The road that leads to Bredasdorp, a small town about 180 km from Cape Town, meanders through barren fields shaved of the wheat they once nursed to maturity. The sheep sidle through protruding stalks, stomaching the lack of greener pastures. The resilient blue gums – the only trees that seem, ironically, to break the dullness of the Cape Agulhas region – lay their leaves to roast in the harsh sun. A “Beware of Children” sign stands at the entrance of Bredasdorp with its 15,000 inhabitants.
That Sunday afternoon, the streets are empty, as is often the case in small South African rural towns. Shops and museums are closed. Some of the restaurants are still serving lunch and a few people eat quietly at a cosy terrace, contemplating space and time. Five hundred metres away from the main street, past the tall cement silos full of the grain harvested this season, a memorial service for Anene Booysen is underway at the community hall named for Nelson Mandela. In Bastiaan Street, opposite the hall, people are watching the beginning of the service from the gardens of their RDP government houses. Leaning against their fences, they look at other Bredasdorp residents sitting under the white tent erected next to the hall for the occasion. Women mostly, from the community.
Outside the hall, a woman surrounded by teenagers is interviewed by the local TV. The fast flow of her response to the journalist attests to her anger: “We are human beings, stop raping us, we deserve to be safe!” Angry but calm. Under the tent, about 500 people are also waiting quietly for the service to start. Women sit patiently under their colourful hats, some raise perfectly crafted posters asking to “stop the violence and abuse against women.” Children run between the rows of seats, two of them get smacked for pushing an old lady.
Bredasdorp’s ANC mayor, Richard Mitchell, takes the stage: “The world now knows where lies Bredasdorp on the African map. And the incident, where Anene was murdered, is the cause for the interest of the world in Bredasdorp.”
Inside the hall is Corlia Olivier, Anene’s foster mother, sitting next to her mother and brother. She listens, composed. A woman stands at the back of the crowd and whispers: “This must end. My daughter was raped, my granddaughter was also raped when she was 4 months old. My daughter-in-law was raped. How do you cope with this? My brother didn’t when his wife was raped. He committed suicide. Sorry to lay all this on you but we must speak out!”
“And I want to start with our members from national parliament, continues Mayor Mitchell. Members from provincial parliament who are present today, mayors from surrounding municipalities, councillors, and even a delegation for the commission for gender equality. Representatives from the unions – Cosatu, also representatives of the SACP – the communist party, the ANC Women’s League, the ANCYL. Members of the NEC of the ANC, members from the opposition party – the DA, and then we also have the veteran association Umkhonto weSizwe and as I said all other protocols observed, ladies and gentlemen, and… and mostly our communities.”
A woman carrying a baby tries to enter the hall from the side door. A veteran of Umkhonto weSizwe (the ANC’s now-disbanded armed wing), dressed in military kaki uniform, brushes her off. She looks at him, offended, while a man wearing a shirt with a machine gun drawn on the back and displaying the “Umshini wam” (bring me my machine gun) slogan made famous by the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, is left to stand in the doorway.
Simphiwe Thobela, a local ANC Youth League representative, walks to the microphone after a short speech by a local member of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and starts his diatribe against rape :
“Mayors, ANC members, comrades, I won’t be long but I’m gonna steal a minute from Cosatu because they didn’t use their three minutes”:
-Viva Women’s league!
For two hours, the SAPC, the ANC Women’s League, the DA, Cosatu and other official representatives take the microphone, one after the other. Between speeches that quickly denounce the rape crisis, political stumping slips in.
An agitated man wearing an ANC shirt and a Che Guevara beret walks up the aisles asking the sleepy crowd to clap their hands for a song is about to start. The “Power of your Love” eventually gets the crowd going. The agitated man looks more content, and walks to a group of singing women wearing ANC t-shirts. With a broad grin, he hugs his comrades and photographs them. Some still-clapping residents look on, puzzled.
It is now Cosatu General secretary Tony Ehrenreich’s turn to speak. Ahead of the event, he had warned that “this crisis is much bigger than our political division.” After greeting Anene’s family, he goes on: “I come here as Cosatu, it is a crisis we need to respond to as an organisation.” In the front row of the crowd, sitting under the tent, a man and a woman stand up and raise their fists to punctuate the political punch lines.“Enough is enough” – “an injury to one is an injury to all” – “We must get involved, we must tell the abusers that no longer will they abuse our communities.”
Lynne Brown, former ANC Premier of the Western Cape, calls out to the crowd: “The boys who have been arrested – they’re not anyone else’s child. They’re your child and my child. Remember that we will be gone tonight, in fact this afternoon, and you will stay here alone.”
After hugging Anene’s mother, the Western Cape ANC provincial leader Marius Fransman closes the political monologue : “Dan Plato (DA politician and now Minister for Community Safety in the Western Cape) is a criminal, he used taxpayers’ money to throw a party for gangsters. You can’t give money to gangsters and think it would solve the problem.”
So this is how the people of Bredasdorp gathered on a quiet Sunday afternoon to remember the life and times of AneneBooysen. Anene’s mother and her family were there. Her neighbours were there. The people of Bredasdorp who knew her and grieve her today were there. They alone know who AneneBooysen was. They alone know what her aspirations were.
But political agendas walled them up in silence. They have been told what their problems are – “drugs and alcohol are to be blamed”. They were made to listen to the ANC NEC, the Women’s League, the ANCYL, the Communist Party, the DA. The councillors and the delegations. The Amandlas and vivas. All other protocols observed in the memory of Anene Booysen.
Finally, the politicians dropped a memorandum at the local police station, packed up and left. Lynne Brown probably didn’t realise how right she was: the community of Bredasdorp did sleep alone that night.
* Mélinda Fantou is a photojournalist based in Cape Town.