Remembering #Lelona and uncovering the “Women’s month” facade with the cold hard truth

Remembering #Lelona and uncovering the “Women’s month” facade with the cold hard truth

by Gcobani*

To many people she is no more than a forgotten Twitter hashtag topic (#Lelona), but to a few she was a daughter, colleague and friend. To others she’s a careless girl who dared hitchike on South Africa’s dangerous and deadly roads, and yet to a few she’s testimony to the struggles of black students from middle-lower income families at traditionally white universities.

Lelona Thembakazi Fufu[1] was a 23 year old black female science graduate at Rhodes University, South Africa. She was brutally murdered on her way to her graduation in April 2012. Lelona completed a Bachelor of Science in 2010 at Rhodes, and in 2011 finished her Joint Honours degree in mathematics and mathematical statistics with 72%. Sadly however, she never made it to her second graduation alive.

Today (the 9th of August, 2012) South Africa celebrates and commemorates Women’s Day: a historic day in South Africa’s history when 54 years ago in 1956 South African women marched against the ‘pass’ legislation which required Africans to possess special identification at all times (which had the consequence of restricting the freedom of movement of Africans during apartheid)[2]. The march was more than an act of political defiance. It was an act of courage for the women realized without the freedom of movement, very few other rights can be realized. This is why today I choose to remember Lelona, because I imagine the women of 1956 would have been so proud of her but deeply disappointed at the current status of women in South African society and how her life was ended. In this piece I want to focus on three main lessons from Lelona’s passing that paint an urgent call for action from the South African government.

Firstly South Africa is undeniably a patriarchal society at war with its women. The World Health Organization Multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women for instance reported in 2011 that 40% of South African women between the ages of 15-49 reported their first sexual experience as forced[3]. The UN Women ‘Say NO: End Violence Against Women‘ campaign notes that a woman is killed every six hours in South Africa by an intimate partner[4]. Moreover the country is filled with countless other reports of the (corrective) rapes and murders of lesbian women, especially in the townships, and other violent assaults against women.

Looking at the United Nations definition of violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’ it becomes clear that millions of South African women still exercise very little autonomy over their destiny and that violent patriachachy still prevents many from drinking from the cup of freedom the women of 1956 tried fashion for all of us.

Secondly, millions of South African women are yet to enjoy economic emancipation. The South African Minister for Women, Children, and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana recently noted that “We are painfully aware that the [women’s] financial dependency on husbands, fathers, partners, and family members has increased women’s vulnerability to domestic violence, rape, incest, abuse, and murder”[5]. Moreover there are still wide income disparities between women and men, and then between white women and black women. South African trade unions estimates say that a black woman in South Africa earns on average R1 200 a month, whereas a white woman earns R9 600 (and white men earn on average R19 000 a month)[6].

Thirdly, and lastly there is a lack of empathy amongst South Africans who ‘have’ and those that don’t. When Lelona’s passing hit the mainstream news, it was met with questions from the middle-upper class on why she would hitchhike when it’s so ‘dangerous’? Why not take a bus? Why not wait for the parents? Oblivious to the fact that for many South Africans from low income families, this is the only way one can get from point one place to another.

This shows a lack of understanding for what black students, especially at former white universities have to endure to get to campus. Education indeed can be a great leveler of difference, but it’s also important that we understand not all students at white universities come from affluent families or have had the same opportunities.

Writing for the Business Day Thami Mazwai notes the growing trend of South African students from upper middle class families to adopt an attitude of apathy towards the poverty endured by many South Africans. Mazwai tells us of “Rhodes University students downing shots of Johnnie Walker Blue as if they are drinking water, and doing it in rounds. The students even throw R200 notes at each other in mock paper battles. The relevance of this is that Grahamstown is […] poor”[7].

In ‘All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes‘ Maya Angelou reminds us that “Tragedy, no matter how sad, becomes boring to those not caught in its addictive caress”[8]. This to me explains why as a nation South Africa has not reached a point where we say one murder of a woman is one too many. The tragedy of Lelona’s death, and many others, has become boring to those entrusted to protect them. We have gotten accustomed to the numbers; we’ve forgetten the numbers that they represent.

In a patriarchal world, where often only the masculine narrative is celebrated, commemorations like ‘womens Day’ / ‘women’s month’ are important but this must not be at the expense of truth. The post-apartheid dispensation in South Africa is infamous for using these events to seduce the masses in nostalgia about past battles and victories, consequently ignoring current ills.

So today, tomorrow, I will continue to remember Lelona and the future she was unnecessarily robbed of! Remembering how little there is to celebrate, and how much more there still remains to achieve, I will continue moving and hitchike, and they will continue to ask why.

*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum (BLF) contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles  here.


[2] Read the history of ‘Women’s Day’ here

[3] World Health Organization. 2011. Violence against women: Intimate partner and sexual violence against women Fact sheet N°239

[8] Angelou, Maya. 1986. All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. Virago Press: London

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

4 Responses to Remembering #Lelona and uncovering the “Women’s month” facade with the cold hard truth

  1. GQ- thanks for this timely piece. As I was reading the article, I was reminded of an earlier piece on empathy by Seth Godin where he stated that by bringing our own beliefs, expectation, views etc to a situation, we are loosing the ability to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’- which is why people can say,as you stated, why someone would hitchhike!. I remember talking about economic freedom, and the importance of achieving it, and as I read, hear, and see many heartbreaking stories of people, women specifically, I agree with everything that she said.
    Again, thanks for this piece!

  2. Thanks Gcobani for the article. I could say much more about how bittersweet ‘Women’s Month’ really is. I think it is also important to frame women’s subordination within a wider global debate and disillusionment regarding the difference between a world that is becoming for interdependent as the liberal institutionalists would convince us, versus a global political economy that is based on conditions of dependency between the global north and south. Quiet clearly as you note, even in countries in the global ‘south’ like South Africa have both ‘first world spaces’ and ‘third world spaces’ if you look at the life of many rich students at Rhodes who sit side by side with people like Lelona. I think it was much easier to exists in a time when the rich was ‘those people in the north’ and ‘us poor in the south’, but today even within the ‘women’s movement’ as someone like Nomalanga Mkhize has argued it appears that feminism is a middle class project exercised by educated women and men based on media visibility and NGO access.

    She argues that the feminist movement in South Africa today has little relevance on mostly black poor women. She argued that it exists with a state project that seeks to convince us that it is ‘doing’ women’s issues either by ‘giving’ the women ‘their’ ministry or orchestrating elaborate events on women’s behalf which ultimately functions to silence many poor women to the real subordination of most women be it lower or working class. We find ourselves in a space where because the state convinces us that it is doing ‘sooo much for us’, we are trapped in ‘gratitude mode’ where the space to contest remaining and day to day inequalities is limited in our public space. Thanks for the reminder.

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