When we wear the right colour T-shirt and then forget to wear our activist hat when the girl on the street gets harassed. When we’ve been following the news with bated breath because we care about violence against women, but we really want to see if pretty boy goes to lock-up or goes home, or goes to Italy for that matter. Or even when we only blame our, certainly flawed, government for the ways that we all contribute to violence against women in this country.
This week many South Africans expressed outrage at how insensitive, cheap, and sleazy the SABC was for airing the TropiKa Island of Treasure episode featuring Reeva Steenkamp’s eerie and heartbreaking goodbye. Everyone was concerned about her family and the effect of seeing her, bright and bubbly, post-humus, on television. I too was furious. Just a few days earlier, the cover of the Daily Voice bore in full colour and up-close the brutally beaten, raped and murdered body of Jo-Anne van Schalkwyk. My director had brought the paper in to work and we had all stared agog at the image. But it was only once the SABC came under fire that I was truly incensed. I don’t care about the SABC’s decision to air the footage. I care about the views of other South Africans.
The Voice has a daily readership of more than 500 000 in the Western Cape. And like my director, even those who do not read the paper have passed this front page on the newsstand. How many people did not even register the gruesome image because this is how we digest violence in this country, through the bodies of black women.
While the nation was brimming with compassion for Reeva Steenkamp and her kin, not a peep was made about the violence of that front page, and what her loved ones must feel when seeing that brutal image. How many people felt the same anger, the same compassion for the Van Schalkwyk family as they did for the Steenkamps? How many people even considered what this meant to Jo-Anne’s friends and family, and to the psyche of other young, poor black women? This image was a fresh violation, another act of violence.
Was this perhaps overlooked because, as the journalist is at pains to tell us, the victim had a drug addiction, was from a family with a history of addiction, was poor, was a sex worker? Does this explain the decision to capture her bloodied and beaten body for public consumption? Does it make her less worthy of a dignified death than Steenkamp? Or her loved ones any less devastated?
In their current frenzied state, many South African’s have asked: What do we do to curb violence against women? I will tell you.
We need to remind each other that every woman — no matter her skin colour, where she comes from, who her family is, how much money she has, and what she chooses to wear, or do for a living — should be treated with dignity and respect, even after death. We need to recognise that in our daily interactions, in our language, we are allowing ourselves, our peers, our children, and people we don’t even know, to believe that this is not true. That women are worthy only if they conform to our cookie-cutter form of what a good woman is, what a virtuous woman is, and sometimes not even then.
We need to acknowledge the often abstract, but very real violence of racism, sexism and classism, and most importantly the acrid combination of all three, and understand how they contribute to violence against women. We need to confront these injustices wherever we encounter them: in our homes, in the streets and in the media. Unless we actively speak out, every day, no matter how difficult, who we upset or alienate, and how much we challenge ourselves, unless we vow to make good on our proclaimed desire for a society where women are free from all violence, we are also perpetrating violence.
So if we really want change, if we really mean all the angry words, the black (and white) T-shirts, the protests, the outrage, then it’s time to start holding each other accountable. Because the government didn’t publish that picture, or write that article, and the government doesn’t read the paper for us, have conversations for us, raise our sons and daughters for us, and the government won’t hold us accountable for how we do all those things.