South Africa’s gender-based violence, especially rape and femicide, is a national crisis. The past week has seen women marching to bring about a solution. The following is one South African woman’s account of how sexual assault has impacted her life.
The rage was always hard for me to acknowledge. I’d always prided myself on my deep-seated preference for talking, remaining calm and seeing both sides. But now my stomach was permanently a writhing mess of snakes. I couldn’t eat. I flinched at every sound. My future had lost its meaning. And there was the rage. The rage exploded out of me in queues that took too long, or dirty dishes in the sink. I hated the person I was becoming, but I couldn’t seem to be anything else because behind every corner he seemed to be waiting, living his life, while there I was, belly full of snakes, unable to even attend classes or do my work.
That made it harder, that we went to the same university. I felt like everyone knew the dark twisted snake that tied me to him. I felt unclean, soiled. I felt like every time people looked at me they saw his face, knew what he’d done to me. It was harder because I’d taken so long to admit to myself what it was he had done. I’d told myself it couldn’t be that, we’d been dating, you can’t do that to someone you love right? We’d been dating so I had to let him do anything he wanted right? That was how relationships worked, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?
I’d lost a whole year. The year I couldn’t remember, the memory of him on me had receded into my mind and I was just left with this sinking sense of everything feeling wrong. I felt wrong. But I couldn’t figure out why. I was doing things that I couldn’t explain, sleeping around, dating people I didn’t really care for, running away from people I did. But I was still working, I was getting good marks, so everything must have been fine. This didn’t happen to girls like me. Girls like me, we studied, we did what was expected, and we didn’t complain. Girls like me didn’t get raped.
But the snakes were still in my gut. And I hated him. I couldn’t explain why. I just hoped he got pushed off the next pavement into oncoming traffic. That was how most people felt about their exes surely?
But there was something wrong. Those close to me knew it too, but I couldn’t put words to it.
And then one day, just over a year later, the words came. All the memories I repressed flooded my psyche like stun grenades as I listened to a classmate tell her story to a room of strangers and heard my life in her words. Flash after flash I was a year younger and everything was very much not okay and he didn’t care he was hurting me, he didn’t care my face had gone blank and something in my eyes had died.
The following year, after my memories came back, was a mess. The effect of the trauma meant I lost the ability to care about my schoolwork beyond doing the bare minimum. I was constantly in tears. The rage filling me with hatred. I hated every person I saw who gave him the time of day. Surely, they knew of the monster he was? Wasn’t his crime etched on his face? Written in his DNA now? How could they smile at him, how could they trust him, how could they not know?
The beast of rape is a shadowy one. It’s at the edge of your vision, lurking inside anyone, until it becomes shockingly real and nothing is the same again. They didn’t know because he didn’t want them to know.
“They didn’t know because it didn’t make sense that this self-identified ‘feminist’, who attended every protest, every vigil, was a rapist.”
He hid himself in the right politics and the right networks so it made it impossible to imagine for people. They didn’t know because they didn’t want to know either. We don’t want to know the things that make life uncomfortable. It’s far easier to ignore the rape joke than “make a fuss”. It’s easier to get along with people and not mention the forgotten fact that they were a bit dodgy with that girl at the braai but that nothing happened—surely.
Rape makes us afraid. Those who aren’t survivors dread joining the other side and we hate that we even had to be here in the first place. After the man who raped me was publicly outed on social media, everyone rushed to agree that they’d always known something about him made them uneasy, that he was sexually inappropriate, that he seemed to make women uncomfortable. Yes, it gave me a deep-seated vindication seeing him lynched online. Yes, I felt wonderfully gratified receiving the messages of “I believe you”. Yes, I loved seeing him lose a job he liked because of the chaos. But nothing changed the times no one had said anything and I almost fell apart and lost two years of my life to depression and PTSD. Nothing gave me back the relationships I lost, the academic year I barely scraped through.
“Nothing prevented it for the others.”
There are four of us they say. Four people who were sexually harassed and/or assaulted by him. That’s probably only the tip of the iceberg. I think I was the first. If I’d spoken up would the rest have been safe? That’s a guilt I don’t deserve to carry but I do anyway. In all reality, I probably could not have protected them, because if it wasn’t him, it could have been any one of all the others everyone smiled at and played nice with, no matter what women said to the contrary. This included my university management who told me my story was a “he-said, she-said” because I’d cried in the shower instead of photographing the finger marks on my neck. This included authority figure after authority figure who found my story too uncomfortable, and of course they believed me, it was just that they couldn’t do anything, and encouraged me not to go to the police because there just wasn’t enough evidence without DNA.
My story, while my own, is far from unique. They ask us why we don’t come forward. They have no idea the pain behind the decision or the doors closed in a survivor’s face because her story doesn’t fit the script the court will accept. They ask us why we don’t speak out so things can change, but they don’t know the rage you feel when you do and everyone smiles apologetically but greets him the next day with a hug. They ask us why we don’t feel safe and we stare uncomprehendingly. Not one of us was ever safe, and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, count your lucky stars because it could be any of us, by any of them.
But we will stand here, surviving, despite it all. But the snakes still writhe in our bellies and our rapists still walk the streets, drive next to you on the way to work, or work in the local Post Office.
The darkness in a woman is such
That, stripped of our sight, we must feel
Our way through it – we crawl,
We enter her circles of Hell until
We sympathize with her sorrow,
Until we learn from her rage.
– Segovia Amil