I’m not blonde on the inside

When I was in high school, my friends and I had a lot of inside jokes and quips that tied us together. Several of my friends at that time were white and blonde and one of the quips was that I was “blonde on the inside”. I’ve been thinking about that.

I was a black girl with black hair in a predominantly black country, so being blonde on the inside should not have made sense.[Kanjani, guys?!]. But it does make sense when I think about how whiteness is glorified like, everywhere, and how class privilege can really blur the line between ‘black’ and ‘white’ (to a point). Having access to particular privileges (notably a private education) meant that I had access to whiteness, and I became so well versed in it that I could be validated by my white friends as being one of them [on the inside].

[Lorato Palesa Modongo explains so excellently how being white is glorified in Botswana here ]

Choosing whiteness over blackness wasn’t a choice I was aware I was making. I felt a lot of shame in the parts of my life that didn’t seem Western or white enough so I just never mentioned them. The things I kept silent about were my way of distancing myself from blackness – an identity which, at the time, symbolized being uncivilized and backward. Being fluent in whiteness offered an illusion of safety. You could feel comfortable in your [proximity to] whiteness because it seemed to mean that you were just like ‘everyone else’ – all the ‘normal’ people you saw in films – recognized fully as a person. As I gained this ‘recognition’, I didn’t understand how it was almost always being gained at the expense of another Black person. For instance…

I remember a lot of my  classmates (of all races) used to laugh at videos of “black ghetto names” – videos mocking African-American people. As we laughed at names like Shaqonda and Bonquiqui, it never occurred to me that I was laughing at a fellow black person because I did not recognize ‘blackness’ in myself. I didn’t think I was like them. I just existed in that rainbow-nation space where race didn’t matter.

race

Being at university and learning about racism changed my sense of humour. Now when someone says the word ghetto or ratchet around me, I know that [poor] black people are being mocked. And the fact that I can be in a space where someone can mock a poor black person in my [black] presence is evidence that I am being accepted into that space because I am assumed to not be like ‘other’ black people.

I don’t laugh at Bonquiqui or Shaniqua’s names  anymore because mine shouldn’t be an exception. Mocking them is mocking all of us. I can’t laugh at things that are “ghetto” or “ratchet” anymore because it’s not funny that [black] people are poor. It’s a crisis.

Having class privilege as a black person basically means that you can afford to not suffer in the same ways many other black people do. On one hand, this is met by some people in white spaces assuming that you are only in university because they needed to fill up a quota or that if you have money, your parents didn’t work hard, it was all just B.E.E etc.

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On the other hand, it can mean that people will use your position as a way of shaming other black people  – using you/your family as evidence that black people can make it if they just work hard.

Asmany have written, instead of applauding poor [and in this case, black] people who overcome poverty, we need to look at ourselves and how we contribute to those conditions. Poor [black] people aren’t poor because they don’t work hard. They’re poor because we’re rich/middle class. We’re involved in it. We are a part of the capitalist exploitation that causes poverty and we need to take responsibility for that.

We can’t really keep having conversations where we just blame Zuma for stuff. I’m not a fan of Zuma either but before we talk about Zuma or how #ZumaMustFall, can we please have some serious conversations about apartheid and how we have to deal with its mess? Let’s talk about how some of your family members are overtly racist and you don’t know how to confront them about it. Or about how trippy it is to spend like 20 years of our lives ‘not seeing colour’ only to discover that not seeing colour is part of the problem? Let’s talk about how society rewards you for being white and how the flipside of that privilege is a black person not getting the benefit of the doubt?

Sidenote: It’s weird for me that every time I post a Facebook status about racism, suddenly, it’s like I don’t have white friends on Facebook :/ Are white people just not seeing those statuses or ….?  It’s cool if you don’t want to comment on my status, I can understand why. But at the same time, why are so few white people writing their own statuses about racism? We really need to talk, y’all. And when I say we, I mean, all of us but also YOU because racism isn’t going to go away until we all actually start dealing with it 😦 

The topic of racism is really uncomfortable but I’d rather be openly uncomfortable with you than be uncomfortable because you haven’t said a single thing about Marikana and now I have to wonder what that silence means.

We’re at a point where we can’t use our interracial friendships as evidence that we are not racist. As Sisonke Msimang said, “If you’re friends with white people who don’t get it, then you’re not friends”.

I want to be friends but first, I need you to know that I’m not blonde on the inside. I’m black and I am not hiding it anymore.

