After Wa Mamatu: Does the SA arts scene need some soul searching?

With empty apologies and dramatic statements, playwright Tsepo Wa Mamatu has failed to show remorse for sexually harassing students, writes MICHELLE SOLOMON.    

The South African arts community has been forced to consider its approach to matters of sexual violence in recent weeks after former Wits drama lecturer Tsepo Wa Mamatu’s theatre production By My Grave was withdrawn from the Cape Town Fringe, following vehement objections to his inclusion in the event.

By My Grave was to star Wa Mamatu as the lead character in a story  – a rising star in the arts community who has his reputation marred by accusations of sexual assault – a role apparently based on his own life.

For those unfamiliar with the arts scene, Wa Mamatu was for a long time a drama lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. Last year he was found guilty by the institution of sexually harassing several of his students. The offences, involving at least 10 women over a period of eight years, ranged from sexual harassment to rape, and he was subsequently fired.

Wa Mamatu denied the allegations, and has continued to deny them. Instead, he has maintained that his actions were misinterpreted and claimed to have had “relationships” with his students.

But the length of time and number of victims who came forward to speak out against him immediately dismiss any notions that his actions may have been merely ‘misinterpreted’ or that these were merely consensual relationships without any form of coercion. It’s well recognised that the unequal institutional powers between students and lecturers, leaves students vulnerable to sexual coercion.

What emerges is a disturbing pattern of behavior and abuse of power typical of a sexual predator. Wa Mamatu’s failure to draw the dots between his actions and the extreme harm he has inflicted on his students show not only of a pathological lack of empathy, but also that he does not believe his actions caused much harm to begin with.

To be clear: sexual harassment is nothing less than a form of sexual violence; it can and does cause long-term psychological damage for its victims, in some cases leading to post traumatic stress disorder.

In response to the withdrawal of By My Grave from the Cape Town Fringe, leading playwright and previous Standard Bank National Arts Festival Young Artist Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, wrote on his Facebook page that the withdrawal of the play was not right and that it amounted to “ongoing persecution”.

Cape Town Fringe festival poster

That Monday the Artscape Theatre and African Arts Institute (AFAI) hosted a debate billed in advertisements as: WITHDRAWAL OF PLAY BY “SEXUAL HARRASSMENT” PLAYWRIGHT FROM THE CAPE TOWN FRINGE FESTIVAL: JUSTIFIED ACTION OR CONTINUED PERSECUTION?

This framing not only centred on Wa Mamatu as a perpetrator and a victim, but also served to devalue the experiences of those women he victimised and the victims of sexual harassment generally.

Feminist writer and activist Melanie Judge was one of the first to take to social media to express how problematic the framing of the debate was:

“That a person found guilty of sexual harassment becomes positioned as the ‘persecuted’ is an old and hugely problematic trope that works to recast male perpetrators as victims,” she wrote. “The use of the word “continued” also suggests that the consequences Wa Mamatu has had to face to date, as a result of his sex crime, is called persecution.

Writer TO Molefe drove the point home in an email to AFAI in which he said: “Asking whether excluding ‘By My Grave’ from the Cape Town Fringe Festival is “justified action or continued persecution” begins the conversation at the wrong place and panders to the willfully ignorant—least of all because Mr wa Mamatu was never persecuted in the first place thus there is no persecution to be continued. He was held accountable for his actions.”

Yet the problematic framing of the debate was not even the worst of its problems – AFAI and the Artscape Theatre planned to have Wa Mamatu himself sit on the panel to discuss whether the actions brought against him were fair or not.

Molefe argued that this decision would “further silence his victims by giving him a platform to humanise himself while not affording his victims the same.”

Predictably, AFAI’s decision to include Wa Mamatu on the panel sparked an outcry and serious questioning of AFAI’s commitment to ending sexual violence in the arts community.

In a Facebook post Judge said: “Posing the event as a ‘debate’, AFAI/ARTSCAPE is effectively providing a platform for WaMamatu to lead the ‘debate’ (read ‘defence’)” and asked “where are the voices to represent those whom he violated?”

By Monday afternoon Wa Mamatu had withdrawn from the panel of the debate and issued an apology for his behaviour on his Facebook page. The post was deleted by Wednesday afternoon.

In this (non) apology, he framed his guilt as merely an error of judgement, dramatically throwing himself on the mercy of his family, his church and his god, all the while failing to even acknowledge the women he violated. Instead, he positioned himself as victim in the narrative of ongoing persecution.

In a statement read by AFAI executive director Mike van Graan at Monday evening’s debate, Wa Mamatu said:

“I looked forward to opening my soul in order to bare my truth, to map out where I went wrong, to table before you how I lost my moral compass … What a pity then, that I will not be able to share with you my shame at being unable to do the right thing when it mattered the most.”

He said that he refused to participate “in an environment that is not conducive to freedom of speech” and decried those who “[refused] to listen, simply because they believe their voices to be carriers of truth and nothing less”.

The final resolutions of Monday’s debate were to devise a code of conduct for professionals, the means to implement it, and processes for sanctioning artists who contravened this code, as well as platforms to assist “whistleblowers in coming forward against their perpetrators”.

Wa Mamatu later told the Cape Times that he refuses to abide by this suspension agreed to by a gathering of his peers in the arts community, saying: “There was no code of conduct when I was fired from Wits and later applied to be part of the Cape Town Fringe. Therefore it cannot be applied to me retrospectively.”

Once again, Wa Mamatu avoids any responsibility or accountability for his actions while simultaneously issuing empty apologies and dramatic statements in a consistent attempt to portray himself as the victim.

 

Michelle Solomon bio picMichelle Solomon is a sexual violence activist, a feminist writer and freelance journalist based in Johannesburg. She has worked on South Africa’s largest annual anti-rape protest, the Silent Protest, for three years and assists NGOs with the coordination of their communication strategies and campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

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