A time for learning and reflection about sexism in our society

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Sexism is the flip-side of racism one is as evil as the other. We have had a number of high profile cases of hurtful racist utterances, cases that come to mind include people such as Vicky Momberg, Adam Catzevelos, Penny Sparrow and Velaphi Khumalo. In each of these cases the perpetrators apologized and tried to justify their comments. Those closest to them – friends, colleagues, family members and supporters also found convenient explanations or justifications for the actions of their friends, relatives or employees. Our society has rightly rejected those arguments and always demanded that there must be due process and that an appropriate sanction must be meted out to the perpetrators. 

Misogyny has no place in our society 

An audio tape that has gone viral on social media involves Rev Vukile Mehana of the Methodist Church making derogatory and sexist remarks in a conversation with an acquaintance. This audio tape and the hurtful language used has sparked a heated debate within the Methodist Church and in the broader society. The vast majority of people have rightly condemned Rev Mehana’s comments whilst a few of his friends and supporters have defended him. His supporters have used two central arguments to defend him, the first being that he has apologized and the matter should therefore end there and the second defense being that he was secretly taped whilst having a private conversation. 

I’ve known Rev Mehana as a friend and a spiritual leader for more than 30 years. It would be easy to remain below the parapet and allow this to boil over. The harsh reality is that this is a matter that is so important, beyond Rev Mehana, it goes to who we are and the society we want to build. The utterances by Rev Mehana are disgusting and are insulting about Rev Sibidla, a senior woman priest and to Methodist women clergy in general. As someone who was involved in the fight towards non racialism and non sexism, and a senior priest, and an experienced corporate and community leader, Rev Mehana cannot justify such comments on any intellectual, philosophical, cultural or religious basis – these were plainly wrong and should be condemned, regardless of where they were made. Listening to the tape made me both sad and angry – such vile words have no place in our society, whether in a public or private setting. The argument about the privacy of the conversation is both shallow and self serving and cannot stand up to moral or spiritual scrutiny and should be rejected. 

An apology cannot be a substitute for accountability 

Rev Mehana then offered this apology; 

“It is with heavy heart that I issue my heartfelt apology in respect of the comments which I made in a private conversation with Raymond Sibanga which is doing the rounds on social media. In retrospect, the comments I made are derogatory and demeaning to all women in ministry. I regret making such utterances and respectfully retract them. To this end, I humbly apologise to Rev Nompithizelo Sibhidla, who disparagingly mentioned in the conversation and i am deeply sorry that her good name has been sullied undeservedly. Furthermore, I also apologise unreservedly to all the women ministers in the MCSA whom I have offended, members of the YMG and all people called Methodists. With hindsight, I fully appreciate the damaging effects of my careless utterances as well as the use of inappropriate language about an issue which affects my colleagues and friends in the Church. I take full responsibility for my actions, I humbly and remorsefully request that you find it right in your heart to forgive me.”

It is not for me to cast any doubt on the sincerity of Rev Mehana’s apology. I will find it in me to forgive Rev Mehana, I fully understand that others may take longer to forgive him, some may never forgive him at all. This is their right, we are all different and see things from different angles. The issue for me is less about the sincerity of the apology or whether he should be forgiven, the main issue is that an apology cannot absolve a person from accountability. Rev Mehana, like any offender must go through a hearing or inquiry within the Methodist church, or the Equality Court or Human Rights Commission or the disciplinary processes within the organisations he either leads or is a member of. 

The Methodist Church of South Africa through its Presiding Bishop, Bishop Siwa and the South African Council of Churches, through its General Secretary, Bishop Mpumlwana have condemned the comments by Rev Mehana, and distanced themselves from such comments. In addition to this, Bishop Siwa has also indicated that Rev Mehana will go through the church’s disciplinary processes. 