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Awareness initiative needed to tackle sexual violence at Rhodes University

TW: discussion of sexual assault

Sexual assault remains a pervasive problem in society and Rhodes University is no exception. Some Rhodes students have expressed concern about the University’s lack of communication on the matter, and others feel an awareness initiative to prevent sexual assault is needed.

Survey indicates some students are aware of procedures dealing with sexual offences

In early 2015, Rhodes University society Gender Action Project* (GAP) surveyed students about various gender-related topics. A total of 124 students, all of whom had been enrolled at Rhodes for at least one year, responded.

Over 60 % of the survey respondents said they did know what to do if they experienced sexual assault at Rhodes.  Of the 62 students who responded positively, ten said they knew the procedures due to their own initiative or because they had been informed of them during student leadership training.

One respondent said, “I know, but only because I had to specifically find out, which was intimidating”.

Another respondent said, “I know that there is support available but I don’t know what steps to take. I think it would be helpful for some sort of pamphlet or easily accessible information to be spread, so that everyone knows about how to help people, not only those who are actively seeking support”.

Another response said, “The procedure isn’t known because we aren’t informed on it –  not as a house comm member during training and not as a new student entering Rhodes. We shouldn’t have to ask for these talks to be done”.

One of the respondents added, “Instances of sexual assault, abuse and rape are hushed up by the university and we as students never hear about the developments and disciplinary action taken. I think ordinary students need to be more involved and informed by the university”.

An incomplete picture: the available statistics on sexual assault at Rhodes

Rhodes University categorizes disciplinary offences into two levels: lower and higher discipline. The difference between these levels is how they are investigated. Disciplinary cases which fall under Lower Discipline, for instance, causing noise disturbances in residence, are overseen by Hall Wardens.  Cases which fall under Higher Discipline, for instance, theft and copyright infringement, are investigated by the University Prosecutors.

Offences such as sexual assault and sexual harassment are classified as Higher Disciplinary offences and thus, are investigated by the University Prosecutors. Currently, the only publically available records of sexual assault complaints at Rhodes University are those recorded by the university Prosecutors in the Higher Disciplinary case reports, which are released at the end of each semester.

According to the Higher Disciplinary case reports from the period 2011 to 2014, a total of 185 Higher Disciplinary cases were reported to and investigated by University Prosecutors.

total cases

Of these 185 cases, there were seven cases of sexual assault and/or sexual harassment recorded and investigated by the prosecutors.

Sexual assaults

Of these seven reported cases, one resulted in an investigation where an accused was found guilty. The accused was excluded from Rhodes University for one year.

timeline.png

Given the low number of ‘successful’ convictions for sexual offences during 2011-2014, depicted in the Higher Disciplinary reports, Director of Student Affairs, Dr Colleen Vassiliou was asked to comment on whether these statistics reflected the scope of sexual violence at Rhodes.

She said, “The 7 cases the prosecutors dealt with would be 7 cases where students/staff possibly requested level 4 disciplinary intervention.”

Dr Vassiliou cautioned that students and staff have four options to choose in dealing with sexual assault cases, and that disciplinary action is only one of those four.

Reporting Harassment2.png

In light of findings on sexual offenses in the Higher Disciplinary reports, the two university Prosecutors were asked to comment on the following:

  • What challenges they face when trying to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment
  • what kind of evidence is needed to secure a conviction in a sexual assault or harassment case
  • why they would decline to prosecute in a case of sexual assault or sexual harassment
  • why sexual assault and sexual harassment could result in a mediation between the parties involved.

They declined to comment.

The difficulty with using statistics to understand the scope of sexual violence

Statistics released by the South African Police Service indicate that there were 62 649 sexual offences reported in South Africa in 2013- 2014. However, anti-rape advocacy groups often point out that police statistics are not completely accurate because many sexual offences go unreported.

According to Rape Crisis Cape Town, an organisation which supports victims of sexual violence, research has suggested that “if all rapes were reported, the figures could be as high as… 500 000” nationwide.

Organiser of the 2015 Silent Protest against Sexual Violence, Dr Lindsay Kelland also expressed concern about the reliability of statistics when it comes to the reporting of incidents of rape and sexual violence.

Kelland said due to the fear of being pitied, exposed or shunned as a result of the stigma around sexual violence, many victims choose not to report assaults to the police.

“I feel as though our in-house statistics [at Rhodes] would be even less reliable given a widespread lack of understanding on the part of Rhodes staff and students about how they go about reporting such incidents, who they report them to and the ramifications of doing so.

Over the years, these procedures have changed significantly. These changes have, I imagine, not only confused students but have also left the wardens and sub-wardens a little confused about what to do if a student comes to them with a problem.

