By Kefuoe Maotoane
Kefuoe Maotoane is a Research Associate on the South Africa’s Hidden War project. Since January 2021 she has been conducting oral history interviews with women in Thokoza, Gauteng, about their perspectives on and experiences of sexual violence across their life histories. In this post, she reflects on the tension between the will to talk about and the will to forget historical experiences of violence, both for her interviewees and for herself.
Growing up in Thokoza was one of my main inspirations for studying History. Born to unmarried parents, I lived mostly with my grandmothers, both maternal and paternal. Thokoza is home to my paternal grandmother, and I spent most of my formative years there. Despite living in a very strict household, I was able to explore Thokoza as a child. I played and visited friends. I would be sent to the houses of various relatives and friends by members of our family all around the area. During my high school years, I walked past the Sam Ntuli stadium every day, passing by the many names of people who died during the transition period in the early 1990s.
As a teenager, I spoke to many Thokoza residents who felt forgotten by history; who felt as though their lives, children, and sacrifices were neglected in the post-apartheid period. Many compared Thokoza to Soweto to highlight the relative lack of development and services in their township, as well as the lack of any real healing or commemoration after what they experienced in the 1990s. They wanted to have their stories shared and acknowledged, and for the rest of South Africa not to forget about them.
Yet simultaneously I found many women in my family and wider community to be particularly silent about the past. I only began feeling free to ask questions about their life histories when I was a university student and even then, I would often be reminded to ‘leave the past in the past.’ I didn’t understand these silences at the time and found it difficult to probe the women in my life further, especially as the community still perceived me as a ‘child’.
Women’s silence in post-conflict settings is not unusual. Often, women’s past experiences simply remain too painful to disclose, or too difficult to articulate through speech. Yet, as Nthabiseng Motsemme argues, women’s silence in South Africa may have multiple meanings and uses. While silence can be a sign of pain and trauma, it can also be a means of resistance, creating stability, or reconstituting one’s sense of self.
This past year I returned to Thokoza, tasked with interviewing women about one of the most sensitive subjects on which South African women have often been silent: sexual and gender-based violence. Initially I was worried that people wouldn’t want to speak to me, especially those I approached through my own personal networks or who I had known as a child. Yet most women, to my surprise, spoke openly to me about sexual violence – about their views and perspectives, their own experiences, and those of their friends and families.
However, these conversations needed to be carefully negotiated. Unbeknownst to me, my upbringing in Thokoza and status as a community ‘insider’ provided me with the tools to do this. Having lived with grandmothers most of my life taught me how to communicate with older generations. This goes beyond just respect to also include the ability to listen to elders’ perspectives and chose one’s language and articulation carefully. In our community, respect of elders is of upmost importance. One could not speak whatever or however they wanted to an elder because this would not only be a reflection on yourself, but on your family as well. Therefore, I had to approach this research cautiously because even though this work is academic, my conduct is still a reflection of where I come from. My township upbringing also gifted me the ability to speak across multiple languages, allowing older women to articulate their experiences in the language they find most comfortable.
Being an ‘insider’ to this community and conducting research on sexual violence also had other unexpected and very personal consequences. Like many other young South African women, I was raised by a generation of women who instructed and advised their children but did not speak with them. As a child, I was simply told not to go to certain places or walk at night, with no explanation. Consequently, I didn’t understand what I was being protected from and resented the restraints placed on my mobility. But after hearing the life histories of so many Thokoza women, and the dangers they encountered in township streets, I understand how my elders communicated this threat to us by not speaking directly about it. Through their silence, they attempted to protect us not only from these dangers but also from the burden of their own past experiences. These interviews demonstrate that the cultures of sexual violence present in South Africa today have a much longer history than is often acknowledged. Our elders may be more silent about this than younger generations, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t face the same threat of sexual violence that confronts South African women today.
Yet this insight has had its downsides too. Returning to Thokoza to conduct this research, I was excited to be part of documenting the township’s history and helping to archive the stories of its residents who feel forgotten. What I did not expect was how this would affect my own childhood memories of the place. It was often difficult for me to hear about women’s painful pasts. Speaking to some of the women that I knew was especially hard as I learned about the violence they had experienced or witnessed and carried with them all these years, unknown to me as a child. Learning about these hidden hardships of my neighbours and friends, or about the violence perpetrated in the very places I used to play and explore, reshaped and haunted my own memories of Thokoza. In many interviews, I was reminded by older women that I am part of the generation of rights, the so-called ‘born frees’. Yet listening to these stories I did not feel ‘free’ from South Africa’s violent, racist, and misogynistic past. As Motsemme writes, women’s accounts of the past ‘also alert us to how violence and violation are not only contained in time, but have effects that far exceed the original moment of violence.’ As an ‘insider’ to this community, I didn’t have the privilege of distancing myself from these stories as a different researcher might have done.
This research has thus reveled two key tensions for me. First, the dialectic between wanting one’s story to be told and acknowledged by history on the one hand, and wishing the past to remain buried or choosing to be silent about it on the other. And second, between my own desire to help document the history of my former home and the uncomfortable conversations and personal reflections such research elicits. The longer history of sexual violence in South Africa has been subjected to terrible silencing, not only by women but also by those in power and academic researchers. Remaining silent about such violence is detrimental to women, as it can perpetuate and normalise sexual violence. Yet we need to be cautious about pursuing this research and understand local cultures of respect, authority, and silence. We must allow women to remain silent if and when they choose, yet to also interpret this silence for the lessons and histories it contains.
 Nthabiseng Motsemme, ‘The mute always speak: On women’s silences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’ Current Sociology 52.5 (2004): 909-932.
 Motsemme, ‘The mute always speak,’ 909.