This week South Africa embodied one of those object lessons in the difference between theory and praxis. The country boasts some pretty enlightened laws and policies vis-à-vis gender equality and relations -- from same-sex marriage laws and legalized abortion to full constitutional protections against gender-based discrimination and domestic violence. Yet on the ground, it's a different story. Rape is a devastatingly common occurrence -- a woman is raped in South Africa every 17 seconds, according to some estimates, and 50,000 rapes are reported every year. It has been characterized as a "silent war" against women. (Such numbers do not include rapes against children.)
And yet, this week, the country was treated to a celebrity tour from none other than convicted rapist Mike Tyson. And who was scheduled to appear with the notorious ear-chewer at a charity event to benefit children? African National Congress president Jacob Zuma, the conservative leader who explained during his own rape trial last year (in which he was found not guilty) that the woman had been wearing a skirt, which he took as a sexual invitation. Since then, the guy has made even more feminist friends by taking a second wife.
Yesterday news broke that women's groups stirred up such a ruckus that Zuma canceled his appearance, citing "urgent ANC business." (The One in Nine campaign was quoted as calling "the pairing of Zuma and Tyson ... particularly distasteful and abhorrent.") And after angry listeners flooded the switchboard of a South African radio station, the producers decided to scrap an interview with Tyson.
If this sounds like a little too much brouhaha over a minor media circus over an aging boxer, it's important to remember that context is everything. Despite all the gains in the high halls of government, some of those very same governors seem still fuzzy on rape's essentially violent rather than sexual nature and women's status as, well, human beings. South Africa's the Times reported that ANC Member of Parliament George Lekgetho elaborated on his proposal to legalize prostitution during the 2010 World Cup: "It is one of the things that would make it a success, because we hear of many rapes," he reportedly said, "because people don't have access to them."
People? Them? Is there any sort of constitutional amendment to save us from "people" like this?