Lifting the black woman's burden

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In a Johannesburg township, an inspirational woman who knows all about sexual violence is leading young men towards a much needed emancipation. They may have beaten apartheid but oppressing women, reports Anthony Swift, is still a way of life.

Mmatshilo Motsei's organisation, Adapt (Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training), located in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, is devoted to combating the sexual violence that is endemic in black South Africa. Once a nurse in a trauma unit, she tended to a flow of women with injuries inflicted by partners. "One was wheeled in with an axe embedded in her knee bone," she says. Such exposure helped her confront the violence in her own marriage. "I underwent a whole cycle from anger to denial to blame; loss of self-esteem, extreme depression, the thought that if I did things differently the abuse would stop, until I realised it had nothing to do with me. It was my partner's problem." Strong parental support - which few victims of domestic violence enjoy - enabled her to leave him.

Adapt was set up to help survivors of domestic violence. It holds community workshops, trains community and health workers, and engages vigorously in the growing debate, locally and nationally.

Earlier this year, Motsei extended her work to men, teaching them, through role play and other techniques, to take account of their behaviour.

A young man, Busang Mokabudi, has just played the woman rape victim. He is strangely withdrawn. Asked how he felt, he replies, "I am shocked. My `attackers' are friends. They would never hurt me but I was really afraid. For the first time I realise what women go through."

Busang is one of a group of male anti-apartheid activists who are confronting the fact that though their generation fought tyranny - they overlooked their own subjugation of women.

They refer to Mmatshilo Motsei as "mother" and describe her as their role model. "People find it easy to engage in national liberation," she says. "When it comes to personal liberation they can't cope with it."

The early Nineties saw the emergence of "jackrolling", raping sprees conducted by gangs of marginalised youth who target black women who they regard as "getting above themselves". Though it started in the townships, such attacks have also plagued some university residences.

Interviews published by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation reflect the routine victimisation of women: "I have told myself `cherries' can't tell me anything; when I want it she must give," said one man. "Some invite jackroll," said another. "They walk in the street wearing minis. You get aroused. They snub you. We can't stand this shit."

"They think themselves better than us; they prefer men with money and big cars. When these women get jackrolled, it's OK," said a third.

According to Rape Crisis, one in two South African women endures rape. Domestic violence afflicts 60 per cent of homes. Researchers are finding that in some primary schools, "catch and rape" and simulated killing games have replaced cops and robbers.

What is remarkable is not the degree of violence - Unicef and Christian Aid recognise such violence as an obstacle to development in many countries. It is the growing determination of South Africans to expose and tackle it that is noteworthy.

The men have begun to realise that if violence against women short-circuits their aggression it also takes them into isolation from women and from their own humanity. They are struggling to change.

Boitshepo Lesetedi, the former national general secretary of Young Christian Students, regarded himself as a gender activist. He later recognised his own violence when, unusually, a partner stood up to him. "There is a tendency for young men to discipline women who treat them indifferently," he explains. "Therefore a number of girlfriends unfortunately ended up being smacked by me."

At weekly support meetings with Motsei, the men hold discussions, plan courses of action and review their progress. Instead of blaming women, they are beginning to grasp the anatomy of their aggression - their patriarchal culture, parental role models, political oppression and post-apartheid joblessness. Such explanations feed not resignation, but a determination to broaden their struggle. "We must not blame apartheid to a point where we are paralysed," says Busang Mokabudi. "After the rape role-play, I realised women must feel as I did under apartheid - that, however they hurt, they have no right to complain.

"That is a terrible feeling. I know now that I want men to change. I want to tell them, `Just role-play the part I played and you will feel it for the first time.' I am ready to expose this thing to everyone."