This interview is in the latest copy of HERIZONSVIOLENT LEGACY LEAVES WOMEN IN ITS WAKE
BY IRENE D’SOUZA
Rozena Maart, author of The Writing Circle, offers a compelling new novel that explores the spiritual and cultural ramifications of violence against women in South Africa. Here, she goes into further depth about the issue.
Herizons: When did banal violence against South African women become normal?
Rozena Maart: My awareness of violence against women stems from my teenage years during the 1970s, when the African National Congress (ANC) had already been banned.
I attended anti-apartheid meetings and gatherings, where women would often speak in hushed tones about the violence they experienced in their homes, on the street and within anti-apartheid and anti-capitalist organizations. The term anti-capitalist organizations referred to trade unions and labour movements, mainly. Those organizations focused on how the development of capitalism in South Africa led to the exploitation of the masses under capitalist exploitation, as key to the process of apartheid. So, on an ideological front, one argued that the oppression of the masses by the apartheid regime gave rise to the violence by men toward women, and that although men were the perpetrators, it was because they were the target of the regime. The anti-capitalist position was that the exploitation of black men emasculated them, belittled them and thus precipitated their violence against women. There was no understanding, or even the recognition of male domination, patriarchy or male privilege within all societies and how it functioned to put men in positions where their violence against women remained unquestioned. So, the banal violence against women became normal under the conditions of violence within the general climate of violence then, and is further normalized today. There was no consideration of the fact that women were equally oppressed and exploited; there was no account by these movements of why it was men who were violent against women, even though we were all oppressed and exploited under the apartheid regime. This is one of the reasons why Women Against Repression was formed in 1986 as the first Black feminist organization with a critique of male violence and patriarchy.
Herizons: Although the five women in your novel protected themselves with near-military precision, it was not enough. Why?
Rozena Maart: Violence against women is everywhere—in the home, in the street, in the workplace, in public toilets, in parking lots, on the school playground. In The Writing Circle, I was absolutely aware of the precision with which friends talk about how they look over their shoulders all the time, why they never go to public toilets alone, not even in someone’s home if there is a big party, what we look out for in every public space, and what we remind ourselves of in domestic spaces. The five characters in The Writing Circle show their awareness of the violence they have become accustomed to with the minutest of detail—in the way that they bolt and lock their homes in the townships, and in middle-class neighbourhoods, too, with the extra iron gate; bolt and lock their cars; the way that they speak to their children; the way that they drive with windows closed; elaborate alarm systems, for those who can afford it; looking left and right, up and down, each time we walk, our eyes covering every possible area wherever we can.
Herizons: Do you think females will develop a protective gene in response to violence within their families, and then with strangers?
Rozena Maart: How to combat social behaviour is a complex question. With evolution, given the ways in which South African women are combating violence in every possible way, and teaching their children to do so, I am not sure what would be built into our DNA, other than perhaps hatred, alienation and fear—and still it would not be enough!
All I know is that when I speak to my young nieces, they are well aware of the violence and will tell you what they carry with them for protection to school. Many would find it shocking in Canada. For example, there was released an anti-rape devise last year which a woman can insert into her vagina. This device would trap the man’s penis, of course, after the woman has already been forced to succumb to the violence. The government has skirted around the issue, and I use the word with intent to point to the fact that they seem to believe that it is women’s skirts which are the problem. To say that they are dicking around is more accurate.
There is no point of having freedom if we cannot tell the truth . . . “
Herizons: How do South African women cope with this? Can you contrast today with apartheid days?
Rozena Maart: Sadly, the violence has intensified. And even more sad is the fact that during the apartheid years many women saw the possibility of having a free and democratic South Africa with the African National Congress in power as the best possible solution for them to live with dignity. For, it would mean having a mass-based national liberation movement endorsed as your chosen government who would be running the country according to the Freedom Charter—which would protect your rights as women. I was shunned by some of the women in the anti-apartheid movement for speaking out nationally and internationally about violence against women perpetrated by men in leadership positions within the movement. For sure, South African women are outraged. Women I know who are family members, friends, peers, women who work in factories, women who are university educated— all of the women I know in various capacities are clearly outraged. And yes, they cope because there is no other choice. Then, to add insult to injury, the ANC Women’s League recently claimed former Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who was charged with rape, as their chosen candidate for the presidency.
Herizons: Are South African men challenging the violators?
Rozena Maart: There is not enough outrage by South African men. Those who are outraged are not mounting national awareness campaigns or organizing national protests.
Herizons: What will need to shift before South African politicians take a moral and courageous stand against violence—particularly sexual violence?
