When in Cape Town, I travel on the rickety, graffiti-covered, eternally late Metrorail, enduring the sun-scorched hours alone at desolate stations because, despite the heavy hand of inflation, you can still get from city center to Simonstown for less than R10 (under $1).
One mid-morning, I entered an almost-empty carriage save for two police officers. ‘Relief’, I thought. ‘No crowds and two bodyguards.’ I could read, unharassed for the entire journey.
Then: ‘Hello, Lady!’ One of the policemen came sauntering over.
He asked me how I was doing. I told him I was fine. He asked me where I was going. To town. Was I student? Could he have my number? Could we ‘meet up sometime’? I was perplexed - was he being serious? Surely this was a joke? Confusion quickly turned to anger as I realized he was fulfilling the role of the predator, like so many others. A police officer! I gave him a piece of my mind – ‘How are women ever supposed to feel safe if even you harass us?’ – and sat there seething for the rest of the journey.
The experience triggered a realisation – so much of what I do is directed by fear. I just don’t recognise it. Seldom do we speak of the fear so ingrained and rationalised that it passes as normal.
The South African fear factory is intermingled with race. It bothers me that fear, at least in my experience of it, has a colour and a face.
The rest of the day was a vexing blur to me. Every man was a potential threat, a mechanism pre-programmed to make me uncomfortable. I walked past every knot of men preparing myself for what they might spew my way. My only defense was the intolerant expression on my face – don’t mess with me. I could feel my tension radiating as I wove through the crowd. Don’t make eye contact - look like you know where you’re going. Negative energy physically and mentally took over and with each step, I said to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. This isn’t me.’ But with each step, I also thought, ‘This is necessary.’
This is what fear does to you. You internalize it and allow it to colour your entire outlook. When I walk the streets of Cape Town, I cannot see people. A cluster of coloured men is a cacophony of catcalls waiting to explode. Two young black men ahead have smooth talk tucked into their pockets. A group of schoolboys try out their sexual dominance with words, recognising no boundaries, stepping into shoes that they will soon wear with pride.
The South African fear factory is intermingled with race. It bothers me that fear, at least in my experience of it, has a colour and a face. As women of all races, we are faced with a real dilemma: misogyny is rampant, and we have strong reasons not to feel safe. At the same time, we have to recognize that our fear is deeply rooted in personal experience – where we were, what the perpetrators looked like, how they spoke. Whether we like it or not, we form mental associations with all others who look and sound that way, and these affect every subsequent decision we make.
As women of colour, the paradox is bizarre – we learn to fear our own kind, and then feel guilty because we realise that this is the homogenising fear that feeds into systematic racism – the American prison system, the ‘fear of the black man’. If I feel uncomfortable around unknown men of colour, how much more do my white friends, tucked away in suburbia? I am damaging my own cause! Torn, I refuse to allow fear to dictate my perception of others, while the realist in me is irrevocably scarred, and seeks safety at any cost – even if it means stepping into the comforting arms of prejudice.
This is inner turmoil, and I imagine that many women feel it. I am scared to go for a run alone on the streets of my hometown, Mthatha, because when I was 9 I was followed home from church on Sunday by three drunk men in a car. At 11, while walking to school, I was followed by a man who drove silently and threateningly alongside me for the entire length of a road. Don’t get me started on my teens. Ask any woman, she will have a litany of similar experiences. We feel paralysed by this fear because it keeps us from exercising our freedoms. Don’t use the train – you’re likely to get robbed. You can’t run alone – these streets aren’t safe. Hold your purse tight. Check your clothes. Don’t look too happy. We rationalise these precautions so often and do not see how they eat into our freedom. Fear becomes normalised.
I really struggle to make sense of my fear in this country. I feel a murky lump of distress, guilt and indignation.
And I know I can’t be the only one. The internal conversation on fear is one that is difficult to confront. When we’re really honest with ourselves, how much have we fallen into the trap of justifying prejudice with traumatic experiences? We might admit that we do it with men in general. I’ll admit that I do it with men of a certain class and colour.
I wonder, do these men realize how their behaviour feeds into the harmful narrative that they should be feared? When extended, it’s a narrative that perpetuates fear of the ‘other’ at a national and global level, and blinds us to our common humanity. It isn’t a narrative I want to support, but I catch myself feeding off it in those vulnerable moments.
Perhaps the answer is to determine not to live according to the rules of fear, but to start an honest conversation on how we deal with it. I believe at some point we have to take the bull by the horns and confront the perpetrator – while he still operates at the level of unwanted attention; long before he escalates to touching and threatening. The climate for rape and abuse is created in these daily interactions. We don’t have to accept them. When it is safe to do so, and when you have mustered the courage, try it. Speak up. The incident with the police officer may have ruined my day, but I was able to confront someone who – hopefully – will think twice before he approaches his next victim.