I fully support the steps taken by the Methodist Church and the South African Council of Churches. I reject the notion that the matter should end because Rev Mehana has apologized. My reasons for that stance are;

⁃ An apology on its own cannot absolve Rev Mehana or any offender of accountability; 
⁃ The rules of the Church and those of the country have to apply in the same way to everyone in the same way, regardless of their prominence; 
⁃ Our institutions, in both the public and private sectors, have consistently shown in the racism cases of Chris Hart, Penny Sparrow, Vicky Momberg, Adam Catzevelos , Velaphi Khumalo and others that a mere apology, no matter how sincere, should not be a substitute to a hearing or disciplinary process- that same principle should apply to sexism cases; and lastly 
⁃ Rev Mehana, is a senior Priest and an experienced Human Resources practitioner, he would have been involved in hundreds of disciplinary processes that involved an apology, in both the church and corporate life, he would have taken the apology to be part of the disciplinary process and not a substitute to it. 

My plea therefore, for those who claim to know and love Rev Mehana is to ensure that our proximity to him does not cloud our judgment about what is at stake here. Those of us who have known and loved Rev Mehana must not be numb to the pain caused to Rev Sibidla, her congregation, her family and those who were robed as members of the YMG by Rev Sibidla. We must resist the temptation to minimize the impact of these hurtful words and the effect they have on the struggle for the equality of women in the church and broader society. 

Rev Mehana’ s apology can only form part of a due process hearing of the Methodist Church hearing, Equality Court or the Human Rights Commission or any other forum that will hear this case. Forgiveness without justice would be a betrayal to the core foundations of our faith, our constitution and our values. We must allow due process to take its course. 

We must commit to the fight against bigotry and patriarchy

Those of us, like Rev Mehana who fought against racism, cannot suddenly be mute on issues of sexism, patriarchy and misogyny – because of who is involved. We owe it to our daughters, mothers, sisters and wives to be consistent against patriarchy in all sectors of our society. This is no longer just about Rev Mehana and the Methodist Church, it is now about the society we want to build and our role in building that new society. It is no longer just about those horrible comments, it is about our views and beliefs about the role of women in our institutions. It is no longer just about the recording, it is about our daily thoughts, actions and behaviours. 

We must be consistent with our fight against sexism and racism

We must be principled, consistent and dispassionate as we tackle racism and sexism in whatever guise they manifest themselves. We rightly expect our white compatriots to really understand the depth of the pain of racism and to condemn it regardless of who is involved. As a society, and more important as men, we have to understand the daily scars, hurt and humiliation of gender discrimination in our society and institutions. We have to be at the forefront of the fight for gender equality. This is a time for those of us, men who were involved in the struggle, men who are now in power, to challenge ourselves to be clear about what we meant when we used to talk about a non-sexist society. 

This is a time for us to stand up for the universal principles and values of fairness, justice, equity, equality, respect and dignity regardless of personal consequences. Many of us were courageous pioneers in the fight against racism, why would we now be meek bystanders in the fight against sexism and misogyny? Worse still why would we be defenders of sexism and patriarchy, why would we use fancy words to defend it because those we love and admire are accused of it? What shall we tell our daughters? How shall we raise our children? 

What is to be done?

Those of us who were at the forefront of the struggle against discrimination must :

⁃ fight discrimination in all its forms; 
⁃ be exemplary in our conduct, in our words and behaviours; 
⁃ be advocates for change in our institutions of learning, work and worship; 
⁃ educate others about the evils of sexism, bigotry, misogyny and hatred; 
⁃ challenge and change practices, rules, traditions that are not in line with a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist society. 
⁃ help people to come to terms with changes in their cultural and religious practices; and 
⁃ help our institutions to transform to reflect the society we desire. 

A moment of deep reflection and change

Let this be a moment for learning and reflection about the society we want to build for our children. Fairness, equity and justice demand that we speak forthright, courageously, consistently and plainly on the question of sexism, and dare I say even amongst us as black men with “ struggle credentials” and who are in power now.

We must use this moment to examine our thoughts, our private conversations, the decisions we take and the overall attitudes we have on women. What can we learn from this episode? How do we conduct ourselves in our spheres of influence? Do we align ourselves with change or the perpetuation of the unjust status quo? What are we teaching our young men? How do we motivate young women in our society? How are women treated in our churches? What voice do women have in our marriages and relationships? How are women treated in our institutions? 

We fought for a democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa. We have taken some great steps towards these noble goals, but the event of these few days have shown us that we have a long way to go. We must work harder, do much better and confront our bigotry and prejudices. 

In the immortal words of Nelson Mandela, we must, in both words and deeds, all commit ourselves to his clarion call, 

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” 

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