Rozena Maart: I think the same global awareness that was forged about apartheid during the 1980s and the 1990s needs to happen now. In those days, there were antiapartheid movements around the world, which later, in the form of sanctions, forced the government to consider the future of the country and the release of Nelson Mandela. When I first came to Canada in 1989 and talked about violence against women, those who came to talks hoping to hear about anti-apartheid initiatives, particularly how, as a black South African woman I was oppressed and exploited, were sorely disappointed. There will always be those in the West who want to be applauded for their antiapartheid efforts, and those who feel that when confronted with the masses they want to have their political positions justified—I was not that sort of person then, and still am not now. I openly told those in attendance at meetings and gatherings in Canada that more women died at the hands of male violence than died at the hands of the apartheid regime and they were furious, annoyed, irritated. How dare someone like me disrupt their notion of politics! They wanted to give me their old clothes, treat me as though they are doing me a favour—like they had done for others before me. I mean I was too well-spoken and articulate to be a sample of the Black South African masses they had seen on television, beaten and battered. And where was my gratitude for living in Canada? We need to have national and international campaigns against the violence of women in all countries, not just South Africa, and we as women should push for sanctions. There is no point of having freedom if we cannot tell the truth. North Americans want to hear wonderful stories about South Africa. I mean a nation that did not retaliate against their oppressors, a nation that did not take to the streets to kill the oppressors who dispossessed them of their land, killed and murdered their people, extracts their diamonds, mines their gold, and keeps them chained for 342 years!
Why should the ANC do anything if the Western world seems to applaud every move that they have made to keep their white oppressors on the land, to allow them to reconcile, without remorse … and allow guilt-ridden White activists, who seem to be content with living on native land in Canada, to go to South Africa and learn more and better ways, in the words and sentiments of UBANTU, to then return to Canada, better equipped with more rhetoric of denial, to further the aims of anti-racism, as long as their male privilege remains unquestioned? There will continue to be violence against women in South Africa, to the horrendous degrees we have seen. And lesbian and queer women have also been targeted; this is all unreported in North America. .We have to stand up for what we believe in and forge our pavement politics around the world to end violence against women … in every aspect of what we do: on the streets, within the university, in our writing, and in our everyday activities. And we have to push for sanctions as women, who make up more than half of the population of the world!
[End of Interview]
A response to questions sent via email after the panel discussion on censorship, which was held on Tuesday, April 1st 2008:
Thank you for your emails with regard to questions raised by the panel on censorship. My concept of time is terrible; any time I am told that I should answer a question in a few minutes, I get lost a little. I also did an interview on my book, in Edmonton in November, 2008 and spoke for 45 minutes and did not mention the book once. The host thought he would ease me into the discussion by asking me a warm-up question on South Africa. I had no idea that 45 minutes had gone by.
In terms of the two or three questions that I got emails about: I will try and address them here if I can. With regard to language: I have several pieces on this; I can’t think off-hand where the best, most succinct article is on the topic. I have an older piece of writing in Fireweed, titled, “Language and Consciousness.” But briefly, what I was getting at is that writing [English writing, much like English speech] is structural, systemic, and institutionalized; that it has rules and regulations which we abide by, have been taught to abide by and thus if we think within a language, write within that language, how can we think outside of it. I did not go into detail about language as currency—what its use value and exchange value is in various locations—but really, as Fanon would put it: “you speak a language, you hold up that civilization.” I came to experience the latter, growing up in South Africa, and really got a chance to address it, challenge it, when I left the country for the first time in 1987. Over the years I have learnt to inject the English language with enough Black Consciousness, to speak it, imagine it, and write it, on my terms . . . and to own it.
With regard to the essay I was referred to in the Feminist Ethics book: when one approaches writing with the possibility of unraveling that which is hidden and forbidden one knows that one has to find a way to say something for which you will either be punished or rebuked. . . but you have to do it anyway. The example I gave of being placed in the position as a marginalized woman, without my permission, and how I used the page, the margins in particular, to stage my interrogation of what it means to have been marginalised (an identity that was placed on me) . . . As a contributor I was asked to write on “consciousness and morality” [it was a book on feminist ethics—meaning the study of feminist morality] . . . but clearly, as a Black woman who was marginalised in Canada. When one questions, through speech, the agency, the role of White men and White women as agents of the system of White domination, let alone as beneficiaries of usurpation, colonialism and racism, then there is an etiquette of silence which surrounds my speech, and how I direct my speech at those recipients, those beneficiaries of usurpation, colonialism and racism. I am expected to know, as someone who lives in Canada, speaks English well enough, is reasonably educated and equipped with a doctoral degree, that there are some things that I just should not say–cannot say. I am also meant to know that there some things that one just does not write in an essay—one destined for the university, the lovely bastion of White domination, where White students are educated towards prosperity and how dare I disrupt that objective. There are, however, things that I can write but not be expected to say—because distance, reading writing without the presence of the Black flesh, means that the White man or woman who reads my work and reads the demand that I have placed on their agency, is better able to make meaning of my writing on the page, than through face-to-face challenge. Absence of Black presence does ensure the perpetuation of White Consciousness.
