Words like these: reflections on writing & thinking about sexual violence

TW: sexual violence

I write about sexual violence a lot. This is a post about the experience of dedicating so many words to rape and other forms of violation. This is a home for the unfinished/unfinishable thoughts I have between writing.

A dark cloud of words
The first and heaviest difficulty of writing about sexual violence is that it hurts people. My words can be reminders of things people don’t want to remember. I understand why. I’m sorry.
For some, my words are an inconvenience. Press release upon press release. Lawyers and PR machines. They use all the words they have to cling to their power. I use mine as memorials for the resistances I’ve known.
My silence has never protected me. My words are vulnerable too. I’m reminded of this whenever I use the word ‘allegedly’ to describe something I know to be true.
Wordless feelings
I’ve been interviewing women about sex and consent for my Master’s research. A lot of this has been hard because, while rape and sex are not the same thing, many of our introductions to sexuality involve violation. It’s a really confusing space to work in, conceptually, because there’s a myriad of ways to be violated and so many of those do not immediately lead us to the words: #MeToo. Sometimes, all we have is confusion or shame or feeling like everything is out of control. Some things are difficult to name. Some feelings have no words. Labels like ‘rape’, ‘abuse’ and ‘sexual assault’ get stuck at the back of our throats.
Or words that don’t feel quite right
Another challenge I’ve faced when writing about sexual violence is figuring how to write about people who’ve been violated in a way which doesn’t reproduce the ‘spectacle’ narrative. Part of the stigma of sexual violence is the idea that something about your identity is changed and that you’re damaged forever. The labels ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ reproduce this. The word ‘survivor’ has so much pressure of being resilient attached to it – it’s like saying you were supposed to be destroyed by this thing but you overcame it. ‘Victim’ on the other hand, has connotation of weakness – you are allowing this thing to destroy you or this thing destroyed you and now you’re not as valuable. I respect everyone’s choice to identify as one or the other, but what happens when you don’t want to identify as either? There should be a space for that somewhere. Why should we have to define ourselves based on someone else’s actions anyway? Writing about victims, survivors, victim-survivors and victims/survivors feels like reducing a person to that experience. I’m still looking for words that don’t have this effect.
Words coming up short
Sometimes it feels like one’s value for speaking out about experiencing sexual violence is based on the strength projected onto them. When people speak about horrible things they’ve experienced, and others respond commending their strength, it feels shallow: like a non-engagement with the reality of the person’s experience. It feels like people can just post “Wow, you’re so strong” and go – but speaking up about a violation doesn’t mean the pain is over, or that you no longer need support.
A lot of times, to get to the admirable strength stage, there have been many weeks/months of terror, anxiety, shame, self-blame where you weren’t strong and there was no support. It would be so radical if we could create cultures where people who are violated struggle to blame themselves, rather than being so ashamed they are terrified to speak honestly about the pain. People shouldn’t only be recognized when they post a status, especially when the grieving stage of violation is so everyday. A commitment to supporting each other offline is super important. We need to be prepared to be the first person someone opens up to. We need to be a culture that is a safe landing space for people with unfathomable pain.
On Rage
“I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me as well as its limitations” – Audre Lorde
In my writing, I have learned to negotiate with my anger, especially so that the people whose stories I am trying to amplify aren’t drowned out by my feelings. This is usually hard, because there’s a lot of rage, because there’s a lot of injustice. Ultimately, the responsibility of the writing weighs more than the rage.
Sometimes, seeing people angry about sexual violence has been affirming. Other times, it’s felt disempowering – especially when it seems like the violation become a spectacle. It is sometimes tiring to hear the chorus: “How could this happen?”. When do we stop asking how, and answering the question? What do we do with all of this rage?


Learn/unlearn: transgender identity & experiences

*Learn/unlearn is a work-in-progress educational resource project highlighting all my favourite articles, covering various social issues. This post focuses on transgender African people’s experiences. 

Blogs, vlogs and interviews

Sandi Ndelu is a black trans woman & activist in South Africa. You can read her interviews here:

To be young, black and transgender in South Africa – An interview with Sandi Ndelu


On accessing healthcare as a transgender person in South Africa


Phumelele Nkomozake is a Black Xhosa trans woman (and SRC Transformation rep 2018 at Rhodes). Her lit blog is covers topics such as her experience as a trans woman, xhosa culture, gender, race, colourism and sexuality.


