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'I know what it is to be grabbed, strangled, dragged, penetrated'

Published Dec 9, 2016


"Noluvo’s murder forced me to reflect on what it means to be a human being in South Africa, what it means to inhabit this precarious, fractured space"

I am a middle-class, white, cisgender woman perceived to be heterosexual. I am not sexualised and deviant in the same way as Noluvo Swelindawo is. My body has not been transformed by hundreds of years of exploitation into something “un-human”, like hers has.

But I am not as protected as I always thought. On October 30, 2015, I was raped.

I do not profess to know what Noluvo experienced as a queer black woman, but I know what it is to be grabbed, strangled, dragged, penetrated.

Noluvo’s murder forced me to reflect on what it means to be a human being in South Africa, what it means to inhabit this precarious, fractured space.

The valuing of my life, over the lives of other women, was made clear when I attended a government clinic following my rape. I was repeatedly asked who I was accompanying for treatment – because surely this well-dressed white girl could not be the one who was raped? That I cannot comfortably be seen as a “rape survivor”, and that so many people have wanted not to believe what happened to me when they so easily believe and overlook when the same happens to other women, is deeply revealing of how dehumanisation has become a key social coping mechanism.

If I had been murdered, those of you who feel this couldn’t happen to people like us, would have cried and probably brought flowers. You might have raged and screamed. You might even have marched to ensure that this didn’t happen to another young woman. You would have recognised my humanity and that it was unacceptable for this to be taken from me.

You will not, I fear, do the same for Noluvo.

I do not know how to go beyond this place of violence, but I want to start by recognising the humanity of Noluvo, to recognise that her murder is a loss for all of us, and her story is the story of so many others.

If those of us who can afford to (or at least think we can) stay protected, sheltered and “safe” refuse to recognise those who are refused this privilege, we will continue to be complicit in the reproduction of various forms of violence.

If we continue to separate what happens to people who are different from us, from our lives and humanities, we not only dehumanise those that we refuse to recognise, but we also dehumanise ourselves.

I have learnt the hard way I am not safe from violence, despite the electric fence around my house. I am not saved by telling myself that violence is something that happens elsewhere, that happens to poor people, black people, other people.

So what can we do to reconnect with our own humanness and the humanness of others?

We rally outside the court in Khayelitsha to demand justice for Noluvo, just as we would if she was our sister, daughter, granddaughter, friend. We talk to our children about why we should not tease, label and hurt people different from us.

We recognise that our humanity is only realised in recognising the humanity of others.

#HerNameWasVovo and she was a human being.

* Helman will begin her PhD, which explores “post-rape subjectivities”, at Unisa in 2017. She is a researcher at Unisa’s Institute for Social and Health Sciences & SAMRC-Unisa’s Violence, Injury and Peace Research Unit

Cape Times

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