The Death of Uyinene Mrwetyana and the Rise of South Africa’s #AmINext Movement
The Clareinch Post Office sits between a high school and a police station and opposite a pet store called Pets Aquaria, on a busy road in Cape Town’s southern suburbs. It is a long, low, yellow-brick building, with a veranda wrapping around the front and a medium-sized plane tree next to its steps. It looks like what it is: a boring place that you don’t need to think about until it is time to do boring things, such as stand in a queue on a rainy morning and wait to collect a package. It’s a South African government building indistinguishable from all the other South African government buildings.
On Saturday, August 24th, in the early afternoon, a nineteen-year-old University of Cape Town student named Uyinene Mrwetyana went to the post office. The precise details of what happened when she got there won’t be heard until a trial, which is scheduled for November, but police have confirmed the following: a man behind the counter told her that the credit-card machine wasn’t working, because the electricity was down, so he wouldn’t be able to process her payment. Power outages are common in South Africa, a normal part of life that you wouldn’t necessarily think twice about. The man told Mrwetyana to come back a bit later, and he’d be able to help her then. She did so, some time shortly after 2 P.M., when everyone else working at the post office had gone home. On Monday, September 2nd, a packed courtroom heard during a pre-trial hearing that the man working behind the counter had confessed to bringing Mrwetyana inside, locking the door behind her, raping her, and, when she wouldn’t stop screaming, beating her with a set of post-office scales, then putting her body in the trunk of his car, burning it, and dumping it in Khayelitsha township, near where he lived. Prosecutors said that blood was found inside the post office and on his shoe when he was arrested, the previous Friday.
The magistrate presiding over the case has ruled that the man cannot yet be identified, but his name has been widely circulated on social media, along with some of the intolerable details from his confession. Pictures and videos of Mrwetyana have also been circulating, unbearable in a different way: Mrwetyana crying with laughter as she pushes her friend’s phone out of her face; doing a pretend fashion show in her nerdy Kingswood College uniform, with its shiny red tie; smiling her head off; just being nineteen. On Saturday, at Mrwetyana’s televised funeral, her elder brother spoke about how funny and brave she was, how she kept the rest of her family in line. He broke down when he said how hard he knew she must have fought her attacker. Representatives for the family spoke on behalf of Mrwetyana’s parents. 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.
According to the most recent statistics released by the South African Police Service, a woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa. The country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, and, according to the most recent data from the World Health Organization, it ranks fourth out of a hundred and eighty-three countries when it comes to femicide, or the killing of a woman or girl on account of her gender. Every week, there is a story in South Africa that should stop us in our tracks—a newspaper report detailing what feels like a freak detonation of psychotic, demented violence against women, a one-off explosion of hate that somehow just keeps on happening.
The same magistrate who set the trial date for Mrwetyana’s self-confessed murderer also set the trial date for Rob Packham, who was recently found guilty of murdering his wife, Gill, and setting fire to her body, after a marriage-counselling session. On the Friday before Mrwetyana’s body was found, a twenty-five-year-old boxing champion, Leighandre Jegels, was shot dead by her ex-boyfriend, a policeman, while she was driving. On Tuesday, September 3rd, a man in Wyebank, in the eastern region of KwaZulu-Natal, was charged with hanging his three children and stepdaughter (aged four, six, ten, and sixteen) after being presented with divorce papers by their mother. The same day, the body of Zodwa Tyoloda, a mother of three, was found buried in a pit toilet near her home, in Qumbu, in the Eastern Cape. The previous Friday, a nineteen-year-old theology student called Jesse Hess was found raped and murdered in her home. A few hours earlier, she had won five thousand rand in a radio competition celebrating Women’s Month.