She has also been published by Huffington Post:


Glow Mamiii is a trans woman and the first South African woman to document her transition on Youtube. Catch her on youtube: beadssomething 

The GLO’WUP: the intricacies of being a transgender woman in South Africa


Laverne Cox, star of the Orange Is the New Black, produced this documentary about young trans men and women and their experiences in the USA:

The T word

A profile on Motswana activist and Gender DynamiX executive director Tshepo Ricki Kgositau


An interview with ARTivist Kat Kai Kol-Kes


M(x)Blouse on being gender non-binary, their relationship with hip-hip and their debut EP


Genderqueer: Existing outside the boundary by Demelza Bush

http:/ www.bhekisisa.org/article/2015-04-10-00-i-am-genderqueer-comfortable-with-my-identity-at-last

The story of Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a Malaiwian trans woman who was forced into exile


An interview with Zanna Chetty


News Articles

Trans people seek bias-free healthcare


​Torment for trans women ‘sent to the mountain’ to learn to be men (Mail & Guardian)


‘My body is a battleground’: How rural trans people struggle to live out their rights (Mail & Guardian)


Trans men: The ‘invisible’ group in SA’s HIV health plan (Mail & Guardian)



What it feels like to be transgender by Lee Mokobe


How ‘Khwezi’s activism shaped a generation

In 2005, Fezekile Kuzwayo accused Jacob Zuma, then Deputy President of the ruling party, of rape.  During Zuma’s rape trial in 2006, the One in Nine campaign organized a national day of solidarity with “Khwezi” (the pseudonym adopted to protect Kuzwayo’s identity). At Rhodes University in Grahamstown, a group of activists marched to the High Court in solidarity with the One in Nine campaign. A year later, members of the organization hosted the first annual Silent Protest against sexual violence at Rhodes. When I took part in the protest for the first time in 2012, the protest had grown to be the biggest of its kind in the country, boasting over 1000 participants.

In the years I attended, the Silent Protest was somber yet significant occasion. Like clockwork, the clouds would gather together above as we marched to the Main Admin building. During the day, most participants wore black tape across their mouths to symbolize the silencing effect of rape. In the evening, reverberations of Kuzwayo’s courage were felt in the Cathedral vigil, as one by one, those who wore “Rape Survivor” t-shirts entrusted the crowd with their stories. What moved me about the protest was that it provided a space to de-stigmatize the experience of rape: a platform for those who had experienced sexual violence to speak out openly.

In April 2016, four years after I first participated in the Silent Protest, Rhodes University exploded in an anti-rape protest of a different kind. Following the publication of the #RUReferenceList – a list of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence  – on social media, students shut down the campus, demanding the suspension of the listed students.

As the hashtag #RUReferenceList went viral on social media, feminist rage spread ferociously. Soon, our cry for justice was echoed by students from other campuses, who expressed their solidarity by mobilizing under the hashtags #Iam1in3, #UCTSpeaksBack and #EndRapeCulture.

Perhaps for outsiders who were familiar with Rhodes University’s legacy of hosting the Silent Protest, that rape culture still persisted at Rhodes may have come as a surprise. However, for those of us who had over the years learned of the violations of our peers, which occurred often at the hands of other students, the image of our university as a safe space had long faded.

The #RUReferenceList protests highlighted that symbolizing silence was no longer an adequate strategy for ending rape. As activist/author Pumla Gqola had said, rather than symbolic solidarity, there needed to be a social cost for raping. At a time where our faith in our institution’s preparedness to combat sexual violence had dwindled, the Reference List was the megaphone we needed to break the silence.

Months later, shortly before commemorations of Women’s day had begun, four women staged a silent protest as Jacob Zuma delivered a post-election speech in Pretoria. Amanda Mavuso, Naledi Chirwa, Simamkele Dlakavu and Lebogang Shikwambane stood in front of the president, holding up posters which read “#I am 1 in 3”, “Khanga”, “10 years later” and “#RememberKhwezi”. Although they were quickly removed from the venue, their reminder echoed across airwaves and online spaces thereafter. As the name “Khwezi” regained prominence, the nation had to meditate on the sore fact that the victim-blaming beliefs that drove Kuzwayo into exile a decade ago still plague us today.


