Khwezi reclaimed by Redi Tlhabi

We’re halfway through the international campaign, 16 Days of Activism, and today is World Aids Day. Both pertain profoundly to journalist and author Redi Tlhabi’s book about Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, better known as Khwezi. If you haven’t read it, do it now, writes DIANE DE BEER


Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo by Redi Tlhabi (Jonathan Ball):

khwezi front cover final


Redi Tlhabi showed with her first book, Endings and Beginnings: A Healing Story (Jacana, 2012), that she knows why some people’s experiences cannot go unshared. She also revealed how a journalist can add their own value to something; while personal, their view can also be universal.

In this case, it was clear that Kuzwayo’s story deserved its public frenzy, but that the issue of rape should remain in the international headlines.  It’s an ongoing, horrific tragedy – everywhere.

Yet in conversation, you find that many are still puzzled. Why don’t all women who have been raped come forward? Why, in 2017, does nothing much seem different in the way of hostility, all round? After all, this only prolongs the rape as an ongoing nightmare for the survivor.

M-Net recently broadcast a conversation with director Ryan Murphy (The Feud: Bette and Joan) in which he explained that he was saddened, when speaking to Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, to realise exactly that. Indeed, not much has changed since the Hollywood studio era when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were the stars of the day.

Women aren’t surprised by that. We live with it daily. And Fezekile Kuzwayo represents so much of why that is so. She surely didn’t fully grasp what would happen once she went public about her rape.

That might have been because she had accused one of the most powerful men in the land. But many women living in a country where rape is endemic find the same outcome – in their villages, their churches, their offices. Going public or even speaking about being raped, and, particularly, naming your rapist, is taboo.

In Kuzwayo’s case, she was also confronted by women who, some believe, effectively collaborated against her. Many were shocked and saddened by the ANC Women’s League’s support of Zuma during his rape trial, but few were surprised. The fact of other women not giving support is a painful truth for all too many rape survivors.

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Author Redi Tlhabi

Tlhabi’s book is, thus, remarkable for many reasons. One is that it properly situates Kuzwayo for us as it deals with her past, going a long way to explain why “Khwezi” finally decided to claim her life back.

She tells of how, when she was a child and then a young woman living in exile in the ANC camps, she was raped by “uncles” who were supposed to look after her best interests. And while this is an issue that has also been in the public domain, it hasn’t really been fully addressed. This seems to be because of a belief that those who have been “wronged” – in this case, some soldiers of Umkhonto we Sizwe who gave up their lives to fight apartheid – cannot do any wrong themselves.

Kuzwayo tells a very moving story about our world.

I remember reading Tlhabi’s first book and being left open-mouthed that she was writing about 11-year-old girls scared of being raped. At that age, children should be children, but of course, not many live in that protected world – ever.

To make matters worse, once the rape of a child occurs, her whole life is devastated – not as the survivor, but as the someone who can be blamed. This is because not all communities deal appropriately with rape.

It’s something that is explained in great detail in Pumla Dinedo Gqola’s brilliant book A South African Nightmare: Rape, a book that Tlhabi also references and honours.

Yet some men still refuse to take responsibility, or even deal with their accusers. Some flee to “rehab” centres for so-called sexual addiction, while locally, silence and then denial seem to be the preferred route.

Following the unsuccessful trial, Kuzwayo felt she had no choice but to go into exile – again  -where she and her mother were embraced by an empathic community simply not available in her own country. She wasn’t only blamed by Zuma disciples. The media here didn’t treat her much better.

In court, too, the defense implied that a five-year old girl could be implicated in her own rape. What does that say about the society we live in? Please don’t tell me that lawyers are compelled to do “everything” they can to defend their client. There are limits.

That is truly the state of the world we live in today. Women have to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

The onus is still on women to explain why and how something happened, what they were wearing and why they were at a certain place at a certain time.

I was recently walking with a young woman when an elderly man made a remark that only she understood. But she retorted in English so that everyone could get her meaning: “Wow, you could be my grandfather. Would you speak like that to your granddaughter?”

I hope he will now think twice about commenting that glibly, and that publicly, in future.

Importantly, her approach also showed there is a new awareness among millenials. They are willing to take the battle on, and to speak their minds.

That is why #MeToo has had such impact, and that is why this book will have relevance for years to come. It speaks about how power relationships are used at the cost of the vulnerable. And that is what Kuzwayo was in so many ways.

Not only did she regard Zuma as an “elderly uncle”. He knew and had honoured her father,  and could tell her stories about the man who “Khwezi” had lost too soon in her young life. She needed that first-hand knowledge about her dad. And so it was a matter of trust that was shattered in several ways too tough to disregard.

It is true, however, that this is also how she found the strength. It was enough. It didn’t matter who had done what to her. This would be the last time. But the other truth is that her “enough” would also shatter what was left of her life.

Meanwhile, the man who she accused of violating her, took a shower.