Yesterday I woke up to a horror story. In fact, I am still in emotional wilderness as I type this column. I even feel guilty for my choice of subject matter today.
Is it not inappropriate to write about someone close to you? Such is my confusion. My friend, who has been a senior drama lecturer at Wits University for years, Tsepo wa Mamatu, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. He is accused of years of sexual violence against Wits students, including rape.
Wa Mamatu is someone I have punted ruthlessly as a brilliant academic, spirited interlocutor, talented actor and director, and sheer fun. Without fail I struggle to sit still in my studio chair as a radio talk show host whenever I interview him. He wrote the most brilliant MA thesis a few years back, tightly knitting together criticism of filmmaker Leon Schuster’s work based on race and critical theory. If you read that dissertation, you can never again laugh easily with Schuster.
Wa Mamatu’s intellectual flamboyance is infectious, and his capacity for sharp debate always forces me to imagine being in a national debate championship final again lest he gets away with intellectual murder to the pleasure of my listeners waiting for hard-headed me to be shown a thing or three. It makes for great radio too.
And then I woke up to the Sunday Times lead story yesterday. I am devastated. But not more so than the students whose stories appear in the paper. I am also confused.
How do I square my love, admiration, and apparent knowledge of Wa Mamatu, and an ethical commitment to a presumption-of-innocence rule, with the volume of accusations spanning students from different generations, many of whom probably do not even know each other?
Victim testimonies on page 5 of the paper devastated me: from the story of a young man, a self-confessed alcohol abuser who felt he was being used as a pimp by Wa Mamatu, who reportedly bought him drinks in return for getting him the phone numbers of female students, to a woman who apparently tried to commit suicide to deal with the shame of being asked to strip naked during drama rehearsals.
Another student claims she was plied with alcohol, and woke up in a hotel room no longer a virgin.
The stories have a disturbing pattern in common also: fear lies at the heart of everyone’s hitherto silence. There is fear of reporting abuse because the alleged perpetrator is powerful or because the victim feels complicit in accepting a drinks offer or for going upstairs into a bedroom. There is also a fear of being named and living with the label of being a victim of sexual abuse, and there is fear of the consequences of ruining a great career.
It is a painful story for many. Most importantly, it is painful for those students who claim to have been victims of sexual violence. It is also painful for their friends, family and other loved ones.
But a story like this is also difficult for those of us who are friends with Tsepo. I sent Tsepo an SMS in desperation to reach out. I called him and his phone was off.
The offer stands. He has a story too. He has his truth too. He too deserves support and a presumption of innocence unless and until allegations are criminally proved against him. I will definitely not, in the first instance, ostracise Tsepo. I want to look my friend in the eye and have a heart-to-heart about this devastating story.
Did you do it, Tsepo? Are you a rapist? Are you a victim of rape who became a perpetrator perhaps? What is your truth? What is the truth?
The columnist and talk show host in me want to scream “I hereby cut off my friendship with wa Mamatu immediately! These allegations are too serious and too many! Here’s to LeadSA!”
But friendships are emotionally complex. I also want to hug Tsepo and listen. That’s my desire right now.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not take the students’ allegations lightly. I was raped as a kid. I know how one can doubt one’s memories and fear not being believed if you should speak out. So I would never lightly dismiss the volume of allegations. Who wants to sit in court for fun while being grilled about a rape accusation by a ruthless defence lawyer?
And yet I think I know my friend. My friend is not a rapist. Rapists are other people. I am not a rapist. We are not rapists. Not me. Not my friends. Not my father. Not my brother. Not my friend. Not my editor. Not my radio boss. Not my favourite teacher. Not my cousin.
Oh wait. It was my cousin who raped me as a child.