On the October Sunday that we learned of Fezekile Kuzwayo’s death, we experienced a deep heartbreak; a spiritual laceration. Waves of grief and disbelief washed over us, leaving us worn. At Rhodes University, later that week, when we held a vigil to celebrate Fezekile’s life, even the most outspoken amongst us had no words to articulate the weight of the loss. After all, in mourning Fezekile, we were mourning one of our greatest feminist teachers. In remembering her, we would inherit the responsibility of fighting to create the society she deserved.


In paying tribute to Kuzwayo’s legacy – her courage and her intellect – we must pledge to remain cognizant of the violences that queer people, women, non-binary trans people, and HIV-positive people face every day. Our life’s work is to reclaim justice as our birthright, even when we tremble with fear. It is our task to institute a real freedom and put to shame the farcical institutions that fail us time and again. The enormity of patriarchal violence, fused with our own traumas, may discourage us, but we must remember that Fezekile also treaded this path. We must prepare to carry this baton as far as we can run. As our race heats up, may Fezekile Kuzwayo rest in peace and in power.


What is intersectionality?

I first came across the word ‘intersectionality’ a few years ago. At the time, I understood it loosely to be “the idea that people have different oppressions and also, different privileges”.

Firstly, Kimberle Crenshaw came up with intersectionality in 1989. A Black woman did that. But as these things go, I only heard about Crenshaw a while after I first came across the word. I’m just putting this out there because Black womens’ genius is often ignored (and because it hurts my feminist soul that we can talk about intersectionality without saying her name).

Secondly, and more to the point, intersectionality is huge in feminism now. Fellow feminists are defining themselves as intersectional, calling for intersectional approaches and critiquing things for not being intersectional enough. “Intersectional feminism” has become our beacon of hope: the thing that will lead us (as Black Africans) away from feminisms that don’t fit.  But what does intersectional feminism even mean?

The word ‘intersectionality’ is used so often that it’s getting vague: it seems like it has no limitations. With such frequent use, it loses its shape and its grit. As it has become more popular, people have started using intersectionality in a way which seems to be for everyone’s benefit. But best believe Kimberle Crenshaw was talking about Black women. In Mapping the Margins, the article she wrote explaining intersectionality in 1993, Crenshaw was very specific.

The fact that everyone can now cash in on ‘intersectionality’ heavily suggests that it has been stolen and appropriated. This is not to say that only Black women can talk about intersectionality or that it can’t apply to other forms of oppression. I just want to reflect on where it came from.

In  Mapping the Margins,  Crenshaw wrote about how both feminist and anti-racism movements failed to address issues specific to Black women. She noted:

Racism as it is experienced by Black men tends to determine the parameters of antiracist strategies, just as sexism experienced by White women tends to ground the women’s movement.

Crenshaw added that dealing with one oppression at at time fails to truly free people because (to paraphrase Lorde) we don’t live single-issue lives. Something that frees a white women won’t free a Black woman; that’s why feminism has been criticized so much by Black women.

Mapping the Margins is about how not recognizing social differences within movements leaves some people out in the cold. For Crenshaw, it is necessary to assert the differences that are erased, to call a spade a spade basically, so that this exclusion doesn’t happen within our liberation movements.

With that, I think intersectionality should always mean taking the focus away from privileged voices and listening to people who are oppressed. This becomes increasingly important as recently, I’ve been finding that even within ‘intersectional’ spaces and intersectional feminism, some people use intersectionality to protect their privilege.

I’m uncomfortable with people using intersectionality as a buzzword so often that it no longer prioritizes marginalized groups. I’m uncomfortable with people using intersectionality to avoid taking responsibility for privilege. You shouldn’t be able to use intersectionality as a shield if you’re being oppressive. Put some respek on Crenshaw’s concept.