On top of this, if one searches for this information on the Rhodes University website, one finds old policies and conflicting instructions,” Kelland said, suggesting that the university’s policies on sexual offences needed to be made clearer to students.

A new, “liberating” procedure

Currently, sexual offences are to be reported to the manager of Student Wellness, Nomangwana Mrwetyana. Mrwetyana became the manager of student wellness/harassment officer at the beginning of 2015, after the Division of Student Affairs went under review in 2014. Before this, harassment could be reported through different reporting officers within the university.

She said, “Initially complainants used to go to the Director of Student Affair’s office when the word was not yet out there.  I have seen a significant increase in the number of reports during term 2 [of 2015].

My role is to explain the various options and the complainant makes an informed decision after weighing the pros and cons of each option…The new procedure is quite liberating and gives the complainants the agency and autonomy to be able to still make choices about their lives as one is not forced into taking a particular direction.

This is obviously done in a caring manner and they are not forced to make hasty decisions.”

The scope of sexual assault at Rhodes remains unclear

Asked if the statistics on sexual assault or harassment cases recorded in the higher disciplinary reports presented an accurate idea of sexual violence at Rhodes, Mrwetyana declined to comment. The Registrar, Dr Stephen Fourie, also declined to comment.

Mrwetyana added, “I am however aware that some complainants prefer to only seek medical help, the Health Care Centre keeps such records when they are approached for medical intervention.”

Mrwetyana also keeps a confidential record of assaults reported to her. However, she said, “The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) code of conduct prohibits me from publishing such a record.”

Mrwetyana said that, in the instance that the alleged perpetrator is not a student or staff member of Rhodes University, the complainant can be referred to the police. In such situations, Mrwetyana added, the complainant would be referred to the Rhodes Legal Clinic for legal assistance.

She also said that if a student is accused of sexual assault or harassment, by two or more students, the matter would, with the complainants’ permission, be referred to the University prosecutors for investigation.

Shifting the focus from prosecution to prevention 

Although noting disappointment in the low levels of successful prosecutions reflected in the Higher Disciplinary reports, (2015) vice chairperson of Gender Action Project*, Sian Ferguson, said that the university administration needs to focus on being transparent about how they handle sexual offence cases.

She added, “I think an awareness initiative should be prioritised at the moment. Very few people truly understand the definition of sexual assault, and for that reason, it should be compulsory for all first-year students to attend a workshop on assault & the law during orientation.”

“There is no point in spending more resources or energy on punishing perpetrators when potential perpetrators aren’t made aware that their actions are wrong, and when victims don’t know how to report,” Ferguson said.

Rhodes University’s Policy on Eradicating Unfair Discrimination and Harassment is currently under review.

*Disclaimer: The author of this work is the 2015 chairperson of Gender Action Project society at Rhodes University.

Amandla.mobi: A South African advocacy platform for all

Advocacy organization, amandla.mobi is influencing how people organize, by creating accessible petitions and encouraging mobilization around social justice issues in South Africa.

Their campaigns are available in three languages and through web, mobile and mXit platforms. This accessibility is the key ingredient in their quest to “turn every cellphone into a democracy building tool”.

Their mobi platform, which can be accessed by dialling *120*4729# from any cellphone, enables citizens to partake in the organization’s petitions.

Screenshots of the mobi platform.
Screenshots of the mobi platform. Screenshot 1: mobi platform homepage, listing onging campaigns. Screenshot 2: language selection menu. Screenshot 3:  outline of the campaign against the police’s use of R-5 rifles. Screenshot 4: petition-signing menu

The pioneers of amandla.mobi, Koketso Moeti, Fezile Kanju and Paul Mason, all work full-time on this project.  Moeti, amandla.mobi’s Executive Director, describes their meeting as “a convergence of like-minded activists”.

They are motivated by their vision for a society where “you can take action on issues that affect you, and mobilize others in numbers, [driving] transparency and accountability,”.

Breaking down digital and language divides

Moeti says, “It shouldn’t be that activists with flushing toilets at home tell people without toilets in shacks why they should care about not having flushing toilets, because those affected often know best why it shouldn’t be so.

The “build it and they shall come” approach to open-data and citizen engagement tools may attract early adopters…but, citizens don’t think of tools, they think of problems and remedies.

A ‘tool’ only facilitates and if it’s value is not intuitive or explained, it’s useless.”

By running mobile and multi-lingual campaigns, amandla.mobi aims to reach as many people as possible, overcoming the issues of accessibility often linked to the digital sphere.

