The Men we Love
Updated: Jan 3
A couple of years ago I wrote a theatre play while I was living in Berlin. It was in this time that I came into the habit of going for a run whenever my mind found itself in knots over the right words or when writer’s block threatened to jeopardize entirely the premiere of my play. Bringing my heart rate up took me into a meditative state. My thoughts untangled, problems in my story were solved easily and dialogues formed as if by magic.
I have kept the habit of jogging in Cape Town. But the effects are not as salutary as in Berlin. Jogging along the streets of my new neighbourhood only serves the purpose of maintaining fitness and perhaps more honestly, aesthetic maintenance: My mind never wanders freely enough to slip into the creative zone.
On this particular day, at 8am in my neighbourhood Observatory, I'm on a glute-strengthening jog along Scott Road. It's early in the morning. A man slows his motorbike down beside me and calls in my direction.
I pull my headphones out of my ears. It's not to hear him speak, but rather to turn on my alertness. I scan the street for other people. I'm relieved when I spot a man pruning the hibiscus in front of his house and another elderly lady drooping from the weight of her Shoprite bags which sway just millimetres over the pavement.
Can I join you? the man calls from behind his helmet. With the knowledge that I am not alone I call back confidently No thanks. I add the international gesture for disinterest by fitting my headphones back into my ears and then I pick up speed. So does he. I slow down. He accelerates and makes a quick turn left into a side street. Sampa the Great’s ‘Energy’ helping me keep my rhythm, I continue jogging. Only a few seconds have passed when the same bike, same man pulls up beside me. My heart leaps into my throat.
Can I jog with you? he asks again.
It's 8.06 am and 330 days since a woman called Uyinene was killed in a neighbourhood not too far from this one. She was murdered in a post office. A reminder that the most mundane tasks can end deadly if you are a woman.
The man whose face and expression is hidden by his helmet is beginning to make me feel more than uneasy. Is he persistent? Or aggressive? My internal debate ‘to be friendly or assertive?’ switches on. ‘If I am assertive, he might become aggressive, even if his intentions are pure, but if I am friendly he may misunderstand and become more persistent…?’
The man and his hibiscus are too far away now to see what is going on. The woman and her shopping bags have disappeared into another side street. But I am a safety conscious jogger. Aware of the need to run in familiar surroundings, I always take the same route. So I know that in the very next street is the Obswatch security station. I decide to raise my voice. I’m friendly, but assertive still: Please, don't follow me, I'm just trying to jog.
It’s now 8.07 am and also two weeks since the killing of Tshegofatso Pule. The body of the 8 month-pregnant woman was found hanging from a tree on the side of a highway.
The man picks up speed again and turns left once more, into the next street. I count myself lucky that my plea has been heard, considered and understood. Many South African women have uttered the same or similar words only to be ignored. Please, leave me alone, I just want to walk home, I just want to get out of the taxi, I just want to buy a stamp, just want to live.
As I continue to just jog through my neighbourhood, I reach the crossing and to my dismay I see him sitting there on his bike waiting for me. Next to him the Obswatch station is empty, the doors are locked; no security guard.
I hear myself shouting words carried by fear Please don't follow me, it's really scary as a woman being followed by a man!. My words are intentional: ‘as a woman being followed by a man’. I want to let him know that this is not about him personally, neither about his appearance nor his demeanour as I don't want to offend him. I protect myself by protecting his feelings.
The truth is that my fear is tainted by rage. Does he not know it's scary for a woman to be followed by a man? Hasn't he watched the news? Where was he when the nation gasped in horror at the news of Uyinene's murder? At Tshegofatso Pule's killing? And an unnamed woman found stuffed into a bag on the side of the highway? '‘Say her name’ is difficult in a country like ours, where there are too many names to remember, names of women who have lost their lives, murdered by jealous boyfriends or drunken husbands or a cold-blooded clerk at the post office.
Not all men! I hear men in my head object and of course, given different circumstances and a less threatening situation I would be willing to entertain the idea that this man on his motorbike may be nothing more than a naive and hopeless romantic, a man who has decided to take a chance, to muster up the courage and call out to a girl he fancies in the hopes that this encounter would become the beginning of a blossoming romance. Perhaps.
I jog on, as fast as I can this time. It's 8.16 am and 3 hours since the discovery of an unidentified female body in a ditch. I think back three days to my last jog, to when a woman one block down from mine had taken a chance on ‘perhaps’. Perhaps these two men outside of my window calling 'fire fire' are mere good Samaritans warning me about a burning tree outside of my home. She opened the door. A knife in her face, a kick and a punch.