If you’re white and queer, you’re never not white. If you’re black and upper middle class, you’re never not middle-class. If you’re cisgender and queer, you’re never not cisgender. And so on. Facing a particular oppression doesn’t cancel out having a privilege and we need to constantly take responsibility for what having privilege does for us.

Privilege amplifies your voice all the time. So your whiteness, your wealth, your physical abilities, your heterosexuality etc. all speak louder than you imagine. For that reason, intersectionality, to me, means that you are aware of when you speak and what your voice means in different contexts. You ask: Is this conversation about me? Do I need to speak? Will this conversation benefit from my contribution? Am I only responding right now because I’m uncomfortable with having my privilege interrogated?*

Crenshaw ends off saying:

The most one could expect is that we will dare to speak against internal exclusions and marginalizations…Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.

Coming together is vital for our liberation. But coming together is also a collision, where we have to confront our complicity in the systems that oppress others. Perhaps, in colliding, we can use intersectionality to free ourselves from practices that harm others.

*I still think we need a better way of talking to each other about privilege within feminism. I’m still thinking about whether or not calling people out works. I haven’t figured it out yet.
**Special thanks to everybody who helps me figure this stuff out, particularly Dlova & Nomoyi (2016).

Why I don’t believe in monsters

CN: sexual violence, perpetrators, violence

Motho ke motho ka batho. I am because we are. The promise is that we are only able to exist through other people, that we should value each other despite our differences, treat each other with compassion and coexist. It’s nice, isn’t it?  🙂

I have a concern…As far as I can tell, we’re not applying the principle of ubuntu consistently. We call on it to unify our nations and uphold it as a virtue. Ubuntu is our slogan in the good times.But where does ubuntu go when things go wrong?

I’m from a country where the death penalty is legal. A hanging in Botswana is not usually the biggest controversy. By 2013, Botswana had hung 47 people since independence in 1966. This year, they added another name to the list.

Growing up in Botswana, I thought the death penalty was just one of the things that happened mo life-eng: I didn’t question it. The justification was that the death penalty served as a deterrent to crime. Although South Africa does employ the death penalty, given the ‘high’ crime rate, I suspect that some may view the death penalty in the same way I did, as the ‘necessary’ response to the problem of crime.

The media reports on crime often and each headline seems more scary than the next, each crime more brutal and shocking. We fear for our safety. Those who believe in the police, want them to do more. To patrol. To catch the criminals and put them behind bars. ‘We’ want the people who threaten us to be locked away. What happens to ‘them’ when they’re locked away is not our concern. It hardly seems to worry us that prisoners could be harmed in jail. In fact, the idea of prison rape has snuck into the fabric of everyday humour. Somehow when someone has committed a crime, it’s easier to pardon the same crime being enacted against them.

Justice being served means locking  ‘them’ up. Justice is castrating the rapists (because they’re always presumed to be (cis) men) and making sure murderers get what they deserve. It’s an eye-for-an-eye.’They’ don’t belong in our society. Because of their actions, ‘they’ are not part of us.

This is where something just doesn’t feel right…

Why is it that when someone commits a crime, botho does not apply? If I am because we are, then surely I am because we all are? How can I be selective about who counts as “us”? It’s easy to say ubuntu when things are good, but why do we abandon taking responsibility for others when they are harmful? Doing this dehumanizes them – as if they have no history, no possibilities and no future. It paints their harmful choices as a part of their nature, as if only some people have the potential to harm others.

I’ve often thought about this in connection to sexual violence in our societies. Perpetrators of sexual crimes are often labelled ‘monsters’ because their actions dehumanize and hurt. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about perpetrators of sexual crimes is that they exist on the fringes of society. The reality contradicts this belief; rapists walk amongst us every day. They get groceries at the same places we do. Some of them are our friends. As we fear the strangers who lurk  in the shadows, the ‘danger’ is often closer to home than we’d like to think. And it’s too uncomfortable to confront that we could have the same capability within us, that this capability might betray our intentions.

I think that sexual crimes are the worst violations out there, but I can’t bring myself to forget that rapists are people too. I can’t say that they’re monsters, although I can acknowledge that their actions are monstrous. I do not believe anyone is born a rapist. Nor do I think that someone who rapes another can never change and make different choices. There are circumstances which lead to rapists making the choice to rape: whether we want to admit it or not, they are products of our societies. In addition, if we say that someone can never change, then we’re saying that violence is just a part of who we are and that there’s no way of doing better.

