Kh­wezi’s tragedy is our dis­grace

Redi Tl­habi’s book is an en­gross­ing in­sight into how South African so­ci­ety con­spired to throw the pres­i­dent’s accuser to the wolves

Mail & Guardian - - Books - Kwanele Sosibo

‘Ihad to fight back. I had never fought for my­self. If I don’t fight back, this would keep hap­pen­ing to me. Even when it was clear that I would lose the case, I never once re­gret­ted fight­ing for my­self.” This quote ap­pears in the epi­logue of Kh­wezi: The Re­mark­able Story of Fezek­ile Nt­sukela Kuzwayo. As Kuzwayo’s cof­fin de­scends into the ground, a re­flec­tive Redi Tl­habi re­calls Kuzwayo’s an­swer to the ques­tion of “where she found the courage to lay a charge against such a pow­er­ful per­son”. This refers to her 2006 rape case against then deputy pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma.

It is a quote that is solid, suc­cinct and some­what in­deli­ble — a bite-sized ex­am­ple of how we hear Kuzwayo’s voice in the book.

Dur­ing the writ­ing of the book Kuzwayo died, mak­ing it, as Tl­habi ex­plained in an in­ter­view with Talk Ra­dio 702 host Euse­bius McKaiser, “a very dif­fer­ent book from what she and I had planned”.

Per­haps as a func­tion of the prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties her death pre­sented to the com­ple­tion of the book, Kuzwayo comes across to us as a se­ries of trun­cated thoughts, thoughts me­di­ated by Tl­habi. This is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing for, as its bi­o­graph­i­cal scope was cur­tailed by death, Kh­wezi the book be­comes about other im­por­tant facets of South African public life.

Writ­ing from the per­spec­tive of “a fem­i­nist who be­lieved her”, Tl­habi uses Kuzwayo’s story to look at our col­lec­tive com­plic­ity.

We are com­plicit be­cause we for­got about Kuzwayo un­til we were re­minded, 10 years later, of the mean­ing of her life by the #Re­mem­berKh­wezi silent protesters at the elec­tion re­sults cen­tre in 2016.

We are com­plicit for not be­liev­ing her and, in­stead, for per­pet­u­at­ing a sys­tem that in ef­fect put her on trial for dar­ing to chal­lenge a man so many had backed as the fu­ture pres­i­dent of our coun­try.

Tl­habi quotes Bar­ney Mthom­bothi mid­way through the book: “We just don’t care be­cause if we did, Zuma wouldn’t be our pres­i­dent.”

We are also com­plicit for not fore­ground­ing is­sues of sex­ual abuse in the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle and for cur­tail­ing the av­enues avail­able to make these sto­ries as public as those in­volv­ing clear-cut po­lit­i­cal tor­ture and as­sas­si­na­tion.

Kh­wezi, though it al­lows us hitherto un­avail­able ac­cess into Kuzwayo’s life, is es­sen­tially a story about how the pa­tri­ar­chal na­ture of the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle con­tin­ues to be imag­ined. Per­haps more im­por­tantly, it is about the mean­ing of the trial in which she was vil­i­fied, a vil­i­fi­ca­tion ren­dered jus­ti­fi­able by Judge Willem van der Merwe’s ver­dict that found Zuma not guilty of rape.

Tl­habi takes us be­yond the court­room, ask­ing us early on in the book to con­sider just how close Jud­son Kuzwayo (Fezek­ile’s fa­ther) was to Zuma. They were in­car­cer­ated to­gether on Robben Is­land for 10 years for their roles as lead­ers of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).

Dur­ing the rape trial, Zuma went to some lengths to down­play the fa­ther-child re­la­tion­ship be­tween him­self and Kuzwayo, a cru­cial move in fur­ther­ing the nar­ra­tive of an ex­ist­ing sex­ual re­la­tion­ship with her.

As a man and a fa­ther my­self, the book has added lay­ers of mean­ing, forc­ing me to con­sider what the per­va­sive­ness of male power means for our so­ci­ety.

What does it mean, for ex­am­ple, for Jud­son Kuzwayo to be con­sid­ered an acutely dis­ci­plined se­nior MK com­man­der and yet to storm off to “one of his lady friends” when a do­mes­tic quar­rel raised its head? At what point do the stan­dards we held in­flu­en­tial men to in public be­gin to ap­ply to their pri­vate lives? Sadly, in Fezek­ile Kuzwayo’s world it is only death that has me­di­ated to pre­serve some valour in the pri­vate and public lives of the men she looked up to as fa­ther fig­ures.

In a 2016 ex­change with Tl­habi after the un­veil­ing of a tomb­stone for se­nior MK op­er­a­tive Mandla Msibi, Kuzwayo re­counts a con­ver­sa­tion she had with Hlabi, one of Msibi’s chil­dren, dur­ing the rape trial. “Hlabi and I had dis­cussed … that with Malume [Un­cle] Zuma do­ing this, we can never know what [our fathers] might have turned out to be like. We are glad they are dead, if you know what I mean.”

