Content warning: This piece contains graphic descriptions of gender-based and sexual violence.
“Her mother said she was sorry that she hadn’t been there to protect her daughter, and that, of all the places she had warned her about, the post office wasn’t one of them,” read a news report of her death.
On Sept. 4, 2019, about 2,000 people dressed in black were gathered in the University of Cape Town’s plaza. Directly below Devil’s Peak, one of Cape Town’s most iconic features, the space usually hums with students eating lunch or taking a break between classes. And if they’re lucky, the sun is still high over the mountain. That day was sunny — I remember because I’d worn my only black pants and they stuck to my legs — but on that September afternoon, the plaza was the site of a vigil.
Uyinene Mrwetyana was a first year at UCT who, like thousands of women across the world, was a victim of femicide, or the killing of a woman on account of her gender. She’d gone to a post office to pick up a package and instead was locked in the office, raped by the post office worker, beaten with a set of postal scales when she wouldn’t stop screaming, then hidden in the trunk of a car until her burned body was dumped in a township outside the city.
I’m not sure I have ever written a more horrible sentence. Maybe this one is worse: This kind of violence is not uncommon in South Africa and elsewhere.
The statistics are horrifying. South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and it ranks fourth, out of 183 countries, for femicide. About every three hours, a woman is murdered within the country’s borders.
Uyinene — or just Nene, as her friends called her — had been missing since Aug. 24. Someone had posted flyers around campus, and I wish I could say that I’d done something when I saw them — that I wasn’t just another person who glanced at them and moved on. But I was.
The school sent out a string of emails over a few days: It was confirmed that Nene was the victim, that memorial services would be held on campus and later, when the administration realized how angry the student body was, classes would be canceled the rest of the week.
My literature tutor, UCT’s equivalent of a GSI, emailed us: “Tomorrow’s schedule has officially been suspended by Prof. Phakeng. Take this time to mourn, heal, and protest if you are able to. As students of the Humanities, you are in a position to bear witness to and take action against human rights violations. I encourage you all to engage, in whatever capacity you are able to, in the events planned in Uyinene Mryetwana's memory tomorrow.
“Take care of yourselves and be safe, especially if you are going to Parliament. Wear sunscreen, bring plenty of water and snacks, and charge your phones.”
My friends gathered in our living room to decide what to do. In Ann Arbor, news like this would fly through GroupMe and Slack threads; I imagined the explosion of all the WhatsApp groups we weren’t in. My housemates Dinte, Hannah, Maaike and I found an Instagram story with plans for a march on Parliament and a memorial at school. Wear black, it said. It’s OK if you’re angry, or grieving, or too upset to come at all.
On the day of the memorial, I stood in the plaza, on the right edge of the crowd. Sunflowers, proteas, calla lilies and a hundred other flowers spilled off the corner of the stage, the only bright spot in a sea of black. The crowd began singing in Xhosa and Zulu as we waited for Nene’s family to arrive. My Dutch friends and I swayed to the beat of songs we couldn’t understand. As outsiders to this group, our presence was the only thing we had to give.
University students, faculty, administrators and Nene’s family all spoke that day. After the memorial ended, a protest began. Girls read speeches and poems, most of them while crying, but then something shifted. The sadness became outrage. The whispering became yelling. Gone was the murmuring from the crowd — it was time for anger. Girls began sharing their stories of assault and harassment with the crowd. They spit their most private, horrifying moments into the microphone: having to jump out of an Uber after being groped, boyfriends thinking their relationship was a free pass to their bodies, running across campus at night after exams.
We watched woman after woman cry at the podium, then pull herself together because people needed to hear what happens to women every day, in public and in private. I pulled out my phone to record a girl describing when her Uber Eats driver told her to come get her food from the car, only for two of his friends to jump out of bushes, trying to drug her. She ended up in the intensive care unit. I saved the recording, whispering to Dinte that I was going to play it for Nico and Jonathon, the rest of our group of friends, who’d spent the day surfing. I was angry with Nene’s attacker, with rape culture and with them for not caring. We sat in the sun for four hours and listened to these women because that’s all we could do. They needed to know someone cared about them and their story, so we stayed even after most of the crowd had gone home. I didn’t want to watch another woman cry, but I knew that if I were in her position, I’d want another person quietly watching, giving witness while I spoke.