I’m struggling with it, but I’d like to believe that we are capable of a galaxy of things. That my perpetrator can be your best friend, and that the pain he causes me doesn’t make the love he shows you invalid (or vice versa). I’d like to believe that we can confront each other and love each other and create systems which allow both possibilities to flourish. Humanity is complicated battle for survival and love. Motho ke motho ka batho means, to me, that we’re connected to each other at all times. I think the connection still has the potential to help us heal, somewhere down the line.


*I originally drafted this post in December 2014 and did not publish/finish it until now. I have revised some things but most of it was written back then.

The blame game: classism and inequality in tertiary education

Trigger warning: This blog post addresses classism and *extensively* quotes classist/ anti-poor sentiments. Also, there’s some reference to the #RUreferencelist protests later.

The national shutdown in the #FeesMustFall movement was significant in that, amongst other things, it displayed the potential for students to band together for an important cause. The extent to which #FeesMustFall can be deemed a success has been hotly contested, especially considering that several student groups have continued protesting financial exclusion well into 2016. Such protests indicate that the ‘0% increase’ secured through last year’s protests only tackled the tip of the iceberg.

At the university currently known as Rhodes, student activism led by groups such as Rhodes Asinamali, has shown that covering tuition costs is only one aspect of redressing financial exclusion. For instance, this year, there have been protests highlighting the plight of Oppidan students who attend lectures hungry because of inadequate funding. Another matter which arose was the high cost of attending graduation ceremonies for students who are not well off. Additionally, students pointed out the exclusionary costs of events such as Africa Ball (R120 per person), where provisions had not been made for students on financial aid.

Recently, Rhodes announced that they would withhold June exam results for students who had not honored their payment agreements or still owed more than 50% of their fees. The decision to announce this the day before results were due to be released angered many. Rhodes University’s spokesperson released a follow-up statement saying that some students had been given the payment warning erroneously. In addition, she said the University’s decision to withhold results was not a decision which was taken lightly as Rhodes had less than two months of funds** to cover its financial commitments.

Since the decision to withhold results was announced, it has been a hot topic on social media platforms such as Twitter, Rhodes Confessions and the UCKAR student body group. Such debates have pointed to a division in opinion over how the university handled this situation and in my view, have brought into question whether/how the types of solidarity we saw during the #FeesMustFall movement can be achieved again.

The polarizing nature of the views expressed by students via social media pose a big threat to student solidarity. Many of the comments I read contained heavy anti-poor sentiments. For instance, a common inference made was that (guardians/parents of) students who defaulted on payments did not ‘work hard’ enough and that is why they hadn’t paid. This logic rests on the idea that if one simply works hard, they will be able to accumulate wealth. However, in actuality, the workings of our exploitative economic system mean that the ‘haves’ benefit as a result of the poor’s hard work, not as a result of them working harder than everyone else. Thus, the simplistic view that working and lower middle class students can and should simply just work harder in order to make the payments unjustly victim-blames those already marginalized.

A second debate which arose was whether tertiary education is a right or a privilege. Several commentators argued that university education is a luxury and that people should ‘live within their means’.  In failing to acknowledge the contradictions of our reality, in the same breath, some of these commentators noted that ‘education is the key to escaping poverty’. This is where it gets tense, right – because if education is the key out of poverty, then it should go without saying that it shouldn’t be a luxury. If poor, Black students cannot access higher education* now, the country will remain untransformed.

Thirdly, the conversations I followed often became about “entitlement” – specifically, the entitlement of students who are indebted to Rhodes, presumably, in wanting to study at an institution they cannot afford. The anti-poor sentiment here is clear, as is the violent logic of capitalism. As Foucault writes, “Power is tolerable only on condition that it masks a substantial part of itself” – power works by ‘hiding its own mechanisms’.  In this instance, the power of class privilege works to frame the problem of inequality as a one which the rich have no part or responsibility in. So when the question of entitlement comes up, it’s never in reference to the entitlement that some CEOs must have in accepting bonuses/salaries that could pay someone’s school fees. It’s never in reference to the entitlement that people who have never worried about varsity fees must feel when they say that protests such as #FeesMustFall inconvenience them. The method of capitalism’s power is to ensure, repeatedly, that the many entitlements of the rich are never questioned or even seen as such.

