Sex and Sexism in the Public Sphere: What Khwezi and Monica Lewinsky have in common

By Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

The men involved in these relations, both over 60 at the time of the trials,  went on to enjoy greater success in public office. Jacob Zuma, now in his second term as President of South Africa, and Bill Clinton, as a global elder has raised, together with Hillary Clinton, over $1.2 billion  since leaving office. It was as if these trials were merely minor road bumps on their paths to achievement.


Last month, two significant events happened as far as publicly known acts of sexual indiscretion are concerned. First, Monica Lewinsky, the world’s most infamous  intern after her and US President Bill Clinton were found to have had sexual relations almost two decades ago, spoke publicly for the first time in almost a decade writing an essay in the June edition of Vanity Fair, titled ‘Shame and Survival’. The other case, closer to home, was that the return home of ‘Khwezi’, the woman who in 2005 alleged that then Deputy President Jacob Zuma raped her,  after fleeing to the Netherlands and then Tanzania in fear for her life.

Whilst there are key differences in the cases, most importantly that in one case there was an accusation of rape and in the other the sexual relations were as a result of mutual consent, there are nonetheless key similarities that speak to how men and women have been trialled differently in the court of public opinion after allegations of sexual indiscretion. In both cases, the media acted as judge and jury. They were victimized and vilified through public slut-shaming that conferred guilt on them through inappropriate coverage of their dress, their sexual pasts and, in the case of, Khwezi, her HIV status.

Khwezi suffered inaction from the South African Police Service as thousands of Zuma’s supporters publicly bullied her outside the court. In acts of hatred and intimidation, posters reading “Burn the bitch” were held and underwear and images of Kwezi were burnt as supporters sang the praises of Zuma.

In 2010 supporters of One in Nine Campaign held a protest in Johannesburg in solidarity with Khwezi, and asked a poignant question,“Four years later, Zuma is president, Khwezi is in exile, where is the justice?”

Indeed, it is striking how the lives of these two women, both in their mid-20s at the time of their respective trials have been so negatively changed. Their ability to continue to maintain their livelihoods as before the cases was destroyed, and worse, both suffered significant emotional tolls and were reported as suicidal.

Speaking out for the first time since leaving South Africa after her dramatic rape trial, Khwezi said she would never reconcile with Zuma “I wish he was dead. I would like him to no longer exist, to be spared seeing his face popping up in the newspapers.”

She was also quoted as saying, “At a time when I needed support, was angry and needed an outlet and a way to make sense of everything with like-minded people—whether in the form of just sitting together in silence, singing, laughing, crying or protesting—I found myself alone, without these activists and friends.”

The men involved, both over 50 at the time of the trials, in these relations went on to enjoy greater success in public office. Jacob Zuma, is now in his second term as president of South Africa, and Bill Clinton, as a global elder has raised, together with Hillary Clinton, over $1.2 billion  since leaving office. It was as if these trials were merely minor road bumps on their paths to achievement.

The world was also rocked by another shocking rape case, when the former President of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn took advantage over a house-keeper at a New York hotel.  He was acquitted of the criminal charges and later reached a settlement with his accuser for an undisclosed amount over the civil suit. The case did, however, thwart his career and the ambitions he was believed to have had to run for the French Presidency. The case had the country, which has a laissez-faire attitude to the private lives of its politicians, put sexism on trial. French ministers were soon after offered anti-sexism classes, in a bid to shed the longstanding sexism of France’s elite political circles as exemplified by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

Since then, South Africa has seen another high profile rape charge with the case of former COSATU Secretary General Zwenlinzima Vavi’s sex scandal in 2013. Vavi was subsequently suspended by the organisation for having sexual relations with a subordinate. Vavi’s position in the organisation was already contentious, so it becomes hard to rule out political score-settling as the reason for action being taken against him as opposed to moral duty on their part.

In ‘Shame and Survival’, Lewinsky describes her disappointment in the lack of support from women: “So where, you might be wondering, were the feminists back then? It’s a question that troubles me to this day. I sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp. Some good old fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much needed. Given the issues at play – gender politics, sex in the workplace- you’d think they would have spoken up. They didn’t.”

The ANC Women’s League did not publicly support Khwezi in her trial and went on to endorse Zuma for the Presidency in Polokwane. She did however receive support from other groups. For example, in 2012, Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO)’s Gender Desk launched their Bring Khwezi Home campaign. The most visible support did come from NGOs such as the Sonke Gender Justice Network who ran the One in Nine campaign and took then ANC Youth League President Julius Malema to court after sexists statements made about Khwezi that were seen to amount to hate speech and harassment.

Despite the harassment, Khwezi has said that she did not regret making the decision to lay the rape charge. “I still maintain that it was the right thing to do, the only thing to do, that there was no choice in the matter and that I would do the same, even knowing what I know now.”

Whilst these cases are not unique, they are instructive because they are a microcosm of the intersection of sex, the law and power relations in this country. They bring to the fore important issues facing a country that is grappling with the harmful effects of sexism. According to the One in Nine campaign, only 46.8 percent of rapes reported by adult women result in arrest. It is not difficult to imagine similar scenarios playing out where men who are high profile member of society, be it as sports stars, businessmen or civil servants, face similar accusations and yet have no sanctions imposed on them by both the men or women in their lives. It seems, sex is inconsequential for men, especially those with power. The same cannot be said for women.

To quote Sonder Gender Justice Network leader Kwezilomso Mbandazayo, “What that case did was expose to the world what happens in our courts everyday.”


VISIT: One in Nine campaign website

WATCH: One in Nine campaign protests in support of Khwezi 

READ: City Press: If Khwezi could speak – Joonji Mdyogolo

READ: Vanity Fair: Shame and Society – Monica Lewinsky on the Culture of Humiliation 

READ: The Guardian: France’s women put sexism on trial in wake of Dominique Strauss-Kahn case


  1. You ave made some really good points there. I checked on the internet to learn more about the issue and found most individuals will go along with your views on this site.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>