Tlhabi tells of unseen township terror, trauma

11 December 2012 - 02:01 By Zama Ndlovu

BASED on reviews, I expected Redi Tlhabi's book Endings and Beginnings - A Story of Healing to be about an 11-year-old Redi's peculiar relationship with a feared murderer and rapist twice her age and her recent journey to understand how a gentle soul could also be a terrible monster.

What most book reviews don't say is that Tlhabi's book is also a breathtakingly honest account of the quiet terrors of growing up in a community in which sexual violence against women and children is an accepted norm. It is a story that rarely gets told, especially from a child's point of view. She tells the story beautifully.

One of my earliest childhood memories is the arrest of a neighbour for the rape of his five-year-old daughter. As a child I was luckier than most. My mother, a nurse, had tried to warn us about the things ''strange men" could do, explaining why we lived under stricter rules than other kids in our neighbourhood. She assured us that if anyone tried to ''do anything funny", we should tell her. But until the little girl two doors away was hospitalised after being attacked by her father, I didn't understand what my mother was actually afraid of.

Tlhabi's book reminded me of the anxiety I often felt as a child growing up in the township. The community in which I grew up demonised victims of sexual assault, while excusing most of the perpetrators. Young girls were often sent unchaperoned to run errands in the very dangerous streets that parents and grandparents warned them about, walking past the dangerous men who appeared in their nightmares. Communities often laid the blame on the victim , labelling young girls as ''naughty" to justify their fate before they had met it. The burden of proof lay on the victims, who had to show they weren't asking for it and didn't deserve it. The severity of the crime was judged on the victim's subsequent behaviour, rather than on the crime itself.

Unlike Tlhabi's experience, the day my mother told us we were moving to the suburbs was the happiest day of my life. Growing up in Mamelodi had its great moments, but as a young girl feeling as though I was at the mercy of every builder, gardener and every man or group of boys was terrifying.

I get frustrated by initiatives like the yearly 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. To me, they recycle empty messages which largely fall on deaf ears. Sexual crimes remain prevalent in many communities because of the gap between the way communities judge them and the way the law sees them. This is summed up perfectly by a character in Tlhabi's book who says: ''The government says it's wrong now, but then [during apartheid] it didn't."

We can't naively expect society to recalibrate its values and norms simply because we have become a democratic country. Many communities still hold relaxed views on sexual crime. It will take a lot of effort to get everyone to believe in the hymn sheet from which the government is singing.

In many ways I feel affirmed by Tlhabii's book. Every chapter assured me I am not the only one who witnessed the persistent psychological violence against young girls, the verbal sexual abuse on buses and taxi rides, the humiliation when my body began to develop - none of it was my fault.

Tlhabi delicately describes the unseen trauma of growing up with a perversely dysfunctional value system, a system many young girls are still growing up with today.