In terms of the points of dispute and censorship of my essay: not only did I devise phrases like tamponization, when referring to ghettos, homelands and reserves (how usurped and colonized people are kept away from the main flow), but I also addressed the question of how Feminist Ethics is strongly rooted in Christianity and took those on. Again, there is an unspoken rule that one is does not mock Christianity—utilize its symbols, signs or sacrifices as similes or metaphors to stage protests against it—nor make reference to it if you do not intend to praise it. I think I had talked about how the blood of Jesus Christ is revered, and how colonizers kill and usurp, drag people off to homelands, ghettos and reserves, in the name of Christianity, in the name of the blood of Jesus Christ, but have no consciousness about the blood shed of those they kill.
So my essay in the book was pulled from the collection for all of these reasons, which was cited as “offensive use of Christianity, language usage, writing in the margins, using drawings and diagrams, all of which are considered un-academic.” If I had made my points by drawing references to Islam, my essay would not have come under any scrutiny, I think. I used the references to Christianity because the contributors had talked about ethics as though Christianity was the birth of those principles.
In terms of my comments about The Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC]: the process was expected to be confessional, as a means of controlling outpours of revenge by Black South Africans—which were expected and which DeKlerk wanted someone to prevent, which is why the TRC was one of the conditions of Mandela’s release. It was designed to give White South Africans the chance to go to a Commission and admit their wrongs—the sins of Apartheid, so to speak, and if you look at the document, there is no mention of remorse, simply a confession. Whilst there is much to be said about the process, my interest in terms of censorship is really about the consequences of memory and the way in which any discussion about the apartheid years which went on for 342 years, is seen as moot, shooed away, disregarded and treated as though one has a desire to go back rather than move forward. I was shocked to meet young students in their late teens and early twenties who clearly had no concept of their historical memory, what it means to remember, and those who want to know have said to me quite openly that their High School books (which I have seen) are not in any way encouraging, and have not allowed them to go through that process of understanding what their history really means and how to be in charge of it–in the present. At my old University, the University of the Western Cape, where I taught for a semester in 2007 every single person in the English department is White, except for one woman, an Indian woman from Durban whose politics leave little to be desired.
The consequences of this concerted effort to thwart historical memory and the desire to recall it has severe consequences for writing, for creating fictional works set in the apartheid era when we were not published. This is why so many Black South African writers live outside of the country. If one looks at the generation of Black South African writers who are forty years and older, most of us live outside of the country more than we live inside of it. I am in South Africa every year for three months or more, and Zakes Mda returned to South Africa in 1995. He continues to do contract teaching outside of the country and has spoken out against the TRC. See the interview I have posted below.
I hope this clears up some of your questions.
See the Interview with Zakes Mda:
Zakes Mda returned from exile in America in 1995. He has since given up teaching African literature to write novels. His latest novel, The Heart of Redness, is due to be translated into French by Editions Dapper, who already translated Ways of Dying in 1995. A London production company is also currently adapting the book to the screen.
Is it more difficult to write since the end of apartheid?
If you’re a writer, you’re a writer! On the contrary, it’s a lot easier for me. The end of apartheid freed my imagination. I see stories everywhere. Young writers are emerging too, such as Sello Duiker, whom I admire a great deal. Apartheid dominated our lives; we could not write honestly without talking about it. The system was such that all you had to do was go into a township and take a slice of life to turn into a wonderful piece of theatre of the absurd. Writers could be reporters then. Now that apartheid is dead, those writers are dead too. I don’t regret them.
You don’t suffer from writer’s block then?
I spend all my time writing novels. I’ve got four or five to write in a row. My next novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, returns to the South Africa of today, to Excelsior, a little town in the Free State province whose racial sex scandal hit the headlines in the late Sixties. The town dignitaries’ partner swapping with black women came to light after a whole load of mixed-race children were born. This was illegal at the time under the Immorality law, which banned sexual relations between black and white people. The affair embarrassed the government of the time so much that it was forced to drop the case. Two of the defendants tried to commit suicide, one of whom managed. Today, the children have grown up and the women remember. It’s a good lesson for South Africa, at least in terms of reconciliation…
Have you ever taken inspiration from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?
No, I want to create. The TRC doesn’t enable me to create. It went beyond the boundaries of the imagination, there where there is no place left to create a thing, only to report.
You occasionally write articles in the South African press expressing your point of view. You have notably denounced the ruling elites’ corruption. Are you an exception?
No, I’m an independent thinker. I think that the government is doing a wonderful job, that it has progressive policies which sometimes even go against the majority of the population’s ideas. I write about corruption because it is unacceptable. Certain people have betrayed us through horrible acts, by not treating all South Africans equally.
Have such stances made things more difficult for you?
I don’t care how my criticism is taken. My family comes from a long line of anti-apartheid fighters. I’m not dependent on anyone to live.
See interview with Zakes Mda on Ways of Dying in Africultures 24, p.30. Jan, 2000.