I had tears in my eyes, my heart was racing and my hands were shaking. I had only recently arrived at the eclectic Old Biscuit Mill market in the historical district of Woodstock in Cape Town and fashionable people were everywhere. As a woman who travels solo as much as I do, being sexually harassed is not new to me, it’s one of those things you find no matter where you travel in the world. Being a black woman can add an additional layer to this because when some men see me, they see the Jezebel, or my supposed wantonness, ideas deeply rooted in slavery. On my first visit to this market, I was physically violated and then verbally insulted.
Here I described what happened immediately after the incident:
After he walked away into the crowd, the thought that he would do this again to another unsuspecting woman and get away with what he did to me, caused me to begin following him from a distance. I wasn’t sure what to do. I scanned the crowd for security or police with no success, then I remembered where I was. It had been 9 days before I saw the first police officer in Cape Town, and security seems to be something that the rich hire to protect their homes and other assets from the desperate.
The feeling of helplessness is truly one of the worst and not one I know what to do with. Suddenly I couldn’t take it anymore, and I began repeating in my loudest voice “this man is a pervert, he just touched me” while pointing at him and continuing to follow. I didn’t plan it, and I didn’t even recognize my own voice, but it dawned on me that this “public humiliation” was going to be the only consequence of his behaviour. Not one person responded. In fact, people looked at me as if I were mad. The tight crowd prevented me from getting closer to him and soon he was gone.
And I was left feeling unsafe, and unbalanced.
I walked and walked through the stalls processing my thoughts, replaying the events and the twisted smile on his face when I confronted him. I was not going to let him win and steal my happiness for the day. I wasn’t leaving.
A beer stall. Yes, I’ll have one. I reassured myself that there were worse violations, that I had faced this kind of misogyny before and I could deal with it. Sadly, that’s how many women often have to process these kinds of things.
Even after attempting to make the best of the day, his words weighed heavily on my mind: “You’re not worth touching anyway”. What exactly did he mean by that?
At some point after the incident, I ended up at a stall with delicate, handmade jewellery carefully laid out. I tried on a bracelet and while making my purchase, told the white, saleswoman what had happened. She was outraged, asked if I had slapped him and said if I see him again I should send him to her and she would “beat him up.” For a few moments, I felt like I was in a safe space again, validated though I don’t know why I needed that.
On my way out the market, I stopped at a stall selling colourful stuffed rhinos and began speaking with the black, female owner. I again recounted my story but her reaction was very different and I wasn’t ready for the connections she made in a matter of seconds. Straight faced she looked at me and asked, “Was he coloured, or East Indian looking?” Yes, he was. She shook her head in disgust and said, “He felt entitled to your body, that’s how it is here”. She looked at me with sympathy for a moment and then went back to adjusting her goods, while casually describing a system that leaves black women vulnerable to the whims of those men who had more rights than us. The police don’t take reports from us.
Apartheid is over, but its legacy still defines life here. The colour scale of those days had me at the bottom, they said I wasn’t a full human, no rights. This man grew up in a system that told him, he was worth more than me. It was inscribed in law, social conventions, geography, just about every aspect of life that means anything to people. It’s painfully clear that people’s thinking has yet to catch up. That seems to be the theme of my time in Cape Town, where every waiter, cleaner and kitchen staff is black and every manager or boss, I’ve seen is white or “coloured”. It’s unbelievable and I got a taste of what black people, especially women, are still suffering through in a place where their humanity is still in question. I didn’t have the privilege of slapping him.