“A polity built on masculine sexual entitlement corrupts constitutional commitments to gender equality in a range of ways. Where sexual patronage is practised both in relation to hiring, as well as promotion, it denies opportunities to other worthy candidates and employees — female and male. It degrades women’s citizenship by reducing their status to that of sexual object and undermines female politicians. It prevents equality as a practice from taking root and makes it almost certain that measures intended to promote equality will never be effectively implemented.”
This is one of the points Lisa Vetten makes in her blog-post on her blog site on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader. Vetten’s response is one of many responses regarding the rape accusations levelled by a 26-year old woman against Zwelinzima Vavi, current General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
The rape accusation against Vavi was predictably splashed on the front pages of last weekend papers. The unionist is by far the most visible unionist in the country. He has also become a darling of many who would otherwise disagree with the struggles of the unions for higher wages and better working conditions for the workers because of his outspokenness as an anti-corruption campaigner. If you don’t count Desmond Mpilo Tutu, he has become a one of the few high-profile citizens who took a mantle of moral guardian of the revolution.
At the same time, Vavi is currently under what seems to be a factionalist political onslaught by his comrades in COSATU and the ruling tripartite alliance made up of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and COSATU.
You will appreciate why the rape claims could have sent swathes of society into convulsions of moral despair, while for others it was just another confirmation of the essentially morally corrupt, sexually violent, masculine culture in South Africa.
One of the well-known activists in the field of violence against women, Vetten’s response is one of few responses that tries to make sense of the accusations as part of the political culture in society. Many of the comments on the event have, to be honest, really not been very helpful to anyone wishing to understand what the hell is going on in the political life of South Africa as we get close to election year.
Some have been downright confusing. Others have been insulting to our intelligence as a society. And still others couldn’t less what those who have no axe to grind think of Vavi, his accuser or South African politics. Most important, the majority of the commentators in the media, whether sex/gender analyst or political analyst, (as though sex/gender is not political and politics have not sex/gender) are completely blind to what sex with and without violence might have to do with it politics.
The shortcoming with most commentators on the event is that they tend to focus on, to coin a phrase, either non-sexual politics, or non-political sexual violence. An example of the former is this statement titled “Rape allegations against COSATU General Secretary Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi released by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) in Kwazulu-Natal province. Numsa is an affiliate of COSATU. Numsa has come in support Vavi in the internal political battles within COSATU.
An example of the latter is this otherwise instructive piece by Kathleen Dey, the Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. While educational for those who are unfamiliar with the research on rape myths, an aim which necessary in the context of South Africa, it is quite on the conditions that makes this so significant for the rest of society which is not active against rape.
The trouble with both sets of comments is that they neglect a crucial part of the context. The political conditions that makes Vavi’s sexual misbehaviour and rape accusation possible, and of interest to non-unionised members of society or supporter or detractors of Vavi, are important to if we are understand why this one has become such a big story. The conditions themselves are important to examine if the sex, consensual or coerced, between Vavi and the 26-year old woman is to be fully understood.
Conversely, sexual norms, including the levels of rape, are vital to understanding why this is seen by some as a political conspiracy.
Vetten comes close to showing this intertwinement of sexuality and politics. However, she doesn’t quite get there. Not entirely. Still, it is a good piece in beginning to highlight how men’s sexual entitlement to and abuse of women’s bodies can and do infect South African politics.
The critical point suggested by Vetten is that forms of gender and sexuality predicated on men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, particularly when embodied by politically powerful males, undermine commitments to gender and sexual equality both at work and at home.