I had spoken to her after.....I am fine, she had said to me. Fine - because they had left with just her laptop and not her life. She was fine.
Ignoring the burn in my calves and the thudding in my head I sprint to put as much space between myself and the motorbike man as possible.
I'm out of breath when I reach my house, where I press the button to open the gate and with a quick glance behind me to make sure he has not seen which house is mine, I slip inside. I am fine. But I am also tired.
I had intended to go for a run, return home and capture the energy from the jog to jump into the character descriptions I'm currently drafting for a TV series. Instead, the shock has me wondering about the public debate around GBV that has been so loud in the last months and years.
In my friends' circles and on online platforms I see pained people asking for harsher punishments and the re-instatement of the death penalty for men who ignore womens’ begging calls “I just want to live”. I oppose capital punishment vehemently. I fear the gravity of mistakes made in this department, but more, I distrust a state that has given up on its capability to foster healthy, flourishing individuals and has moved on, instead to killing people as a response to what in at least some degree can be attributed to its own failures. I watch a Youtube video of President Ramaphosa addressing the issues of GBV and femicide plaguing the country. Presidentially, he pledged to tackle GBV, mainly by strengthening the criminal justice system, increasing sentences for perpetrators of sexual offences, and providing better care for victims. While all of these are measures that need to happen far more seriously and consistently than they are implemented at present, I don’t think that they will make me feel safer on my morning runs. They are the reactive measures implemented in an already existing crisis. They are the things to be done when we are standing before yet another horrific demonstration of how much this nation hates women. I wonder, what it is that can be done before another man turns another woman into a statistic, into a hashtag on placards held by tired protestors? There must be other tools than punitive measures to dismantle these violent societies that stifle individual growth and freedom.
I have an ex who left one day and didn't come back. He stays in my life merely, it seems to me, to ruin perfectly good days with just one Whatsapp text. He calls me to ask about my day. I tell him about the incident on my run. He shows his worry by telling me to be careful, not to let men come close to me. When I respond that I should probably find a jogging partner he tells me that I should not jog with another man. When I ask him why, he says because he doesn’t want me to, as though this is a normal request from an ex who disappeared over a year ago. I cannot help but chuckle. Had I really made so many excuses for this man’s inexcusable behaviour for so long just because I loved him? 'He is over worked', 'He is depressed', 'He cannot help himself', 'I don't want to be a source of stress for him so I will accept anything he does'. I was treading on eggshells and there was yolk everywhere. Every time he shunned me for some inexplicable reason he never allowed me to be privy to, I looked for the faults within myself and exonerated him of his emotional abuse. I realise as I am speaking to him on the phone: The problem with our men does not start with violence, it ends with it - The problem begins with the men we love.
We are too often fascinated with the ‘bad guy’. And it is not just us, individually: this fascination is reinforced by the content we consume on our screens, in theatres, and on pages. Still on the phone, it jumps at me that there is a disconnect: While we call for harsher sentences or the death penalty IRL, when it comes to film, theatre and literature, we call these toxic male characters 'complex', 'troubled', 'tragic' and we let them off the hook or we let them die a painful heroic death only to mourn them deeply because, let's face it: We love them. The actors portraying these roles are nominated for best actor awards for so finely crafting this troubled character with oh so much depth. These men grace our stages, smile at us from magazine covers; they dazzle us time and again. We are inundated with stories about these men, they are sexy and strong and kind of aggressive. We are told they are men who just love so hard because they are 'men' who must be 'protective'. They are deeply problematic, but we love them and we see in them the shape of heroes.
In the musical theatre production King Kong the main character is a tragic hero based on the life of famed boxer Ezekiel Dlamini. Dlamini rose to stardom in 50s Apartheid South Africa. Following his rise to celebrity status, he killed his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy. In the 2018 version of this musical from the 1950s, Dlamini after having landed in jail for some minor violent behaviour, is released years later only to find that things have changed. He is no longer the sought-after boxer and to add insult to injury his girlfriend did not wait for him all these years. She has instead become romantically ‘entangled’ with his enemy the gangster. And so Dlamini stabs her. As the audience, we are made to believe Dlamini murders his ex-girlfriend out of love. And although we do not believe that his ex-girlfriend deserves to die, we do sympathize with this poor man's pain a lot more than with her death. We 'get him'. We mourn for him and for the loss of his career and his love. Herein lies the problem: in the portrayal of a man who kills out of jealousy, written in such a way that he, rather than his victim, has our sympathy. The 2018 version of King Kong was a spectacle of beautiful performances with a bitter aftertaste. Reviews hailed the wonderful performances, applauded the score, waxed lyrical at the beauty of the stage design with no mention of the problematic heroisation of a violent main character. It can be argued that this is a show from the 50s and therefore contains different narrations of gender dynamics, but the recent production was an adaptation and not a re-run. The perspective on gender dynamics could have and should have been changed. I found only one critique that called out briefly the representation of a hypermasculine violence that is left unchallenged: 'In a country plagued by violent and dangerous hypermasculinity it would have perhaps been appropriate to render King Kong less sympathetically as he plunges a knife into Joyce in that moment.' wrote Marianne Thamm for Daily Maverick at the end of an otherwise celebratory critique.
