It started like any ordinary day, I never would have guessed it would end with me questioning all I have come to know about what it means to be a man in this world.
It started with a video that showed the Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University, Dr. Sizwe Mabizela, shoving a protesting female student. He apologised shortly afterwards and when later that day he was challenged on this by a caller into a radio interview added, “. . .we are all human and in the heat of the moment with frustration, things do happen”. Later in the day Cell C CEO Jose Dos Santos referred to women in general and those working at Cell C in particular, as having “a bitch switch”. On Cell C hiring Miss South Africa finalists as interns Dos Santos went on to say “You know what that does to a company? The men dress better, they shave every morning”. The in-studio panel were unfazed and joined him in laughing at these blatantly sexist comments, I can only assume, in agreement. It is notable that one of the panelists, when asked for a comment afterwards said, “The mindset of the person at the top does have a dramatic effect”. Later in the day, women at Rhodes University had a naked protest to show their frustration at the tepid response of the administration to their demands for urgent action against rape culture on the campus. On twitter this was met with much ridicule and disgust from men of all ages, it was at that point that I stopped and asked myself, what the hell is going on?
These seemingly isolated incidents are part of a broader pattern of abuse by men of women that plays out across the planet daily but I will focus on South Africa because this is where I live. From crude jokes, to insults, to physical violence, this is happening all the time and we all know it. On that particular day it really hit home for me that there is a problem with all men in this country, regardless of age, race, social standing or education, we all share the problem of abuse. Regardless of wether we are perpetrators or silent witnesses to this violence, we as men are all responsible. We don’t get to say “not all men” because it is all men who are ultimately responsible for creating the society in which it is not unusual to hear the term rape culture, where just about everybody knows somebody who has been sexually assaulted or raped and this is no exaggeration.
As men we are responsible for the normalisation of violence in our societies because more often than not, it is men who are the perpetrators and defenders. It is men who, out of a misplaced sense of loyalty lead the defence of alleged perpetrators on social media simply because a guy must always be given a chance. It is men who push the perception that women can’t be trusted and will do anything to bring a guy down. It is men who, after it is beyond doubt a woman has been assaulted, will seek to identify what role she played in her own assault. It is men who dictate to women the consequences of overstepping moral boundaries that only seem to apply to women as crafted by the same men. It is men who claim ownership over women’s bodies then through this false claim feel entitled to treat women as they deem fit whilst simultaneously feigning ignorance when women reject this sense of ownership. It is men who are silent whilst this happens all around them only reacting when challenged by women or a woman close to them is a victim of this culture they have inadvertently fostered with their silence. Here’s the thing, you can’t say or do abusive things then when the people you have affected call you an abuser you say they are wrong. This is wrong and needs to change.
This change cannot come from women because, no matter how many naked protests they have or men they name, it is the responsibility of men to stop giving each other a pass and reeducate each other on, first, mutual respect. One of the first lessons we learn from birth is respect, it is not a gendered lesson, it is respect for all but somewhere along the line we start to be selective about who we afford respect. Much of this selectivity comes from mimicking the older people around us. We internalise this selectivity and soon, we too are influencing others to do the same. I have written before about how saying boys will be boys only serves to entrench a sense of entitlement in men from an early age. It is therefore a lie when any man claims not to know what women are on about when they demand that men respect them in general and their bodies in particular. It is a lie when men rise in defence of a rape accused who they don’t know and try to play Devil’s advocate because, well, “you know how these women are”. It is really because we know how men are and we just don’t want to deal, we have evolved into masters of rationalisation, we routinely justify the most heinous of acts and do anything so we never have to deal with our collective conscience.
I don’t know what it will take to get men to change or when, but I highly doubt it will be after some great leader somewhere says something. I am far from perfect but I do know the difference between right and wrong. Whilst I may not have always practiced it, I also know to respect other human beings as do we all. What I saw this week and every other day is not right and it is high time men started having this conversation amongst ourselves. If each of us were to start talking with the man next to us that would be a start.