Rape in a Relatively New Democracy

by zunguzungu

South Africa’s rape statistics are off the chart. Statistics in sub-Saharan Africa are almost always misleading and quite often outright fabrications, but when one in three women in Johannesburg report having been raped in the last year, well, that’s pretty fucked up no matter what the numbers are. Which is why it’s so interesting that the South African Equality Court declared the following words, by ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, to be criminal hate speech:

“When a woman didn’t enjoy it [sex], she leaves early in the morning. Those who had a nice time will wait until the sun comes out, request breakfast, and ask for taxi money.”

Malema was arguing that the woman who accused Jacob Zuma of raping her must have enjoyed it (and therefore she wasn’t raped). The court disagreed, and he was ordered to write an apology and pay R50,000 (~$7,000) to “an organization serving survivors of gender based violence.” Feministing calls it a major victory against rape apologist hate speech.

Matt Yglesias, on the other hand, missed the point in a way that’s worth flagging:

“The “statement” that what Malema said is unacceptable is a good one, but the practical consequences of criminalizing political speech are very real and not likely to be beneficial in the long run. The boundaries of what kind of discourse about race and gender is or isn’t acceptable is being constantly contested in civil society and I think it’s naive to believe that the state is going to consistently police those boundaries in a consistently beneficial way. It’s very easy to imagine expansive powers to restrict speech being turned against marginal groups, radicals, or anyone who’s politically inconvenient. Especially in a relatively new democracy like South Africa it’s important to stick to liberal principles.”

A consistent liberal tick is to be much more threatened by the possible consequences of state actions than by state inactions, and Yglesias begs rather than argues this point. Of course there are going to be overreaches of such laws if they are put into place; of course abuses are possible. But when the current system is as broken as it is, maybe that risk is worth taking. Maybe it isn’t, too, but the thing is this: to argue in good faith, you have to actually compare the positives and negatives of a robust hate-speech legislation against the positives and negatives of a weak one. He hasn’t done that; he sees all the downsides of such action, but the downsides of inaction apparently escape his notice. Luckily, he’s not a South African woman.

Yglesias drops a lot of clunkers, but I read him because he says smart stuff too. But what’s particularly ironic about this is that Yglesias has been one of the most vocal bloggers pointing out this exact phenomenon when it comes to conservative anti-anti-racism, the fact that so many republican politicians are viscerally opposed to any kind of anti-racist action but don’t seem to notice the pernicious consequences of inaction. But it’s exactly the same thing: he doesn’t mind the idea of being against rape, but when people actually do something about it, we’re suddenly on a slippery slope to perdition. He’s happy to take credit for being against rape in principle. But when the time comes to actually do something, well, then you can count Matt Yglesias out.

I particularly winced when he got all scoldy and patronizing about South Africa and their “relatively new democracy.” Really? You’re going to take that arrogant tone to a country that peacefully and democratically dismantled Apar–fucking–theid? You’re going to pretend that a country that took real and substantive steps to establish and record the crimes committed by its own government has something to learn from us? In case you haven’t noticed, our relatively old democracy operates under the liberal principles that when we do it, it’s legal. When we have a truth and reconciliation committee, and when we consider subjecting ourselves to democratic oversight, then you can start to think about whether you’ve earned a quarter of that smugness. Until then, shut the fuck up about it, and let people who fought for their democracy make their own decisions about how to keep it.