looked and felt like before democratic rule.

South Africans are constantly burdened with explaining both to themselves and each other how violence has defined their upbringing. It continues to be a constant preoccupation in their adult daily lives because of how far back it goes historically, and how much it has unfortunately come to define us as a nation at home; when traveling or living abroad we have to defend and explain its prevalence to most people we come across.  


"A woman declared recently on social media that 'the penis is a weapon.' Growing up in South Africa, that is perhaps how you see a penis first, before you grow up to see it as anything else—to learn its other uses."


Now, probably, had we been speaking of a different country, the store owner and I might have come together as two women on one type of violence: rape. We are, after all, from a country where sexual assault is a constant preoccupation, and it’s no wonder when you look at the stats: a total of 53, 617 sexual offences were reported to SAPS in 2014/2015. And 109 rapes were said to have been recorded per day, according to SAPS’s 2016/2017 official crime statistics. No child grows up in South Africa without knowing what rape is, without knowing someone who has been a victim. The fear of being raped is as constant as that of anyone living in designated war zone; there is a war on women and children, an enforcement of power by sexual assault. A woman declared recently on social media that “the penis is a weapon.” Growing up in South Africa, that is perhaps how you see a penis first, before you grow up to see it as anything else—to learn its other uses.

In 2001, it was reported by SAPS that children are the victims of 41 percent of all rapes reported in the country, while the TEARS Foundation and the South African Medical Research Centre stated 50 percent of South Africa’s children will be abused before the age of 18.

So, you would think that this would be our the common ground for me and the store owner—two women from a place where it is reported that a woman is raped every 26 seconds. If we were from another place, yes, this may have been a unifying topic to fall on. I may be telling you that it was an enlightening conversation and perhaps even affirming, because I had spoken to someone who comes from the same place, shares the same horrors, and knows the weight of the same fears. But nothing is ever viewed so holistically in South Africa—the burden of our history is carried by all of us. We are Black before we are human, White before we are women, Coloured before we are children. And often without even knowing it we hold on to our historical titles, which I always put in caps because they are simply that—historical, racist, divisive titles. They are not legitimate. You can say that she and I were, in our minds, firmly rooted in the fears and rules of our upbringing and not able to stand here, in Canada, where neither one of us had ever grown up—and where the rules can be said to be vastly different—and speak to each other about our very human fears and experiences.   

The violence of rape has dogged us for centuries. As professor Pumla Dineo Gqola points out in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, violence has existed and been rampant in the country for centuries and can be clearly traced back to the beginning of colonialism. Under British colonial rule, rape was a core feature. Slave women were raped and forcefully impregnated. As a weapon, rape has shaped and defined White dominance in this and perhaps all other African countries. If interactions between White and Black South Africans have been doused in this kind of violence for so long, is it possible really that the woman in the jewelry shop and I can speak of our experiences—all kinds of it—without feeling first the resentment, the anger, and the fear of one another?  


"There is never a moment of two South Africans having a conversation about violence as humans; we are always looking through the Black/White lens."


I remember riding in the backseat of my parents’ car when I was young and apartheid was falling. A particularly heinous crime had been committed and on the radio a debate raged on about what the culprits’ punishment should be. Every caller’s first question was, “Are they Black or are they White?” Only then, only when they had the answer would the callers give their suggestion on the severity of the punishment. There is never a moment of two South Africans having a conversation about violence as humans; we are always looking through the Black/White lens.

As a woman of African descent—a native, Black, and female—I feel the need to interrogate the past as much as the present while many people want to only go as far back as 1994. What is the new government doing? There is the insinuation that this violence rose out of democracy. When I meet White South Africans the fury about crime goes only as far back as 1994. It’s not entirely surprising that even while doing research the most prominent statistics of violence begin at the start of that era; apartheid-era violence is not considered or just much harder to find.  

But rape is rape. The violence I grew up with that the store owner declares was not in the country she was raised in is real and should be interrogated as much as whatever has happened since the dawn of democracy. Calling rape before democracy “political violence” doesn’t excuse it; it doesn’t make it any easier to reconcile. All violence is political. All of the rapes that happen have ties to wounded masculinity, and wounded masculinity cannot be conveniently separated from history. I grew up fearing rape from people I knew intimately; a woman in South Africa in the early years of British colonial rule must have feared rape from a British soldier; and a child growing up in South Africa now, as well as in the United States, knows that their president is a man accused of sexual assault but also that he gets to rule and roam freely, unscathed by his crime.  

I spend a lot of time thinking about where women come together on the topic of sexual violence, how safe we can make spaces for each other, how much room we can give each other to explore the many implications of living with this widespread rape epidemic. Because I am South African born, my experiences and fears around rape go back to that country but don’t end there. The conversation between me and the store owner could be one between an immigrant woman and a fourth-generation Canadian woman. It could be between a First Nations woman and a White woman. We are all products of our own history. But where do we come together? Where is the common ground?


"Our duty is to open up safe spaces for each other. Spaces of solace and affirmation."


I write about intimate partner violence in This Book Betrays My Brother (Mawenzi House) because it’s something I want to speak more honestly about and more honestly with other women. I don’t believe it’s a woman’s job to end sexual violence the same way I don’t believe it’s a Black person’s duty to end racism, and the same way I don’t believe it’s a disabled person’s job to make the world accessible. I’ve infuriated a lot of people with this opinion. I've experienced women attacking the very thought that it’s not our work to end sexual violence. But I’ll always stand by this. It is not our duty. It’s not. Our duty is to open up safe spaces for each other. Spaces of solace and affirmation. I wish the store owner and I had been able to do this for each other. In that jewelry store we stood with our feet firmly planted in our pasts and our feelings locked behind the masks of  colour. I’ve had conversations with White Canadian women about rape and they’ve looked at me with pitying eyes. Very sorry for the gruesome country I grew up in. Very sympathetic. And that’s a different kind of separation, but a separation nonetheless. Rape is everywhere—not just suffered by women of colour, White women, First Nations women. We all grow up with the fear of it and we all need other women to be honest about their fears so that we know we’re not alone, we’re not “crazy,” we’re not the only ones aware and afraid of it.


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Kagiso Lesego Molope was born and educated in South Africa before coming to Canada in 1997. Her first novel, Dancing in the Dust (Mawenzi House) was highly praised. This Book Betrays My Brother won the Percy Fitzpatrick Prize for Youth Literature in South Africa, where it was first published. Her novel Such a Lonely, Lovely Road will be published by Mawenzi House in fall 2018. She lives in Ottawa.


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