Gendered and sexualised violence in a time of decolonisation



Daily media reports show that schools, universities and colleges in South Africa are saturated with cultures that promote and permit assault, rape and violence among young people, their teachers and the adults in their lives. There is a tension in that although our daily news is filled with reports of various gendered and sexualised violence, such reports are accompanied by social and cultural mores that require we not speak about them. Yet, researchers have consistently shown that what happens in learning institutions mirrors the larger South African social context.

In this time when schools, colleges and universities are grappling with the decolonisation project, Azille Coetzee has written that in conversations of decolonisation, sexual violence is frequently overlooked. Drawing from Shireen Hassim, Coetzee reminds us that South Africa is regularly “bedeviled” by racial discourses that silence and displace race and gender – as if they are “separate projects”.

As a country founded on violence, from the colonial and apartheid eras, scholars as Pumla Gqola have done well to show how this history of violence lingers in everyday violence in South Africa. Gqola shows that gendered and sexualised violence comes to be normalised through values that promote violence. Necessarily, Gqola asks that we look beyond the statistics, for these conceal the ways in which what is seen as “normal” heterosexual play contains “codes that inscribe feminine passivity and masculine aggression”. Commonly socially accepted behaviour of boys twisting girls arms under assumptions that girls ‘play hard to get’ – and thus require relentless pursuing – assumes according to Gqola that “women cannot say what they mean and mean what they say”.

It is these behaviours that have led feminist activists and scholars to coin the term “rape culture” – to illustrate how, in everyday life, the behaviours Gqola observes are made normal despite their violent forms. We therefore need to urgently pay attention to the ways boys and girls are socialised, and what they are told about the ‘ways of being’ as gendered beings in society.

While much of the attention tends to focus on the negative behaviours of boys, social science research in South Africa troublingly and regularly informs us that girls and young women internalise ideas of violence being necessary from boys/men as an expression of love.

To overcome rape cultures in our societies, it is critical that we start envisioning what [cultural theorist and black social activist]bell hooks terms “new sexual paradigms”, wherein young people experience their genders and sexualities as sites of pleasure and exploration, and not pain and danger. In prioritising the sexual well-being of young people, through conversations that centre on consent, pleasure and healthy practices of sexuality, we can start reshaping patriarchal ideas that have contributed to horrific rape cultures.

  • Gcobani Qambela is a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and will be facilitating two workshops on ‘gender, masculinities and rape’ as well as ‘rape in schools policies’ during the Silent Protest Week in Grahamstown.
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