This Kak has to Stop

Uyinene Mrwetyana, everybody’s daughter.

These are very dark days for us in South Africa, and it pains me to admit that I have nothing reassuring or funny or uplifting to offer. There is nothing funny or uplifting about femicide and the rape and murder statistics in this country. But I feel the need to say something, anyway, as it’s weighing very heavily on me. It was our 12-year-old daughter, on her phone at breakfast, who told us that Nene’s killer had been identified. As a family gathered around the kitchen counter on an ordinary Tuesday morning we learned the circumstances of her murder. Along with all of South Africa, the details of her disappearance had been a topic of discussion for days. Where could she be? What could have happened? 

On our way to watch The Lion King on Friday evening, my daughter and her best friend ventured their opinions. ‘Maybe she’s just hanging at her boyfriend’s house,’ one of them offered hopefully. ‘Maybe,’ I agreed, trying to assuage their fears, but knowing – as these things go – that the chances of her being found alive were slim to non-existent. And then the truth, the shocking, devastating details of her attack, were announced. I think I couldn’t process the horror right away. I paid bills, bought a bed, did some washing, cooked bobotie, added extravagant amounts of butter and sugar to the yellow rice. 

On Facebook I read the reactions of friends, all reeling, all petrified, many wanting to leave the country. It was in a state of high anxiety that I walked the 500 metres to my yoga class this morning, leaving my phone behind (just in case I was mugged on the way, or worse) and constantly looking over my shoulder. At one point a man with a briefcase walked a few steps ahead of me, and I glared at the back of his head, daring him to turn around, to try anything, just try. The magic of yoga lies less in the softening and strengthening of the limbs than the softening and strengthening of the heart; the remembering of how deeply connected we all are as human beings. It took just a few moments of hearing the soft, mellifluous sounds of my Hindi instructor’s voice guiding us through the Asanas to make big, splashy tears drop down on my mat. Nene was everybody’s daughter. The pain of her rape and death is not relegated to her family and the ones who personally knew her. 

We failed you, Nene. Our beautiful, innocent child. We also failed Meghan Cremer, Hannah Cornelius, the 14-year-old girl whose body was found in a backyard in Heinz Park a few days ago. So many victims; too many to mention by name. According to recent stats, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. Every 3 hours, people. We are failing as a nation. The ANC’s P.R. team issuing a facile, generalised statement making everyone wonder, where is our leader? If ever there was a time we needed comfort and reassurance; to be told that this isn’t okay, that there is a plan in place; that addressing the rampant and growing levels of femicide in this country is high on our government’s agenda, that time is now. Where is uCyril? Playing Candy Crush in the bath?

We are a fatherless nation. But if nothing else I have learned that if you’re going to wait for a man to pour your wine or give you permission to speak you’re going to be mute and mightily thirsty. So, what I can offer is this: there is power and strength in numbers. A short while back we believed ousting Zuma was a lost cause but we showed up to toyi toyi anyway, and what do you know? The old doos went. Before we give up and move en masse to Portugal (they eat a lot of sardines, I’m just saying), let’s find every march we can and show up and shout and scream and make our collective outrage known. 

On 9 August 1956, 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria in protest against the Pass Laws. It was the biggest march by women this country had ever seen. The women stood silently for 30 minutes and then started singing a protest song, Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! (‘Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock’). We cannot sit in silence. We can’t live like this, constantly afraid and looking over our shoulders. Petrified to send our daughters out into the world. Always on the alert, in our minds fending off attack. All of you based in SA, find out where the marches are happening in your area and show up. Sing, shout, do whatever it takes to be heard. We learned long ago that ain’t no man gon’ save us. It’s time to make a noise and take matters into our own hands. Let’s make history and make this the biggest gathering of women our country as seen. We owe it to Nene, to Meghan, to our daughters. Not only that, our lives depend on it.

A Moment

The first time I saw him he was standing on Jammie steps with his back to me, broad against the sunlight. He was dressed like Jim Morrisson, a rider on the storm, in a white pirate shirt and a series of leather necklaces. He laughed, and shook out his hair – lustrous long, brown curls that fell well past his angular shoulders. He was rangy in the way only 22-year-old men can be, and it took me some time before I realized he was something of a legend on that campus. He hung out with a posse of impossibly beautiful black girls. Skinny girls with flawless skin and ripped jeans and white teeth. I’d watch him with them – the easy way they touched him like he wasn’t Jesus at all. Just some guy studying anthropology.

