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History of denigrating women by those in power has been repeated by the way the trade unionist referred to a woman as a ‘girl’, says Nomboniso Gasa.
Johannesburg - Despite attempts by his own opponents to find charges that stuck, ranging from allegations of his wife’s involvement in the pension affairs of Cosatu workers and his alleged involvement in the Cosatu Head Office debacle, Zwelinzima Vavi seemed to take the challenges in his stride.
The strain was evident, as it would be for anybody. But he seemed able to fight back with dignity and was for the most part, shaken but still standing.
Then, I will hit you with your sex scandal, seemed to be the new attack of his detractors. Cornered, he went into fight-back mode. He pre-empted the move and went public first. He offered explanation of the “situation” and his humble public apologies to his wife, family and all those he had let down.
“I apologise for what I have done when I have such a perfect marriage.”
However, from the outset, Vavi sought to make a clear distinction between his wife and the woman who was his subordinate at work. In his explanation of the “situation”, he told of how they met at SAA and how helpful this woman was. He told his wife about her, and introduced them.
“I said to my wife this is the ‘girl’ I told you about. The one I said can help us.”
Why a “girl”? Could this trade unionist be so lacking in self-awareness and complex politics and heritage of the contested power of language that he did not consider the implications of calling an adult woman a “girl”?
Or was it a deliberate choice to denote distance and to assure his wife that the woman posed no danger? Was she a “girl” because she was considerably younger than him or was it where they stood in the hierarchy of power?
The contradiction in referring to the woman as a “girl” and simultaneously insisting that this was consensual sex between two adults eluded him. Whatever happened Vavi’s own words confirmed that they did not meet as equals.
In a country where black men and black women have been historically infantilised by their employers, Vavi’s choice of words seemed careless. They also lacked understanding of the politics and power of language. He evoked the master/ servant narrative, many of us know only too well.
How many women have been in these situations (willingly or unwillingly, mostly unwillingly) as domestic workers? How many women have had to accept being infantilised by their masters and madams in the way Vavi and his wife related to this woman?
But if “girl” was inappropriate and ill-advised, we had yet to witness the public disrobing of this woman. As the stress piled on Vavi and the battle in Cosatu intensified, he did what most black people do in such times – he laid a claim to and evoked his ancestry and human agency.
“I have come here to pledge solidarity with the workers. Not as Cosatu general secretary but in my personal capacity as the ‘son of Mazenjana’.”
In other words, he was saying “ndimngumntu thyni” (I am a human being).
Within a few days, he spoke to a group of what must have been his trusted confidants. In that space of safety, in which he was unburdening himself, he was not able to extend the same recognition of the woman’s humanity.
“Andazi nguNopatazana ebendimkhathalele ngantoni lo.” There is really no English translation of this. Its power lies not only in the individual words chosen, but the tone and context. (Roughly: I do not know why I even paid attention or bothered myself with this worthless woman.)
There is the sting. Next to him, the man of power, she is nothing. She is without worth. She is not the “daughter of so and so”.
He could have said “kowu, ndaze ndabhatyaza, maqabane “ (oh, what a blunder I made, comrades). That would be taking responsibility for his actions. But no, he got back to his original narrative and representation of this woman as one “beneath his position, worthless and not worthy of the trouble that ensued”.
Among his comrades, where I would imagine these things are not exactly unknown, he could have easily taken responsibility. Still, they could have worked out a way of dealing with the challenges at hand. This was more than an insult and blame. It was anger directed at her. It was dehumanisation of the woman.
Language has been a major part of the Struggle for liberation, self and collective identification in South Africa and other parts of the world. It has been a permanent landscape shaping our contestations against those who hold power. It has also been a powerful tool to claim freedom, even among those deemed unworthy of freedom.
By language, I mean not only scientific study of linguistics used to communicate between and within cultures across the world. Here, I am concerned with the words we use in our everyday interactions, the power of such choices, the little blocks that contribute to a solid foundation upon which we build everyday culture and social interaction.
Such foundation solidifies the culture of dominance of the powerful over the weaker. It can, of course, undermine that very structural edifice of power.
Language also includes the tone and texture of what is said as well as that which is not said.
Therein lies its power – in the shifting sands and dynamism that can easily take us from one meaning to another and puts other people in “their place”.
Depending on the context, one can resort to language they find offensive and undermining and claim their power back or most importantly, their own humanity. Such comeback may not necessarily be verbal.
Grace Nichols, the Caribbean poet, captures this in her poem Skin-teeth.
Not every skin-teeth
is a smile “Massa”
if you see me smiling
when you pass
if you see me bending
when you ask
know that I smile
know that I bend
only the better
to rise and strike again
The contestation is not verbal, because it would be detrimental to backchat. Rather, it is expressed in the internal dialogue that says “your words hold no power over me, even if I seem to co-operate and ‘smile’”.
There are stark parallels between Vavi’s battle today and those of President Jacob Zuma in 2005/7. In both cases the discourse of war is deployed. All wars are fluid, murky and the enemy is a moving target. As in other wars, women play ambiguous, yet familiar, roles in the rhetoric and language used.
Women also play an active part in wars. Many are not passive or powerless. However, in this war, as in others, women simultaneously occupy troubling positions. They are “contested territory”, part of the terrain on which commanders trample in order to destroy the “enemy”. They are also booty and spoils of war – to be possessed, exposed or hidden as it suits the battle strategy. In “manly talk” they are also trophies, which fall into the hands of the powerful.
At one level the battle in which Cosatu is embroiled is about power and interests of different factions jostling over its control and direction. Vavi is associated with a faction that depicts its opponents as hijacking Cosatu in the interests of anti-worker projects, high levels of corruption and falling under the sway of the ANC leadership. Vavi represents himself as safeguarding Cosatu’s independence.
Significantly it is these same considerations that saw Vavi back Zuma’s difficult journey to the Union Buildings. While there were allegations of corruption and rape surrounding Zuma, it was said there was a larger agenda at stake. That’s maybe why there was a suspension of normal forms of behaviour and terms of engagement. In Zuma’s rape trial, Vavi raised no objections to the way in which Zuma supporters insulted and burnt effigies of the complainant named as a “witch” outside the court.
In the same fashion today “progressive left men” insist that there is a larger agenda and conspiracy against Vavi. There may well be. But does that justify undermining decades of painstaking work to fashion responses to a language that diminishes us?
They are silent or seek to justify Vavi’s actions and utterances. In the hierarchy of struggles black women remain at the bottom – our screams unheard and our humanity unseen. Until we confront the meanings of patriarchy and its manifestation in everyday language of sexism and dominance, we will see it again.
As journalist Eduardo Galeano says, “History never really says goodbye. History says see you later.”
History will continue to repeat itself. Here we meet, again.
* Nomboniso Gasa is researcher and analyst on gender, politics and cultural issues. She is a senior research associate at the Centre for Law and Society at UCT.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.