How can hope spring eternal when you’re killing us?
A year after Uyinene Mrwetyana’s death, we gathered to share stories and only sorrow was illuminated
On Monday night this week, I felt as if a miracle could happen — that we, the women of SA, who had been wandering across an endless beach of pebbles, carefully turning over each miniature rock, had finally stumbled upon “the one” that had an instruction note tucked under it.
A group of us (mainly women and a sprinkling of men) gathered at Clareinch post office in Imam Haron Road in Claremont, Cape Town. Less than a kilometre from my house, it was — until August 24 last year — no more than a featureless building in which bored clerks would weigh postage, photocopy a document, dig around in the back for a parcel that had arrived ...
Then, on that warm jasmine-filled day last year, 19-year-old Uyinene Mrwetyana climbed out of a taxi not far from her university residence and walked into the building.
As most of you know, a clerk named Luyanda Botha, who told her in the morning to “come back later”, overpowered her, raped her and then murdered her by hitting her over the head with a heavy set of scales.
Like so many other victims of femicide in SA, she went from being a young woman with dreams and fears, and a lifetime ahead of her, to being a dead body bearing the signs of her struggle against her attacker, to being an inconvenient “piece of evidence” that had to be “destroyed” or somehow “hidden” — first with fire and then in a shallow grave — by the man who had stolen her future.
So we fast forward to a year later, August 24 2020.
The weekend before, the post office had again been festooned in flowers, ribbons and placards — just as it was last year in the weeks after her murder, when protests exploded all over the country and, again, we asked the same question: how can we change this?
On Monday night, with a dark sky and a chill in the air, but no microphone or podium or formal agenda, about 80 of us from very different social groups and ages gathered in our masks and dotted ourselves around the railings of the post office clutching our candles and staring into the bouquets of flowers and love letters to Uyinene.
At first, we were silent, awkward even, wondering who would say what. What was there to say, really?
But then, in a moment of poignant symbolism I suppose, we started to speak.
Some were reserved, some were impassioned, but one by one we stepped up onto the ramp and shared our stories, anger and hopes.
It was not lost on me that the real-life backdrop to this beacon of light on a dark night was the humdrum of traffic moving along one of the area’s main arteries, but even so, and with all Covid-19 protocols in place, it still felt as if we had huddled around the warm glow of a fireplace to speak our minds, forge a way forward.
Laced into the stories were the constructive solutions on which we have pinned our beliefs that things could change: we spoke of the government stepping up to the plate, a criminal justice system that really hears its victims, a non-profit sector that tries to change modes of masculinity that turn violent.
We spoke of how we raise our sons, and call out our male partners and friends when they add to the culture of misogyny. We spoke about the bravery to report colleagues who have harassed us in the workplace and, most importantly, we spoke about keeping the spirit of Uyinene — and the protest that her death ignited — alive.
And as I stood there, flanked by my two daughters and my husband, with Uyinene in her funky beret smiling back at me from a poster, I believed that anything was possible. That if we stand together and share our vision and join the dots, something can come of it. That we, as the women of SA, can find our way out of femicide, out of a culture of gender-based violence.
If we could turn over that very last pebble on the endless beach of “what can we do to change this”, there it would be: a small piece of paper that had survived the ebb and flow of the tides and the violent sting of the jelly fish to tell us what was left to do.
But as I made my way home, the fire in my belly turned dim and then went cold.
It feels as if there is nothing under that last pebble after all. Even the ink of the question with no answer has faded into nothing.
The note is empty and it’s time to go home.