There are so many stories like these. They are all impossible to accommodate or live with, but women in South Africa do, in the absence of alternatives. There is no template for how to proceed after you have reached the conclusion that what is happening is not normal. A particularly shattering story makes the front page, and the country learns the name of another woman. Sometimes there are protests and sometimes there are not. Sometimes there are arguments about whose names are remembered and why. In a country where the victims of gender violence are overwhelmingly poor and black, pleas to “not make this about race or class” are met with varying degrees of impatience, depending on the mood. Vigils are held, national days of mourning are declared. It is widely affirmed that women should be free to wear what they like and go where they like, but at the same time it is sorrowfully acknowledged that they cannot, and so had better adjust accordingly.
For many South Africans, the protests following Mrwetyana’s death have been an indication that there are ways of responding to this crisis that go beyond sadness and anger and the state’s promise to set up some sort of commission of inquiry at a vague time in the future. Confronted with the reality of how she died, and the knowledge that “the post office” must now be added to the long list of places to be scared of, women around the country are reaching what feels like a breaking point. At protests and vigils this week, the mood has been a combination of fury and astonishment at how distorted our definition of “normal” has become. This past Thursday, in Cape Town, thousands of people marched on Parliament to demand a more definitive and urgent response to violence against women. It would be easy to say that there have been so many marches just like it, with the same songs, the same posters with the faces and names of dead women and girls, many of the same slogans. But, walking up Plein Street to the parliamentary buildings, where President Cyril Ramaphosa was scheduled to address the protesters, the mood felt different, as if the flashover had occurred, the point when the fire in the room becomes the room on fire. It might have been all the schoolchildren in attendance—kids maybe on their first march, as opposed to their tenth—or the hundreds of placards asking “Am I Next?,” or those saying, simply, “Fuck This.” Mrwetyana’s death, so grotesquely emblematic of the state’s failure to protect women and children, seems to have channelled the anger that so many feel and directed it toward a clear target. The feeling that someone should do something is turning, quickly, into the conviction that someone is going to have to.
A man who looked as if he worked in one of the nearby law firms helped me up onto a ledge, so that I could get a better look at what was happening. I asked him how many people he thought were in the crowd, and he scanned the street quickly before saying, “Seven thousand, I’m pretty sure.” I asked him how he could possibly gauge something like that, and he said, “I just use the size of my old school hall as a guide—it fit a thousand boys during assembly.” It was as sweetly bland an example of the male gaze as anyone could hope for. I hadn’t yet thought about how a man might view the protest, but his answer made me wonder if the men in the crowd (and there were a lot of them) saw what I did: thousands of women and girls realizing, for the first time or the second or the fiftieth, that none of these crimes were their fault.
A group of women handed a memorandum to Ramaphosa with a list of demands, including that a state of emergency be declared. The President, who was met with boos, responded with words that seemed taken from a guide to avoiding conflict in the workplace: “You have given me your memorandum, and I can see all the messages that are emboldened on the placards you are holding, and I am internalizing all of them. I know that you are saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ I agree with you that, indeed, ‘Enough is enough.’ ” There have been so many speeches like this one, but the audience he was addressing was different. It was much angrier, and much less interested in convincing the people in charge that there was a problem—that much is now obvious, even to those with a vested interest in denying it.
The railings outside the Clareinch Post Office are covered with flowers, letters, and photographs, as is the fence of the high school on the other side of the road. Some of the letters are clearly written by children, who tell Mrwetyana how sorry they are that she is dead, and how much they are going to miss her. The walls are papered with prayers and more letters, more faces and names of dead women and girls, and so are the glass doors. If you press your face right up against them, you can see inside the post office—just some lockers and a big wooden counter, chairs against the wall, if you need to sit down when the queue is long. It still looks just like any other South African government building. A man and his daughter, a girl of about eight, pulled up in a car as I was standing on the veranda. They were both holding plastic-wrapped bunches of roses from the supermarket around the corner, and they laid them in front of a banner painted with the words “Uyinene came to fetch a parcel…” I wondered how this little girl would feel the next time she went to a post office, or to any other boring place that she shouldn’t have to think about.