When I go camping, I always take a book or two along. And when I went away last weekend, one of the books I took to read was Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi.
I admire the work of Tlhabi both as a radio presenter and author.
I bought the book because I was haunted by the story of Khwezi from the time that it made news that she had allegedly been raped by Jacob Zuma in November 2005 and of which he was acquitted in May 2006.
Subsequently, a lot happened that would change the life of Khwezi and the rest of South Africa.
Mr Zuma’s acquittal in this case opened the path to him becoming president of South Africa.
I believe that most South Africans took it for granted that he was acquitted as he was innocent, according to the law.
He claimed that it was consensual sex.
The case was closed and Khwezi was viewed as a young woman trying to frame Mr Zuma, a “honeypot”, blaming an innocent man for something which he was not guilty of and trying to tarnish his reputation.
She and her mother then fled South Africa and lived overseas. The case was “forgotten” about, or so we thought.
I was upset at the time and wondered why a young woman would accuse a high profile man of rape, aware that the courts would not be on her side, and would put
her through a drilling inquisition process which would be emotionally exhausting for her and which in all likelihood she would not be able to win, let alone gain anything out of?
The questions abounded in my head and I felt, at the time, would never be answered as the case was closed and the alleged rapist was acquitted.
But I was very worried about the ramifications of this on society, especially the minds of young men. I believed that there was more to the story.
Tlhabi’s book removed the veils of distorted realities for me.
I will not give a synopsis of Tlhabi’s book and encourage you to buy or get it from your local library.
What I will do is to share my thoughts and emotional responses to this account of the victim’s perspective.
According to the author, who in my view, did her research well, certain judges who were supposed to preside over this case were removed and it was orchestrated that a certain judge took over at the time.
Our political and legal systems among others, are still very much immersed in and dominated by a patriarchal worldview and this makes issues relating to women almost totally biased in favour of men, especially powerful ones.
With men still mainly being at the helm of decision making, it is almost always going to be the case that women’s issues including their sexuality and what is done to their bodies, will be perceived from a skewed perspective, undermining their experiences.
In the case of Khwezi, the legal officer representing Mr Zuma was allowed to rip her sexual history apart to make her look as if she was a loose, sexually promiscuous woman who wrongfully accused men when they were just having innocent and consensual sex with her.
This, sadly, included three traumatic experiences she had when she was sexually abused by men she thought she could trust.
These were known to her as uncles or “malume” as she called them. She also called Mr Zuma, malume Zuma.
The ages she was sexually abused ranged from 5 years to 13 years old.
In my view, the child is not to blame for an adult using/abusing them sexually, the adult is to blame for taking advantage of the innocence, trust and position of power that they have over children.
The courts twisted these abuses of Khwezi and re-abused her by making it sound like the perpetrators did nothing wrong and merely responded to her being there in their rooms, beds, and so on.
Children instinctively trust adults and do not assume that they are with a predator, more so if it’s a person regarded as family.
Additionally, what would have made Khwezi more susceptible to being vulnerable and needy
of affection and attention was that her parents were often away,
in exile, in ANC training camps and other countries for work purposes.
The child was left to feel in the wrong and instead of sending a message of zero tolerance for abuse of children and young women, this kind of response further legitimises atrocities enacted on children’s bodies by grown men.
In the court case as well as in the menacing and hateful responses from the broader society against her, Khwezi’s sexual abuse as a child by grown men was presented and interpreted as consensual sex.
How is it even possible that a grown man can have consensual sex with a 5-year-old, 12-year-old or 13-year-old child?
If we accept this kind of abhorrent behaviour as normal, it shows that our value system as a society is not just crooked but lacking humanity, ethics and morality.
Khwezi was not just about a young woman accusing Mr Zuma of rape but about a woman who fought a battle for her life and that of all women in South Africa whose bodies are at the mercy of men both young and old, powerful and other men, who for whatever reason, including perhaps having been emasculated during apartheid, feel it’s acceptable to act this out by meting abuse on the bodies of women and children.
Khwezi does not just represent something profoundly important in terms of a “culture of rape” in South Africa which we have kept mainly silent about, but also about unfinished business regarding apartheid, our dehumanising history by which we were deeply traumatised, and which we have avoided having courageous conversations about but which we need to deal with and heal, lest it escalates further, both in our world.
I am grateful to, and deeply moved by the courageous acts of Fezekile Kuzwayo and Tlhabi.
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column.
You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.