“If men are trash, then we make them so”

Press Statement for immediate release -19.05.17

“If #MenAreTrash, we make them so”

Last week we heard the tragic news about Karabo Mokoena, a 22-year-old South African socialite who was burnt and murdered, allegedly by her boyfriend, Sandile Mantsoe. She will be laid to rest today (Friday) in Johannesburg.

Since her death, reactions from Africans all over the continent have bombarded social media feeds and the opinion columns of national newspapers. Women are angry, and rightly so. The only reaction to such a barbaric act should be real, tangible rage. Expressing their repugnance towards the perpetrator, and creating the platform for other women to share personal stories of threat and violence and abuse at the hands of men has led to the hashtag #MenAreTrash.

Karabo’s story and the stories voiced since are harrowing examples of the extent to which violence, and especially sexual violence against women and girls, has become normalised in our society. In Swaziland and the region, hardly a day passes without a horrific story of sexual assault or intimate partner violence or family abuse. It is easy therefore, to fall into generalisations, to paint this issue with a broad brush and call all men “trash”. And, as has been the case in recent days, it has proved equally easy to deny the extent of the issues and hush the vitriol of the reactions by claiming that #Notallmen are abusive. Like all things in life, this issue is more nuanced, more subtle than this simplistic narrative, where all men are uncaring monstrosities, and all women survivors. Whilst its intention is admirable, the #MenAreTrash hashtag is a distraction, an impossible narrative that isolates and ostracises men and polarises rather than harmonizes the brave voices who are screaming and weeping. The visible, and invisible, benefits our patriarchal society bestows upon men are indisputable, but calling men trash, or excusing the behaviour of some men by hiding behind the clause “not all men”, only disguises the problem further.

For years, we have been telling ourselves a story, a narrative where men are strong and silent and invulnerable, and women are weak, dependent and emotional, ready to be swept along, and ultimately mistreated, by a dominating lover, or immoral father. This is no bedtime fairy-tale, hastily conjured by a tired mother. These gender roles are centuries in the making, deep-rooted in our cultural perceptions of who and what we should and can be, and passed on to our children from the very moment we buy the first toys for our new-born children. Will it be a spaceship or a baby-doll? Such narratives are reductive, offensive and immensely damaging to our understanding of gender roles.

Of course, it is difficult to be angry at everyone, at a faceless society, and to invoke the need for long term behaviour change over short-term backlash, however justified. Nonetheless, as with all complex and dynamic power systems, change can only come when everyone, men and women, abusers and non-abusers accept that for years we have allowed men to conduct themselves in any way their power and privilege sees fit. We need to make a more conscious effort towards writing new narratives, which challenge the blue/pink polarities we peddle to our children and which leave women and girls vulnerable. Our culture, which we love and defend so much, is birthing these toxic expectations of masculinity in men and then is surprised by their beastly actions. After all, boys are socialised towards such acts by the concessions we create for them. “Boys will be boys” we say when a fight breaks out, when we find that stash of hard-core pornography or when a teenager is too forward with his romantic advances.

The symptoms are battery, rape, abuse, harassment and coercion, but the wound is our notion of masculinity and the abuse of patriarchal privilege permitted by a society which favours simplistic narratives. Every 8 hours, a woman is killed by her male lover or ex-lover or someone with whom she has chosen to have intimate relations. One in four women will experience domestic violence by a spouse or a past spouse whilst seven million children, both boys and girls, grow up in homes marred by domestic violence. And the cure? We need to tell new stories, to write new narratives, new concepts of what is acceptable for men and women in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world. We need to mentor boys, through programmes like Kwakha Indvodza, into men who will challenge the locker-room talk, who will not be silent when other men say and do trashy things. We need to hold that mirror close to our face, to radically rethink how we perpetuate violence through the familiar, comfortable narratives we live by every day.

 

By: Nosipho Dlamini and Tom Churchyard.