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Pumla Dineo Gqola Unpacks “Unrapeable” Constructs and Rape Culture at the Launch of Rape: A South African Nightmare

Pumla Dineo Gqola

RapeProlific academic and social analyst Pumla Dineo Gqola’s latest book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, confronts South Africa’s conscience by examining its response to high profile rape cases, including those of President Jacob Zuma, Bob Hewitt and Baby Tshepang.

Published by Jacana imprint MF Books, Rape translates rigorous academia into an accessible – yet still analytical – text, written to provoke conversations around sexual assault and its prevalence in South Africa.

Melinda Ferguson with Pumla Dineo GqolaIn conversation with publisher Melinda Ferguson at the book launch at Love Books, Gqola said she was reluctant to write the book at first. “I didn’t want to spend months and months thinking about rape, but it is a book I felt compelled to write. People seemed frustrated about the rape crisis and what should be done, and there were all these separate conversations happening on radio, on campus, at POWA. I wondered what would happen if I brought all those conversations together, where instead of talking to our own tribes, we talked across. And so I wanted to contribute beyond my spaces to shift the conversation,” Gqola said.

Ferguson mentioned an incident at the recent Open Book Festival in Cape Town, where Gqola drew some audience ire around the concept of the “unrapeable”. “People couldn’t really get their heads around the unrapeable, which you speak clearly and extensively about in the book, that are those in society that are seen as unrapeable,” Ferguson said. Gqola responded, “I tried to show that what makes up a part of rape culture is the reliance on this paradox that some people are legally and socially constructed as unrapeable, meaning that they’re not impossible to rape in the real sense, but in the law there’s the historic creation that it is not possible to have rape associated with these people, married women for example. Some people at Open Book misunderstood that. It doesn’t mean that a married woman can’t get raped, but that society says you can’t rape her because she’s your wife. Part of creating rape culture or expanding the mythology is this construction of who is unrapeable. That tells us something about that society.”

Gqola defended her decision on not having a specific chapter dedicated to lesbian curative/corrective rape. “It was important I talk about different kinds of rape. I didn’t want to have a specific chapter because the naming comes from the recognition that there are different experiences of rape, but in the movement to mainstream public consciousness, the category ‘curative’ has come in to stand in for something exceptional. This categorisation is doing the opposite work, so instead I tried to put it everywhere instead of in just one chapter. It’s part of what I say in that there is no ‘normal’ rape,” Gqola said.

Pumla Dineo GqolaFerguson asked what effects the Zuma rape trial had on South Africa. For Gqola, it was the end of innocence. “I was much more interested in what happened outside the courtroom. It allowed us to put a magnifying glass on society. We came face to face with thousands of people who were willing to do whatever it took to support a man they believed had not raped,” Gqola said. “What was scary for me was that none of these people knew Zuma personally, that they were willing to bus across the country and believe with absolute certainty in a person they admired, but didn’t know; that there was no way he could do this and then say ‘burn the bitch’. It forced us all to have a very different conversation about rape. It was the constant negotiation about what matters. What is it about famous men that allows us to give ourselves permission to stand with them when we have no way of knowing?” she said.

Gqola is Professor of African Literary and Gender Studies at Wits University. This is her her third book, following What is Slavery to Me? Postcolonial/Slave memory in Post-apartheid South Africa (Wits Press, 2010) and A Renegade Called Simphiwe (MF Books, 2013).

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Saaleha Idrees Bamjee (@saaleha) tweeted from the event using #livebooks:


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