South African music: time for our very own Weinstein moment?

A young Thandi Klaasen

“[Kippie Moeketsi] was not one of those who would say: come to me at lunchtime and I will make you a star because they want to have sex with you …There’s some of the white people – and some of the brothers here – who’d want to use you for that.” (The late Thandi Klaaasen, discussing the 1950s, in Soweto Blues (Continuum 2001): p.122)

Mercy Pakela in the 1980s

“The producers are men…record companies are run by men who want you to open your legs for them to get somewhere…And they tell you that we have been waiting for you to grow and now you are grown you should be able to open your legs for them. Some of these people I thought they were my mentors but they only [saw] me as a sex object…even the editors want you to open your legs…” (Former 1980s teenage bubblegum star Mercy Pakela in The Shopsteward Vol 19 No 4 Aug/Sept 2010: p50)


Musician Jennifer Ferguson’s brave statement describing her experience of rape last week ( ) must have prompted a weary sigh of recognition from many other women working in music.

Not shock. Not even surprise. Just weary recognition. Because like every other sector of every other society deeply infused with patriarchy, the South African music industry is long overdue for its Weinstein moment. As a female music writer and researcher you hear all the stories – and very often see them die with editors and newspaper lawyers whose fear of the defamation laws ends in “That’s only hearsay (perhaps they mean her-say?); we can’t publish that.”

Let’s get disbelief out of the way. Life would be impossible if we did not, most of the time, act on the assumption that people around us are telling the truth. Suddenly, when a woman calls out her rapist, that flips. Why? Police forces around the world – all of which work from what we might charitably call conservative (and more analytically call grounded in the patriarchy of common law) definitions of sexual assault – agree that recorded instances of false rape accusation are few, with the figures pretty much in line with those for any other type of false accusation. In the UK, a figure of 0.6% is cited.

Singer, poet and former MP Jennifer Ferguson

Of course, the existence of even that minute percentage means every accused person must receive scrupulous due process. But it does not support discounting accusations on the grounds that false ones are common. Do the math: way more than 90% of rape accusations are true. Everywhere. All the time. So it would be logical to begin by believing the accuser.

Versions of the so-called ‘casting couch’ are rife in music, beginning with “Let’s see you from the back”, “Come to the audition in a short dress”, and “Can I buy you dinner later?” and extending to far, far worse. Colleagues researching women in music here regularly hear the horror stories, from assault on tour buses to male stage and sound personnel forcefully demanding sexual favours in return for simply doing what they’re paid for.

Sometimes it starts earlier: that music teacher who stands far too close behind and just has to reach over to turn the page; that music prof who has an ‘affair’ (power imbalances render the term absurd) with a different student every year; that other one who keeps porn visibly playing on his computer during tutorials.

As Ferguson’s experience implies, women on stage suffer a particular kind of objectification in the eyes of predators. But an even uglier picture might emerge if the research was extended to the many women working in non-performing roles, such as club, theatre, bar, stage and sound staff. Their vulnerability is intensified because they often work earlier, or later, and under even more precarious labour conditions.

And that’s what workplace rape – the hideously real thing hiding under the glamorous guise of ‘casting-couch’ – is actually about: power.

In showbiz – and in society – more men than women occupy mutually reinforcing circles of economic and social power. In showbiz, labour is most often individualised, casualised and unorganised (often forcibly so), depriving individuals of the protection of their fellows in the workforce.

The worldview that dominates is capitalist patriarchy, here vividly summed up by feminist writer Ursula le Guin: ” ‘Civilized’ Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other — outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. (…) I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

It’s not about Ferguson and her monster, or Mercy Pakela and hers, and it’s about society, not only one industry.

By all means let the speaking-out continue and grow, and let those monsters be named and punished. Those of us who write need to take care we don’t reinforce objectifying stereotypes of female performers. (I once read a review of a South African jazz quartet where the three men all ‘played’ their instruments. The woman in the group ‘made love to’ hers.) Let’s look, too at those specific features of labour relations in the music industry that shore up the power of exploiters and abusers and erode the power of cultural and service workers.

But getting rid of workplace rape entails more: not just talking about our homegrown Weinsteins but doing something about the societal and ideological manure that helps them flourish.

Poster courtesy of the One in Nine Campaign

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