To read Kh­wezi is to un­der­stand how, in­deed, in al­most all facets of our so­ci­ety, women re­main, to para­phrase John Len­non, “the nig­gers of the world”.

In the chap­ters “For­est Town” and “On Trial”, in which Tl­habi presents the op­pos­ing ac­counts of the night of Novem­ber 2 2005, the ac­cused’s and the com­plainant’s ver­sions are so far apart as to be ir­rec­on­cil­able.

But what fol­lows — the mount­ing pres­sure from var­i­ous an­gles, es­pe­cially from women she con­sid­ered mother fig­ures — is what re­moves this case from the le­gal realm and into one that was a cal­cu­lated, ruth­less as­sault on a woman’s life.

Tl­habi does well to com­press these as­pects into a clear pic­ture of how Kuzwayo buck­led un­der this pres­sure, join­ing a po­lice wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gramme that was to be­come her psy­cho­log­i­cal tor­ture and ma­nip­u­la­tion cham­ber.

Ses­sions with her le­gal coun­sel were recorded and then used against her, and pic­tures of her be­ing af­fec­tion­ate with po­lice of­fi­cers were taken — all with the aim of paint­ing her as a loose woman in front of the court. The cloak-and-dag­ger tac­tics did not stop there, ably desta­bil­is­ing the com­plainant and her coun­sel in ways that would ar­guably in­flu­ence the out­come of the trial.

In the flurry of those pre­trial days, Zuma still had ac­cess to Kuzwayo, re­quest­ing a meet­ing with her “to talk about him and I”. She, in turn, asked her mother to be present at the meet­ing.

In the en­su­ing three-way meet­ing be­tween Kuzwayo, her mother Beauty and Zuma, he ap­par­ently said he did not know why the in­ci­dent took place.

“I imag­ine that this was an op­por­tune time for Zuma to give Beauty the same rea­sons that he would later give the court,” Tl­habi writes, “that Fezek­ile ‘had con­sented’, ‘that their re­la­tion­ship was of a sex­ual na­ture’, ‘that she had come to him’ … Why could he not face Fezek­ile’s mother and say these things?”

Tl­habi re­minds read­ers that, in court, Beauty and her daugh­ter would be pre­sented as gold­dig­gers for ac­cept­ing ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing from the man her daugh­ter had ac­cused of rap­ing her. Fur­ther­more, by al­low­ing Fezek­ile to share a bed with older male fig­ures while she was a child — male fig­ures who then vi­o­lated this trust — Beauty was por­trayed as some sort of a will­ing pimp of her daugh­ter.

As a sculp­tor of a work of re­vi­sion­ism, which al­lows us to see the trial as es­sen­tially a trav­esty of jus­tice, Tl­habi is clear cut but at the same time re­luc­tant to get bogged down by legalese.

It is for­mer Con­sti­tu­tional Court Judge Zak Ya­coob who char­ac­terises the trial as a sto­ry­telling con­test, with the judg­ment “based on which side told the bet­ter story”.

Her treat­ment of the pres­i­dent, even though the book is so damn­ing of his con­duct, is mostly fair. The in­vo­ca­tion of his mid­dle name, Ged­ley­ih­lek­isa (one who kills you with a smile), in re­la­tion to how he treated his accuser im­me­di­ately after the sex­ual act, is a cringe­wor­thy mo­ment, one loos­ened of con­text and nu­ance, but it is a rare mis­step. Tl­habi gen­er­ally draws a neat line be­tween her out­rage over the trial and a hu­mane cour­te­ous­ness for Zuma.

Much has been made of how Tl­habi’s dis­tance from Kuzwayo led to an in­com­plete com­pos­ite of her per­son­al­ity and cir­cum­stances. This might be a valid point. Although thor­ough re­search has been done here, there is an un­der­tow of self-cen­sor­ship con­strain­ing Tl­habi’s prose and just how much she can re­veal about Kuzwayo, with whom she had been in­ter­act­ing a few months be­fore she died.

Tl­habi is largely rev­er­ent of her sub­ject’s com­plex­ity, leav­ing read­ers in­fu­ri­ated and, by turns, sad­dened or chuck­ling at Kuzwayo’s flight­i­ness and naivety.

Her dis­tance takes lit­tle away from the premise of the book. And so I walk away from the read able to say: Fezek­ile, I be­lieve you.

To read is to un­der­stand how, in­deed, in al­most all facets of our so­ci­ety, women re­main, to para­phrase John Len­non, “the nig­gers of the world”

Jus­tice de­nied: Redi Tlabi’s book shows how Fezek­ile Kuzwayo was put on trial, even though it was Ja­cob Zuma who was the ac­cused at the trial in Pi­eter­ma­rizburg where she was vil­i­fied. Photo: Alexan­der Joe/AFP

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