I found out his name was Ben, and that he was foreign and a member of the Mountain club. And someone told me where he lived and after a while I got a vague sense of his routines so that I knew, more or less, when he’d come sauntering by in his faded jeans and 6 foot 2-ness. And then he’d be gone again, somewhere else, and I was not cool at all nor pretty enough to compensate for my lack of street cred and there was no reason in the world why a guy like him would ever even think of a girl like me. And I didn’t question the order of the world for a second. Even though it seemed like that same order was about to change in a big way. Because, all around us, things were starting to give. In the words of Chinua Achebe, the centre could no longer hold; things were beginning to fall apart.

Sitting in my psychology class one morning beside a rich Indian girl who wore a different pair of Levis every day (you couldn’t buy them in South Africa due to sanctions against us so you had to go to London or send a friend) and behind a black guy in his thirties who worked the night shift as a petrol attendant and came straight to class in the morning, still wearing his uniform, suddenly we heard a noise and loud voices coming closer. My lecturer stopped lecturing and listened, looking worried. Then, without saying a word, went over to the door of the lecture hall, closed it and locked it. The air went buzzy with anticipation.

We all sat very still. The noise increased – it was chanting, and things were being broken. It was the early nineties and the country, so long in apartheid’s stranglehold, was starting to break itself free. A crowd of people appeared. They held pangas and they danced. They smashed windows and kicked in doors. They set parked cars alight. We watched them out the window. Nobody spoke. The riot passed, and the noise died down. Still we waited. Silence. The door was unlocked, and we packed up our notes and left the building, the affected boredom we normally took such joy in practicing replaced by a sense of fearful anticipation. We walked past the rows of police vehicles, glancing nervously at the smouldering fires. A policeman waved us along, muttering ‘commie bastards’ under his breath.

Everything was happening, and yet nothing was happening. We sat up late at night writing overdue papers and lived on popcorn and toast. I struggled to pass Stats. I flew through my English exams. I lugged The Riverside Chaucer up and down steep hills, found out I was a feminist and used the word ‘existential’ as often as I could. It was Cape Town, it was summer and there were parties to go to. And then, one night, there he was. It was a social at the Baxter, and we arrived late after most people had already left. The guy I was with knew him, and before I could even gather myself, he was introducing us and Ben was shaking my hand and smiling and saying hello.

And then, as if on cue, the opening bars of one of my all-time favourite songs, Juluka’s December African Rain started playing. And even then it was an old song, but there is some kind of magic in that music – the drums and the deep voices that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself, and how this Jewish boy from Joburg loved Zulus so much he became one, and back in those days, that was quite a thing. And by doing that, making that stand, he freed us more than we understood at the time. It was almost like everything we had not been allowed to love about Africa was being given back to us. Through his music we became impis; we were warriors; we were children of the land, united against a system so barbaric it make us sick to our stomachs. We were the new generation, and freedom was on its way.

I smiled at him and he smiled at me and we started dancing, me, my friends, the beautiful black girls, and him. And then the party was over, so we left to go somewhere else. He got in the front seat and I sat in the back, behind him, my mind reeling at his proximity to me, that he was really right here in the flesh, so impossibly close. And then, as we sped through the dark city streets, young people looking to have fun, the impossible happened. I felt his hand reach behind the seat and look for mine, find it, and enclose it in his long, brown fingers.

And I was so young and naive and taken aback by this gesture, what did I do? I giggled and pulled my hand away. I pulled my hand away. And then I sat in the darkness of the car feeling the heat creep up into my face; thinking, you idiot! You idiot! What did you do that for? And I prayed to the god of stupid young girls that he would just give me second chance. Just reach for my hand again. This time, I promise I won’t pull away. Because I have been in love with you for three years and never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine you’d even give me the time of day. And I didn’t mean it, I didn’t! I was just taken by surprise. And as we drove on and the seconds ticked by, he sat very still, looking ahead of him – nobody else in the car even aware of this monumental thing that had just failed to happen. And with every streetlight we passed I knew with increasing certainly that I had missed my moment.

We never spoke again after that night. He’d give me a vague hello when we passed each other in the halls, and then I saw him less and less as he moved to another compass. His flat used to be on Rondebosch Main Road, just as you came off the freeway, its big windows facing the flyover. I drive past it once in a while when I’m going that way and I still think of him and that one night and how he’ll never know.