Ten years after President Jacob Zuma was tried for the rape of Fezekile ‘Khwezi’ Ntsukela Kuzwayo and acquitted, a group of angry supporters remember her life. They marched from the Gauteng High Court, to Constitution Hill, where they demanded justice for women. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha
In 2007, barely a year after South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was acquitted on a charge of raping Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (Khwezi), gender activist Mmatshilo Motsei published The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court.

The book was an unsparing account of a society that allowed a prominent man to get away with acts of violence, of a criminal and justice system that was ineffective for the vast majority of those who were sexually abused, raped and tortured, and of a political system that had lost its compass.

Motsei was eminently qualified to write the book, as a survivor herself and one of a groundbreaking group of activists who pioneered the movement to end violence against women.

Those who read her book were feminist activists and scholars who felt that she had given voice to their concerns and released a collective howl from the gut.

Hardcore Zuma loyalists almost certainly did not read the book. Nevertheless, they opened a new battlefront against Motsei, attacking her publicly and privately.

Ten years later, broadcaster Redi Tlhabi has resurrected the story with her new book, Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo.

This time the public has responded very differently. Record-breaking audiences have attended book launches and radio talks revealing a rapt public consumed with the injustice done to Khwezi. The book sold out within weeks and is in reprint.

What has changed, many wonder. It is certainly not the story.

Khwezi’s story was told by feminist academic Pumla Gqola before being taken up by Motsei and numerous academics who analysed the violent social conditions for women and gay people in South Africa.

These accounts zeroed in on the shortcomings of the trial that allowed evidence that should not have been permissible, and favoured a patriarchal interpretation of a young woman who invited rape.

The failure of the ANC and its tripartite allies, the SACP and trade union federation Cosatu, to treat women and LGBTIQ people as equals came into the spotlight. All of these stories have been told, many times.

What’s different this time is that Tlhabi speaks to a different South Africa. The pact of complicity that surrounded Zuma has been broken.

There are still those who are prepared to die for the 100% Zuluboy, as the T-shirts at the rape trial proclaimed, but they are not as powerful as they were.

The tripartite alliance has fractured into innumerable feuding, chair-throwing, accusation-hurling bands of people without an ideological or moral centre. Zuma is now an acceptable target of vitriol.

His endless pyrrhic victories against those seeking to remove him from office have created a vast constituency of critics, not united by ideology, political affiliation or social identity but by a sense that something needs to change.

It’s safe to hate Zuma.

Tlhabi’s book offers a clear-eyed argument about how the small and everyday violations of women make a culture of rape, or in the words of Pumla Gqola, “a war on women’s bodies”, possible.

With her forthright style, and reputation for honest and fair comment built over years of being a talk radio host, Tlhabi challenges South Africans to consider the violence that is normalised and invisible in human interactions.

She invites people to consider the everyday terms they use and uncovers the assumptions behind legal terms. She shows readers how to read the discourses that underpin a rape culture.

In the trial, Zuma’s lawyers painstakingly presented Khwezi as a woman who was untrustworthy, inconsistent, hyper-sexualised and not to be taken seriously.

Tlhabi shows us Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo as she really was: a likeable, funny, garrulous, trusting woman, a loyal if exasperating friend, a loving daughter and someone who was loved by friends and comrades. It was not the ANC but a collective of feminist friends - old and young - who held her through the worst nightmares of the trial and subsequent re-exile.

Tlhabi shows how one rape, one abuse, leads to another and that this violence is part of a never-ending cycle.

At pains to simultaneously honour Fezekile’s story, while reminding readers that she is every woman, Thlabi maps the story against a contextual landscape of statistics and historical patterns of violence against women.

Fezekile died tragically and unexpectedly just a year before the book was published.

Her premature death is a dramatic end to the personal story but Thlabi’s book validates her life and exposes the lies that surrounded the trial. The real lies, of course, are political.

Fezekile was let down over and over again by a movement that she loved and trusted.

Some leaders, such as Communist stalwart and Zuma critic Ronnie Kasrils come out of this sorry story well. Most, however, do not.

Throughout the trial, while Zuma played to the rabble of supporters, the ANC leadership watched in silence, was silent when he sang his archetypal phallic and violent anthem Awuleth’ Umshini wam (Bring me my machine gun) outside the court room, and silent when members of the ANC carried banners saying “Burn the Bitch”.

The vocal leaders were perhaps the most shocking - the ANC Women’s League. The storm troopers of patriarchy, they mobilised actively against Fezekile both in public and in private.

In 2007, the ANC united and mobilised against truth and justice. Cosatu and SACP leaders and activists thought that the rape trial was a distraction from what they saw as the real issue of returning the ANC to the branches, “one fool at a time” Fezekile was quoted as saying to describe the way in which the ANC and its allies fell behind Zuma.

No opposition political party offered meaningful support to Fezekile, perhaps content to allow the dysfunctional ANC and its allies to publicly disintegrate.

Although the daily experience of women is unchanged, there is a change in consciousness in South African society in the wake of the trial.

A new and assertive feminist movement was seeded and grew. It began with the women’s rights organisation, One in Nine, that was formed expressly to support Fezekile, and it has ballooned since then.

The four young women who held up banners during Zuma’s speech at the Independent Electoral Commission in 2015, the black feminists on university campuses who are no longer prepared to tolerate violence in the name of unity, the artists, musicians and writers who are framing their experiences in new ways, are all part of a new moment that makes a new conversation possible.

Observing the hype surrounding the book, I'm interested to know what messages are being absorbed into South Africa’s political DNA.

Will this book provoke the urgently needed attention to violence against women by the government, the police and the courts? Will people listening and reading ask themselves if they have enabled this culture of rape?

It isn’t just Jacob Zuma who stands accused of rape after all.

* Shireen Hassim is professor of politics at Wits University.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent