The death of Khensani Maseko feels like being dunked in cold water – first painfully cold and then numbing. This pain and numbness is both for Khensani as a person and for her as a symbol of the endless violation of womxn in our society.
Khensani’s suicide is yet another reminder of the enormous cost of rape. As Pumla Gqola so poignantly writes:
"There is a cost – a huge, devastating cost that comes with rape – an invisible wound that remains long after the physical scars (where they exist) have healed. And what a cost to us to have so many of our people walking wounded."
How many more reminders do we need?
Khensani wrote on her final Instagram post, NO ONE DESERVES TO BE RAPED. Here she highlights the pain of being raped; so deep, so destructive, so overwhelming.
But I also read this as her final attempt to challenge the pain, shame and blame of being raped. As she types in bold capitals, she proclaims that it was not her fault, that she did not deserve what she was subjected to at the hands of a man she presumably trusted.
We, who have been raped, must battle every day against the pain of our deep wounds, pain caused by dehumanisation, by being made into things, by being stripped of our autonomy over our own bodies and selves. We must battle not to be overwhelmed by shame and blame.
Our wounds are gouged at by a society that does not recognise our loss of autonomy, a society that deepens our feelings of shame and blame. We are told that we must have done something to bring rape upon ourselves, that we “deserved to be raped”, both explicitly and subtly.
In Rape: A South African nightmare Pumla Gqola documents an incident where a young man is pursuing a young womxn in a shop. She refuses his advances, first by ignoring him and avoiding eye contact, then more actively by saying she is not interested. To this, he says: “this is why we rape you”.
We are told what “good girls” do (dress modestly, don’t drink too much, don’t walk alone, don’t go home with men you don’t know) and that if we are “good” we can keep ourselves safe from predatory strangers. When we are raped by these strangers we are asked which of the precautionary steps we did not take. Not only are we made to feel the shame of being raped but we are also made to feel blame and guilt for our failure to protect ourselves.
Of course these precautions are patriarchal disciplining techniques to keep womxn “in check” and to keep some men safe from being called rapists. They serve to disguise and dismiss the rapes that happen in intimate relationships, rapes like Khensani’s.
Panic and warnings about rape “out there” distracts us from talking about coercion that takes forms besides physical violence. It distracts us from the power imbalances inherent in relationships (and society) that make it difficult for womxn to negotiate (safe) sex. In the absence of these conversations, rape by a partner/family member/acquaintance becomes even more difficult to make sense of, to talk about, to challenge.
Khensani’s death raises the question what kind of life is possible for womxn who have been raped? Do we expect them to live without dignity? Without justice? Without being believed? Without being supported?
#RIPKhensani. We have failed you. How many others will we fail?
To do better we need to pay attention to the multi-faceted trauma that rape produces. It is not only the rape itself that wounds us, it is also living in a society that fails to recognise and respond adequately to these wounds. We need to show womxn like Khensani that they do not deserve to be raped, that they are not responsible for being raped and that the men who rape them will be called to justice, not only before the law, but before society – THESE MEN WILL BE CALLED OUT AND SPURNED, THEY WILL NO LONGER BE EXCUSED AND SHIELDED.
Healing is possible. But it requires care, love and support. It also requires anger. We need to be angry about what is happening. We need to be angry about what happened to Khensani and every other person who is raped. Only once we recognise that the current state of things is unacceptable, that it makes rape possible, while making healing from rape difficult, can we do better.
If you’d like to speak to a counsellor at any time here are some resources:
Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust: 021 447 9762
Childline South Africa: 0800 55 555
GRIP: 083 310 1321
LifeLine South Africa: 0800 150 150
Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce: 0800 60 60 60
TEARS SMS Helpline: *134*7355#
Triangle Project: 021 712 6699
TVEP: 015 964 2310 or 015 963 6791
* Rebecca Helman is a PhD candidate at the University of South Africa (UNISA). She is also a Researcher at UNISA’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences and the South African Medical Research Council-UNISA’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit. Rebecca writes in her personal capacity.