In addition, the very word ‘entitlement’ in this context frames a Rhodes education as something that doesn’t belong to working class or lower-middle class students. Of course, the way the world is set up, nothing can [presently] be free. That said, it is troubling that some choose to frame wanting an education [one which could meaningfully change the lives of many students’ families] as something working and lower middle class students should feel wrong for. A lot of the comments/confessions I read suggested that if you cannot afford Rhodes, you should go study somewhere you can afford to. For many people, this is saying that they shouldn’t pursue tertiary education at all. Sentiments like these are the reason people can’t breathe at Rhodes University. It’s because even when you get ‘access’ to the space, the way the institution functions (and often, the views of fellow students) make you feel like you are not really meant to be there.

Further, comments like “The world owes you nothing” are meant to silence those who are dissatisfied with society’s deplorably low standards for economic justice. Saying that working-class people are ‘entitled’ is saying the ‘have-not’s’ should accept inequality as their cross to bear. It’s telling of how individualistic (and cruel) the world has become, because in such thinking, it’s inferred that an injustice suffered by one person is no one else’s business.

The lie of capitalism makes us think that any adverse circumstances can be overcome by just trying harder, undermining how hard many people already try.  We’re socialized to view our own (financial) successes as results of our hard work and in turn, view those who are not as privileged as being responsible for being in that position. Instead of addressing the cause of the unjust circumstances, we’re told that we can just “refuse” to let circumstances define us. This message is internalized by people on all ends of the class spectrum. This is why, as was seen in some confessions, some working or lower middle class students shamed others in the same position as them, saying that since their parents/guardians had “worked hard/made a plan”, others should/could too.

For those who felt that the results being withheld was unjust and thought Rhodes had acted in bad faith in the way it handled the matter**, there was considerable opposition. The rebuttal against us was that we “fail to understand reality”, don’t know “how the world works”, that we’re “throwing tantrums” and need to be “made aware of some truths”. What I found sad about these responses is that the author(s) do not see potential for a different world. To say that we shouldn’t bother to point out injustice where we recognize it, is to accept its defeat absolutely. To say that we’re ‘throwing tantrums’ is to say that in demanding justice, we are asking for more than is deserved. To say we are unaware of how the world works is to suggest that this world actually works. And with everything in my being, I reject that.

I insist that this reality can be re-imagined, as difficult as that change will be. It is my truth that my fellow students’ plight has everything to do with me. While it remains convenient for the privileged to frame ourselves as not being part of the inequality problem, it’s already too late for us to escape our involvement. We can, however, act to dismantle our complicity. Humanity’s hope rests on this potential: on our ability to recognize that inequality is an injustice that no-one deserves.

*With that said, the fact that tertiary education is seen as the only path to economic emancipation says a lot about how the economic and education systems are just not working out. Tertiary education institutions cannot sustain the economic hopes of the entire population, especially seeing as they’re struggling to cope with their present demographic. Therefore, although I’m arguing for transformation within these institutions, this argument is limited because that the broader questions about inequality cannot be answered by an increase in working-class graduates alone.
** I think that the way Rhodes informed students about withholding results was in bad faith. At the same time, I recognize, as many have pointed out, that the university is facing a financial crisis and that, oksalayo, they have to get money from somewhere (while I await the revolution). Last semester, when the university was faced with the problem of sexual assault, the VC suggested that perhaps we should look to change Constitution since the problems students pointed out were not necessarily all in the university’s jurisdiction. He suggested that since a university is (allegedly) place for knowledge-production, maybe we could be innovative in tackling the problem. Somehow, faced with the financial crisis, we have not heard a similar story about innovation from UCKAR management. There have been no statements about re-directing the weight of problem at the government or at the wealthier corporates of South Africa. Thus, though I get that the money has to come from somewhere, I maintain that the university is anti-poor because by withholding results, they placed the burden of the problem on those who were already worst affected.