When confronted with fiction, the temptation too often is to separate story from life and claim: but this is not real! It is just play-pretend. This may be true, but humans learn by imitation so that such stories and the glorification of such characters – which frequently extends to the men portraying these same characters - can bleed painfully into the real world.
South Africa loves its celebrities to such an extent that we seem to suffer from short term memory loss when it comes to allegations of abuse. Depending on the celebrity in question, it is very easy to brush off allegations of rape or violence with a disdainful 'We don't know the full story'. The actor who portrayed Dlamini in the 2018 version of King Kong was a man who himself had many allegations of grievous misconduct made against him. The late Andile Gumbi, who played Dlamini, was alleged to have beaten up his wife. It is curious if not downright cynical that Gumbi who had been charged with assault with the intent to do grievous bodily harm to his wife could a year later portray, with charm and poise, a character who in a fit of jealousy stabs his girlfriend to death. Whatever the truth behind the allegations, it is troubling to say the least.
The show ends with King Kong receiving his verdict at the end of his trial: 'Ezekiel Dlamini, this court finds you guilty of unlawful killing. But in consideration of your standing, I have decided not to impose the ultimate penalty. I sentence you to life in prison.' It is because of his talent and success as a boxer that his sentence is reduced - his standing trumps his crime. This sentence is painfully paralleled by our action in real life. We let the men we love off the hook.
For me there is no question about this: it is imperative for artists and those who enable art to begin using their voices to create serious dialogues around important issues such as relationships and GBV. At the very least we should desist from using our voices to perpetuate destructive stereotypes that are glorified and imitated. Characters that make for engaging stories must be complex and flawed but, falling back on old stereotypes is lazier and more uncreative, than creating new aspirational characters with equal complexity.
Film is particularly potent at creating protagonists who can be imitated. 'We as filmmakers must always be aware that life at times tends to imitate art, especially when dealing with GBV. The relationship between the cinematic text and the lived experience must be carefully handled because film has the potential to engage the audience in this critical social issue and transform attitudes and address cultural and social causes', Dr Eubulus Timothy, writer and director recently said in a radio interview for a local station. This observation applies equally to any other form of the arts. It is perhaps not the only way to address issues of GBV but cultural production is the basis for creating shared values, morals and codes of conduct and therefore, before we ask the government to step in with tools that would be dangerous if laid into their hands, I would prefer that we look to use the tools that are at our disposal as contributors of our societies, as parents, as educators, as lovers, as artists.
I have noticed men asking more frequently what they can do as individuals to tackle GBV. I think that one of the most basic things that men can do on a daily level is to understand themselves and their feelings and to open up to friends and family about emotions. Simply asking their male friends how they are doing is a start. However simplistic it sounds but violence and rage is fermented trauma that has been bottled up for a long time; it is only bound to explode and so opening up by unravelling the pain is a big step in reducing stress and anger.
I doubt it was an engineer who first thought up an aeroplane. I imagine rather a poet who sat beneath an old jacaranda and, looking to the sky, let his imagination soar as he envisaged the feeling a bird must feel as it pierces through the clouds. It was a storyteller whose fantastic fables planted seeds into the minds of others; humans with bird-like wings, humans that can overcome gravity. Perhaps, if poems and stories and fables can be the catalyst for technological advances, they can be equally catalyst for change in our human behaviour. And perhaps, if we redirect our focus from punitive fantasies to fantasies of a different kind there is the possibility for a future where I will be able to go for a run and a man on a motorbike stopping to talk to me can be a welcome relief from a tedious jog and we will have a conversation, just like that. Just a jog. Just a chat. I am hoping for something just a little bit more than a tentative ‘perhaps’.