Moeti says, “Open data, citizen journalism and citizen empowerment tools won’t create the systemic change we need if they are only accessible to upper-class, urban, educated, English speaking activists.”

From skepticism to success

After 6 months of developing the platforms, amandla.mobi launched their first prototype mobile multilingual campaign in June 2014. Since then, they have gained a following of 13 000 people, with the mobi platform being their most popular.

“Many people thought it would not work and were skeptical that mobiles could be used this way…it took us a while to find the visionary donors we needed to get us started.” Moeti says.

Moeti says their greatest success is their campaign to secure access to free-to-air TV for low income households.

She says, “Government was going to force low-income households to pay R700 for a digital set top box, when we switch off analogue TV and were going to only subsidize households with an income lower than R2500.

Working with the SOS Coalition, our campaign managed to mobilize over 4000 poor and working class South Africans to sign the campaign from their cellphone and submit comments which were included in the submission made.”

Moeti says although government is mandated to run public consultations over decisions like this, these consultations are often poorly advertised and impractical, as they require people to send a fax or written letter.

“This time ’round decision makers were flooded with over 4000 submissions from people directly explaining why this is a problem.”

As a result, the government increased the income threshold to R3200, allowing an additional 1 million households access a free set-top box.

It’s an exciting victory,” Moeti says, “A testament to our theory of change that those most affected by decisions, when given a means to mobilize, can influence decision makers.”

Digital campaigns with real-life impacts

For the amandla.mobi creators, it’s crucial to create campaigns which include offline actions.

Their launch campaign, which advocated for the creation of a Youth desk in  Ekurhuleni Municipality, led to a meeting with the mayor. They arranged for those who had signed the petition to attend the meeting.

Currently, amandla.mobi is running a campaign to commemorate the upcoming 3rd anniversary of the Marikana massacre. They have invited members of the public to create their own events on August 16th to commemorate the anniversary.

Over 30 events have been confirmed nationwide.  To see a list of events, click this map:

map

To create an event in your area, sign up by clicking this image:

amandla

Or click HERE to follow amandla.mobi’s updates on Facebook.

#TheEmptyChair & online backlash against anti-rape advocacy

This week, US-based New York magazine (NYmag) published an article featuring 35 women who’ve accused actor Bill Cosby of sexual assault.

The article spread like wildfire on social media, with many sharing the magazine’s powerful cover image:

NYmag

A big talking point was the empty chair pictured, which represents the 11 other women who have accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault (and other potential victims), who are not featured in the article.

Unprecedented response

The article’s impact was bigger than the NYmag’s journalists imagined and soon, the hashtag #TheEmptyChair was trending on social media. #TheEmptyChair prompted several tweets from people expressing solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

Journalist Elon James White, who started #TheEmptyChair, received dozens of messages from victims of sexual violence, sharing their experiences.

Social media: A platform for the silenced

NYmag’s journalists commented on the increasing use of social media as a platform to speak up about rape, saying:

“… Online, there is a strong sense now that speaking up is the only thing to do, that a woman claiming her own victimhood is more powerful than any other weapon in the fight against rape.”

They also note that allegations regarding Bill Cosby’s conduct only gained momentum after a video clip of comedian Hannibal Burres speaking about the allegations went viral on social media last year.

Bill Cosby was accused of sexual assault as early as 2005 (click here for a full timeline of related events). However, even as more and more women came forward to speak about their assaults, many people still defended Cosby.

The drawbacks of anti-rape advocacy on social media

Hours after NYmag published the Cosby story, their website became inaccessible for hours after a suspected Denial of Service attack. A hacker who later took responsibility for the attack, claims the attack had nothing to do with the Cosby’s story.

Although it may be true that the motivations for the attack on NYmag’s website was unrelated to the Cosby feature, people who speak out about against sexual violence are often harassed or silenced online.

In 2014, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who vlogs about representations of women in gaming, fled from her home after receiving death threats.

South-African journalist and author, Charlene Smith has also encountered online harassment. She spoke to me about her experiences with a particularly relentless harasser on social media.

Smith says, “He first came after me on Facebook by messaging to my inbox crude and vicious notes. I blocked him.

He then began emailing me; I threatened to lay a charge and blocked him again. I discovered he was doing or had done the same to other outspoken rape survivors.”

Smith says the harassment continued even after she moved to the United States. This time, it was on Twitter.

She says, “He was lurking, waiting to come after me again with torrents of insults. I blocked him and reported him to Twitter. I know others who did the same.”