When it was finally over, we walked down the steps, watching students dressed in black disperse across campus. Most went to the bus stops, some walked to Lower Campus, the rest got in cars or, like us, called Ubers. When our car arrived, pulling up at the bottom of the steps, we checked the license plate numbers before getting in. He noticed our black clothes and asked about the protest.
“My daughter knew Uyinene,” he said. “She hasn’t come out of her room.”
We told him we were international students, that we didn’t know many people there but needed to go to the protest. In the passenger seat, I thought about how small the world is. In a city of nearly half a million people, our Uber driver’s daughter knew Nene. In a world of over seven billion, gender-based violence preys on women everywhere.
He dropped us at Cafe Ganesh, a little restaurant in our neighborhood. We quietly ate roti and falafel salads, reaching across the table to share food. Dinte, who always knows what to say, stayed silent, and I noticed her eyes had tears in them. She leaned her head against the wall and closed her eyes, already apologizing. “Today was hard. I’ve been thinking about a lot of things.” We sat in silence for a moment, and then Maaike broke it with a story. The details are hazy and they aren’t mine to share. I offered one and Hannah followed. All of them were different, but every girl has something.
While I waited for the news to go international, I debated telling my parents. Photos of Uyinene, the protests and anger choked my Instagram feed, but on the other side of the world, it was silent. I told a couple of friends about the attack when they asked how I was doing, then regretted saying anything. It was overwhelming to explain and underwhelming to read their responses. What is anyone supposed to say?
I decided there was no point. I was being as safe as I could. The next time I had to run errands, I asked my friend Jake to come with me — Jake, who was tall but gangly, and better at cracking jokes than intimidation. Coordinating two schedules just to go pick up my hiking boots my mom had mailed was frustrating. Knowing I was only safe if an attacker thought I was another man’s property was more so.
After Nene, though, it was foolish to go anywhere alone. Even such a public place as a post office.
These attacks don’t happen because women aren’t being safe, they happen because men choose to attack women — no matter where they are, what they’re doing or time of day. My parents were 8,000 miles away. Half of me figured that if it was going to happen to me, it would, and there wasn’t much I could do about it. The other half knew my privilege, especially abroad. When I went to catch a campus bus and realized they’d gone on strike, I could afford to call an Uber in seconds. My house had a gated door. I could leave the country at any moment, if need be. I felt safe in my own home and was surrounded by people I trusted. I’m white.
Cape Town is a complex place, and it challenges everyone who lives there in different ways. For me, it was to understand my place as a woman, a student and a foreigner. I had a Black, male professor tell me not to trust Black men in South Africa, but I also had Black Uber drivers refuse to let me out until I was right at my door (I often wanted them to drop me wherever was most convenient to them, but their priority was my safety). I shrunk away from people when walking alone on the street, but once when picking up takeout, the delivery man struck up a conversation about American politics, and we talked for half an hour. It is the most beautiful place I have ever lived. But when people asked me, half in jest, “So, when are you moving here for good?”, I stalled.
What happened to Nene certainly wasn’t an isolated incident, in South Africa or elsewhere. It happens at the post office in the middle of the day. It happens at fraternity parties and in residence halls. It happens in campus research labs with men who are supposed to be your teachers. It happens in long-term relationships. This problem — men committing violence and harassment against women — happens everywhere.
The day I applied to UCT, I walked home across the Diag imagining a place I knew little about, except that it sounded exciting. Why not go? I remembered the moment months later when walking to the bus stop on Main Road. I dodged minibuses and the morning traffic, still somewhat baffled that I was there, walking below Devil’s Peak as if it were the most normal thing in the world. In Cape Town I learned how to surf, camped at a music festival, went on two road trips and befriended Norwegians, Californians and South Africans alike. Study abroad changes you, the cliché goes. I also happened to be right next to the worst case of sexual violence I’d ever seen, instead of reading about it in a newspaper a world away. Nene’s story shut down classes for three days, brought thousands of women and men together for a march on Cape Town’s Parliament building and inspired dozens to share their own stories into a microphone. It inspired me to look back at every incident of harassment, big or small, in my life.
Much like I’d walked by the posters that said “MISSING: NENE MRWETYANA” above a picture of her smiling, I usually skim by headlines in my Twitter and Facebook feeds that tell many of the same stories. After Nene, the least I can do is read the articles — try to understand hatred against women and violence with layered motivations. It’s what I realized at the vigil: My presence, my ear, is what I have to give. It’s time to be more mindful and observant of the issues that keep repeating for decades. Maybe starting to understand means starting to change.