The biggest lesson I have learned this semester is that there is probably nowhere in the world that is safe for a Black woman.
I know that no one place is safe for everyone, but I was not prepared for the fact that being a woman in South Africa would make me feel just as unsafe as being a Black person in the United States.
I am a young Black American woman in South Africa studying this country’s social and political transformation. As my program start date approached, I prepared to have my notions of race relations challenged, reshaped, and informed by South African formations of race. The past six weeks I have spent in Durban has left with me with more first hand experiences of gender inequality than racism of any sort.
The most recent example happened last weekend when three White female classmates and I went to the beach with two African girls from my homestay family. While trying to play in the ocean waves each of us were relentlessly harassed, taunted, and groped by several men. One man tightly grabbed me in a hold from behind, locking my arms down and pressing me against him.
He refused to let go despite me using all of the strength in my body to get out of his grip. My physical and verbal pleas to get away did not affect him. He only released me after two of my friends hit him and pried his arms away. After a wave knocked down my thirteen-year-old homestay sister, a different man fondled her breasts while trying to “help” her. The next two hours of trying to enjoy the water were periodically interrupted by harassment like this and decisions to relocate to areas less polluted by men.
Having grown up in a big city, I am used to street harassment. However I have never experienced such unrelenting physical assault that was so clearly verbally and physically explained as unwelcome. The men who harassed us were excited by how uncomfortable we were. Men were saying “crocodile” in isiZulu and clapping their hands in the water as they came towards us. It was a game to them. The majority of their responses to us included laughter. They blatantly ignored our angered attempts to get away from them.
The design of the beach swimming area fuels this harassment. There are only two designated sections along the beachfront where people are allowed to swim. Surely lifeguards cannot guard the entire coastline, but having so many people squeezed into the swimming area made us feel like we either had to endure the harassment or get out of the water. To make matters worse, there were no female lifeguards. As I left the swimming area, I was catcalled by one of the lifeguards overseeing that section. It is highly unlikely that those lifeguards would monitor the beach for harassment when they are also perpetrators.
I was drawn to study abroad in South Africa because of its uniquely progressive transformation from apartheid. I am excited to study how this country has addressed its racist and sexist history. The South African constitution sets a high standard for a nonracial and anti-sexist country, but its society has not been able to meet it in the past twenty-one years of democracy.
Though the sexual harassment I experienced is illegal, it is also commonplace. According to women24.com, South Africa’s legal definition of harassment reads as “any unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or who reasonably knows that such attention is unwelcome.”
This harassment is only a small amount of the staggering rates of sexual violence in this country. One hundred and eighteen rapes are reported each day in South Africa. The Sunday Times deduced that, out of sexual offences that are reported to the police, nearly eighty percent are rape. Some researchers estimate that only a tenth of rapes are reported.
The eradication of “victim blaming” is necessary for addressing this sexist violence against women. When we told our trip directors about our experience at the beach, their response was that we have to do more to show men that we do not their attention. You have to be forceful. You have to curse at them. You have to tell them to go away. Our leaders reinforced to us how to communicate that you do not want something, as if we have not known how to do that since we were three years old.
People are conditioned to tune out victims’ account of an experience because of that nagging thought: “if she or he had done this right, or better, or differently they could have avoided what happened.” Although our story clearly laid out our varied efforts to stop the harassment from these men and get away from them, the response was that if only we had done more, we would have avoided the problem. Most women have already heard and mastered techniques like this in order to navigate patriarchy and harassment.
One of the local women who we came to the beach with us said, “That’s Africa. You get used to it.” We were stalked like prey while our harassment was made light of. Getting used to that means constantly living with a fear for my safety. It means knowing that my world here will cater to men’s desires and needs before mine. It means that women’s stories are interrogated instead of listened to.
At home, I am used to having my Blackness largely direct my life and cause the most challenges for me. Now that I am in a Black majority country, my gender is what leaves me out of the equal treatment I should receive.
In the struggle to combat the apartheid structure, many women and gender rights advocates shelved the dismantling of patriarchy in order to focus on racism first. If South Africans want their country to reflect the values of their constitution, it is time that South Africans rally behind gender equality just as fiercely as they do for a nonracial society.