“What is it about our society that excuses these monsters? Why are we not holding people accountable on all levels?” Redi Tlhabi asked at the recent Cape Town launch of her latest book, Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. She was referring to the horrifying prevalence of sexual violence in South Africa and our inability to prevent it as well as to offer justice to its victims. In Khwezi, Tlhabi demonstrates how the legal system and we, as society, have failed the victims of sexual violence in general, and one person in particular: Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, for over a decade known to most of us only as Khwezi – the woman who decided to fight for her right to safety and dignity and accused Jacob Zuma of rape when he ignored both by having sex with her without her consent on 2 November 2005. Zuma was acquitted of the rape charge in May 2006. Kuzwayo, vilified and violated by his supporters, had to flee the country.
“We managed to carry on,” Tlhabi reminded us at the launch. “This should have been a turning point for South Africa, but it wasn’t.” Perhaps the publication of this brave and incisive book is giving us another chance a decade later. It is compulsory reading for anyone wanting to understand where we are as a country, as a people.
After years in exile, Kuzwayo returned to South Africa and agreed to work with Tlhabi to reclaim her name and life, but while we all now can read her story and know her by her real name, her life was tragically cut short when she died of AIDS-related causes a year ago.
“Here I am, attending a funeral instead of a triumphant book launch”, Tlhabi writes, continuing: “She was adamant – she would attend the launch and I was to introduce her by her real name.” But on 15 October 2016, Tlhabi, along other women, carried Kuzwayo’s casket at her funeral: “I was convinced that the book had died with her, that I could claim no moral authority for writing her story now that she was no longer here to vouch for it, but being in Durban that day gave me courage to carry on… This is her story.”
In an interview, Kuzwayo tells Tlhabi: “It was important for me to say to him, you cannot come onto my body and just do what you want to do. And soil me like that.” She adds: “I never saw myself as Zuma’s accuser, Zuma’s victim, or Zuma’s anything. I do not want any attachment to that man.”
In the book, Tlhabi gives us an insight into Kuzwayo’s restless and intricate life. Growing up in exile, the daughter of Mandla Judson Kuzwayo, a Umkhonto we Sizwe hero who died in a car accident when she was a child, and Beauty Kuzwayo, an actress who struggled to take care of her family after her husband’s death, the young Fezekile had to face displacement, loss and insecurity and survived three rapes before she turned fourteen. Repeatedly traumatised, she suffered from depression and anxiety. But her hunger for life and her irrevocable trust in the goodwill of people shine through. A trust that often exasperated those who loved her, also the author of her memoir. Tlhabi portrays Kuzwayo in all her beauty and troubled complexity and does not gloss over the tangled aspects of her personality.
Kuzwayo emerges from the pages a woman who had been asked to negotiate unbearable pain and yet retained her integrity throughout, even when an entire mob of manipulators, crooks, and seemingly well-meaning people was set to prove otherwise. Tlhabi recalls several episodes from the Zuma’s rape trial which are shocking, but we allowed them to happen on our watch. The most sickening is Adv Kemp trying to imply that Kuzwayo as a child gave consent to have sex with adult men. Judge van der Merwe did not stop this line of questioning, nor did he protest the invasive, unforgiveable questioning about her sexuality. They showed no understanding of trauma, nor the cultural traditions Kuzwayo grew up with.
“There are times when the legal, ethical and moral truths come together,” Tlhabi said this week at the Book Lounge, “but this was not one of those times.” However, she states unequivocally: “I believe her.”
Khwezi is Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. Khwezi is many women. Tlhabi relates Zuma’s inappropriate behaviour towards her and tells the story of one of her colleagues who had a similar experience. The memoir is “about every woman in South Africa,” she said. Khwezi is also I. Anyone affected by sexual predation knows how convoluted the issues of complicity, consent and shame we deal with are. “Not all men, but all women,” my psychologist told me at the time when I struggled to articulate my feelings when I was violated a year ago. “Not all men are monsters,” she said, “but all women experience forms of violation in their lives.” Terrifying but true. Patriarchy, entitlement, violence, denialism – past and present – have to be challenged and exposed. Breaking the silence is extremely difficult: “I could not imagine any woman coming forward to accuse a powerful man of rape after how Khwezi had been treated”, Tlhabi writes. But Kuzwayo and Tlhabi encourage victims and survivors of sexual violence and predatory behaviour to speak out and to fight for our integrity, safety and dignity. Tlhabi once told Kuzwayo: “even when justice is denied, withheld, perpetrators must know that we know who they are and how they operate. At least some of these horrible experiences must be written about. If not to document personal pain and loss, perhaps provide teachable moments for future generations?” More than ever we need “to have a meaningful and transformative conversation about sexual violence and the language of power.” As Tlhabi states: “If we are to declare ‘Remember Khwezi’, then we must do so boldly, courageously, honestly.” As she does in her ground-breaking book.
Khwezi: The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo
by Redi Tlhabi
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017
First published in the Cape Times on 6 October 2017.