My initial reaction to the General Secretary of COSATU Zwelinzima Vavi’s story was ‘they’ had finally found something to smear his good name with. To be stripped naked in public like that is something that is hard to come back from, even if in the end you are exonerated. Public perception and thus respect is tricky. Having been following the political storm that has been forming around him, this conclusion jumped at me, and at this point I lost interest in the details of the accusation. And I am not saying this initial reaction has now faded. I am saying the debacle has raised other critical issues. His is one of the names that give me hope for a healthier political climate in South Africa. His is one of the names I would put my X next to on the ballot paper. I became concerned when COSATU took sides, because both Mr Vavi and the woman concerned are employees of COSATU, they should have access to the same support from their employer. Why was Mr Vavi afforded space on the COSATU website to release a press statement when the woman was not? Or was she offered the opportunity and refused it?
Following the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the resultant spotlight on the treatment of black men in America, I wondered if black men in both the United States and South Africa stand up for their women as much as women do for them. This of course was in no way linked to the child Trayvon, but rather in how he came to be the symbol of the persecuted black male in America. I wondered and my wondering was echoed by a few black American women on social media. This wondering led me to guiltily look up the details of this Vavi public trial and what I found left me perturbed and convinced that the woman’s voice needs a podium. Mr Vavi will do well to remember that a cloud of rape will hang over President Zuma into history books because in the public perception court, the case was never resolved but was squashed. The details around the woman’s dropping of the charges after 2 hours with an employer who seemed in support of Mr Vavi, Mr Vavi who was also present in the room, should be quite interesting. The power dynamics at play here are concerning. I found that most, across gender lines, in social media thought the woman was guilty of gold digging and dismissed her rape claim. So I read her open letter. Then I looked for the smses and statement Mr Vavi had posted. And I read the open letter again. I got convinced that we would be failing so many rape victims who have been raped under similar circumstances if the woman was hounded into silence. We always say women should speak out against rape and then, when they do, it gives us license to demean their personhood. I fear that the responses to the woman’s claim have made other victims hold that secret tighter in their wounded hearts and bodies. I do not know if the woman is lying or not, I do not know if Mr Vavi is telling the truth. We have courts of law to determine that. We are trying to encourage victims to come forward so the law can give them justice, yet the hostility towards this woman is sure to drive these victims the opposite direction. In a country where rape is a disease, even if she turns out to have lied her story would still give hope that victims will be taken seriously and their cases given fair attention, dignity and respect if they came forward. Her case would also clear any confusion and doubt about Mr Vavi’s character. Because frankly we are running out of dependable leaders. I want to wish this whole rape drama away. There is so much I want to wish away. There is way too much at stake. But if I did what would I say to my daughter? How do I protect her from the possibility of something similar happening to her if I do not help change public perception about gender profiling?
There was this sentiment that particularly bugged me –women are born gold diggers, there was R2 million involved. This narrative sits very uncomfortably in me in an era that has given birth to terms like ‘rape culture’.
To be honest, I want Mr Vavi to be innocent. I see a great leader in him. But his moment to prove how great a leader he is, is right now. As a citizen of this country and him as my leader I would like to see him deal with the rape allegations in a fairer manner. I do not think COSATU should be seen as in his corner. As we do not see who is supporting this woman as Mr Vavi alleges.
Article first published in Sowetan, 31 July 2013