A complex problem

In dealing with online harassment, one challenge is that many victims do not know their attackers.  Another problem is that when online harassers are blocked, on sites like Twitter, they can start new accounts to continue the harassment.

Asked how she handles the harassment, Smith says, “Block, report and move on seems most sensible.”

She continues: “If you believe they have the capacity to track you down and physically harm you, and then go to the police, otherwise, put it down to one of the challenges of the infant internet age.”

Kenyans quash misrepresentations with #SomeoneTellCNN

The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is currently in Kenya for a state visit. Obama is the first US president to visit Kenya and thus, there has been widespread coverage of this event.

Ahead of Obama’s visit, news agency CNN reported that Obama was to visit “a terror hotbed”, which outraged Kenyan people.

Kenyans took to Twitter to set the record straight, using the hashtag #SomeoneTellCNN

Though the #SomeoneTellCNN  hashtag was previoulsy used in 2012, this weekend, it went viral.

A trendsmap image showing where #SomeoneTellCNN was used, from @BBCAfrica

 

The danger of a single #SomeoneTellCNN story

Some tweeters were not as comfortable with the #SomeoneTellCNN hashtag, noting instances where Kenyan media have described Kenya in the same ways as CNN did.

Representations of Africa: a social justice issue

CNN’s coverage in this instance, which focuses only on a negative aspect of Kenya, reminds us of the problems that occur when African countries are represented by Western media.

Highlighting this trend in his piece How to Write About Africa, Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina ironically writes, “Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention … Africa is doomed.”

Achille Mbembe, a Research Professor in History and Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, has also written about representations of Africa, noting that these often associate Africa with incompleteness and chaos.

Other scholars add that such depictions are part of the mechanisms which allow the West to maintain its dominance over Africa.

The imperative for Africans is, as scholars Grinker and Steiner write, to “learn to problematize the issue of representation in order to locate and unpack the economic, political, personal, and other motivations that might underlie any particular image of Africa,”.

The representation of people (and nations) is a social justice issue because it impacts how people are viewed and treated. #SomeoneTellCNN is a tool through which Kenyans have pushed back against misrepresentation and a good example of how digital media can be a formidable force against the mainstream media.

Resistance through social media: From #MCInHerShoes to #InOurShoes

content warning: discussion of gender-based violence & victim-blaming

Recently, I wrote about the online uproar after Marie Claire magazine’s launched its Women’s month #MCInHerShoes campaign, which was criticized for including men who’ve been accused of domestic violence, such as DJ Euphonik.

Marie Claire, which pledged to donate money to a charity which aids abused women when people used the #MCInHerShoes hashtag, initially stood behind the campaign.

Not wanting to miss out on an important debate, on Thursday, the Department of Women (DoW) joined the conversation on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128434613190656

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624128611323387904

The tweets were not well received.

Why abuse victims drop charges against abusers 

Jen Thorpe, a women’s rights researcher and editor of FeministSA.com, responded to the DoW’s tweets, explaining why it’s problematic to criticize women who withdraw charges of domestic violence (which the Department of Women should have known, but let’s not digress).

Thorpe addressed the complexity of reporting an abusive romantic partner to the police, saying: “In some cases, women face pressure from the family of the abuser,” to make the relationship work.

She continued, “Abuse is often cyclical and linked to alcohol and substance abuse. This may lead the woman who reported to believe that their partner will never abuse them again.”

Thorpe also explained that there can be severe consequences for women who report domestic violence to the police, particularly if they are economically dependent on their partner.

Considering research findings, which indicate that reporting abuse to can lead to the abuse worsening, it goes without saying that the Department of Women’s tweet’s were inappropriate.

They later tweeted:

https://twitter.com/Dept_of_Women/status/624231380701085696

Taking matters into our own hands

For social justice activists concerned about gender based violence, the gimmicky #MCInHerShoes campaign and the Department of Women’s attitude to victims of violence is incredibly disappointing.

However, with thanks to social media, more of us have the power to counter harmful media representations and present alternative narratives.

On Thursday morning, activist Michelle Solomon took to Facebook to begin #InOurShoes, a campaign which seeks to represent people’s experiences of violence more accurately and more inclusively than #MCInHerShoes.

Twitter users started sharing personal experiences of gender based violence:

https://twitter.com/b_oliphant/status/624271259241709568

https://twitter.com/uzamantungwa/status/624287448080744450

On Thursday afternoon, Marie Claire magazine issued an apology for their campaign, describing it as “ill-conceived”.

To join the conversation, use the hashtag #InOurShoes to share experiences of gender-based violence.