Motshekga and language that authorises rape culture

The minister of basic education’s recent statements about rape, civilisation and sophistication need to be considered in ways that take the makings of culture and function of language seriously.

“Rape is a language.”

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s words are often misread. The feminist scholar’s analysis is taken as a metaphor, but is not intended as such, containing meaning that is far deeper. Her words instead give us insight into the violent culture that we are constantly creating as we extend, expand on and analyse history to inform and form our present. “If rape is a language,” she asks, “what does language do?”

It is through this question and lens that we must see and consider Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga’s recent statements at Prospectus High School in Tshwane, telling learners (who audibly disagreed) that “an educated man won’t rape”. In response to public criticism, the department’s official response claims that her words were taken out of context and that she was not going to debate the learners gathered.

Still, “what does language do?”

The impact of Motshekga’s words and their participation in and extension of rape culture must be considered, as we think through their meaning and logic and consider what makes these statements possible and pervasive. While they seem a world away from our violent reality and what we know to be true about rape and its perpetrators, they are simultaneously made by and deeply rooted in this reality, too, creating the profound paradox of rape culture. 

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Motshekga’s words are part of rape culture’s daily lexicon. They extend a historically rooted language that creates the kind of society we live in today; not as a history past, or existing in exactly the same way today, but as a formulation and logic that remains with us – shifting, deepening and drawing a red line that runs crimson across time.

What does it mean to say rape is a culture? 

Thinking this through requires us to consider Motshekga’s words as more than complicity in systemic violence, but as implicated in and part of the environment of this culture that is profoundly pervasive and yet made invisible, Gqola says in Rape: A South African Nightmare. 

Culture is at once rooted, elastic and malleable. It is made and remade every day in multiple ways that are not distinct from each other but fundamentally connected and historically traceable. 

To understand the idea of rape as a culture, and the way this plays out daily in ways that normalise and legitimate it, it is useful to borrow words from writer Zadie Smith: “It is in the air, or so it seems.” 

The normalised spectacular

Thinking about rape as a language is to say that the way rape functioned within slavery, and continues to do so today in connected ways, created and continues to create the world on its terms. Specifically, Gqola’s work thinks about how the legacy of sexual violence in South Africa – rooted in slavery – centrally and foundationally forms the capitalist society we live in today, fashioning our ideas of race and gender, language, commerce, institutions and laws, as well as who is “rapeable” and the kinds of “men who rape”. It creates the categories of society that allow words like Motshekga’s to emerge and be uttered.

Operating through this logic, these kinds of statements are both authorised by rape culture and authorise it further, propelling it into the immediate future. Her words function, then, as part of a range of moments and acts through which rape culture’s existence is licensed and given life and vitality daily. 

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Gqola uses the word “spectacular” in relation to sexual violence in South Africa. Its sheer scale and range curiously creates a cultural reality where this deeply damaging and traumatising violence becomes commonplace, as modes of resistance are made impossible, inaudible and invisible though rape culture being legitimised repeatedly in many ways.

Motshekga’s words occur in a matrix in which many educated men in positions of power have been accused of rape. A matrix in which the president declares gender-based violence an epidemic, yet former minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana is wished happy birthday by the ANC’s official Twitter account; his violence seemingly forgotten and thus sanctioned. And a matrix wherein our former president had a highly publicised rape trial, in which the discourse of rape culture was hyper-present. That same former president now has the astonishing audacity to refuse to be held to account by the Constitutional Court as this refusal was legitimated repeatedly throughout his political career.

It is a matrix in which sexual violence makes headlines, and doesn’t. Violence is continually legitimised as a “culture of the everyday spectacular”. It is affirmed, sanctioned, endorsed and approved of in our society. This is how even when filmed and viewed, or reported multiple times, such violence is seen and not seen. This has a multiplying and cyclical effect: it is everywhere, all the time, because it is made to seem okay, and because it is made to seem okay, it is everywhere all the time. “It is in the air, or so it seems.”

The paucity of accountability 

Vitally, for something to be authorised, there has to be little accountability and limited repercussions. It has to be legitimated through a permitted and accepted logic. Within rape culture, the legal, social and other stakes and consequences of the language of violence and its other acts are profoundly low, while statistics climb higher and yet dismally fail to capture the full extent of our reality.

Words like Motshekga’s are normalised as rape culture legitimates the place and “utterability” of these statements and acts of violence in our society. They are said, heard and enacted daily with little consequence, yet are profoundly powerful precisely because they can be. The fact that Motshekga is part of our government – in a position that confers her further and immense power – amplifies her words, and their dangerous effects and reach.

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Beyond thinking about the intent of these words, and their malice or singularity, we need to consider how this kind of routinely “careless” comment emerges and the world it exists within, paying close attention to how care and thought are allowed to fall away (and also not made necessary). 

In a culture where accountability has such paucity and consequence is extremely rare, harm is made inconceivable yet is profound, wide-ranging and affecting on a scale that is beyond comprehension. Through a mandated, condoned and legitimised carelessness, those in power can be simultaneously aware of the reckless danger of their words, yet still say them. 

And in a culture where even the spectacular, highly visible physical acts of violence that are enacted daily are not brought to justice and account – and survivors are so rarely believed – we routinely fail to recognise language’s influence and participation in our daily making of the world. We fail to recognise how speech, too, is an action.

The makings of mythology

Additionally, Gqola’s link to the capitalist makings of the world through slavery’s language and material demands are important to consider when thinking about Motshekga’s words, which contain a deeply rooted classism that creates the idea of rapists, in ways that slavery did. It does so by connecting labour, a lack of education and material accumulation to conjure the idea of who is a rapist, building on slavery’s link between labour and sexual violence, and its development into racial capitalism. In this way, some (on the basis of race, gender and class) were excluded from the potential to rape or enact its accompanying harms, which is a false and instrumentalist logic. 

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In Motshekga’s case – which extends beyond her and before her – rape culture has created a logic in which it is thought that education, linked to the idea of attaining power by means of knowledge and material accumulation, absolves potential perpetrators of the capacity for and potential towards violence; “those who know better do better”. The only men who – by extension of this logic – are then capable of violence are the uneducated, impoverished and working classes. We know this not to be true, as numerous accounts of wealthy, powerful, educated men who assault and rape abound. There are rapists, many of whom have never been called to account, who carry the title of professor.

Motshekga’s statements are layered within this logic, with words like “civilised” and “sophisticated” bearing its mark, as she said: “My theory is that the more educated you are, the more sophisticated you are, the less you get involved in wrong things because you can look after yourself, you can look after your family, you can look after your environment”.

Motshekga’s words exist with rape culture’s logic, enabling and vitalising its mode and tenets. They cannot be removed nor separated from the violence we live with today. These words are speech acts that participate in and inform, speak to and perpetuate rape culture. Thinking about their life force and effect asks us to look at how we make culture daily and with every act. It asks us to consider how we build society, and form the architecture and environment that we exist and live within. And importantly, to also pay attention to how even acts as seemingly simple as speech, when taken apart, are revealed to be complex and inform everything that we do, everything that we are, everything that we believe and everything that we authorise.

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