The first time I slipped my hands into handcuffs I felt them cold and firm against my skin. They were not comfortable, less comfortable even than I had expected. They didn’t allow my arms to rest comfortably and so I had to stand with my elbows out. They caused me discomfort. But I accepted them there, and let them rest.
The first time I wore handcuffs my motion was limited. I couldn’t walk far away, and had to find ways to make myself comfortable in the space I had. They didn’t loosen as I pulled away; they became tight on the skin. They bound me.
The first time I wore handcuffs I chose to wear them. I chose to wrap my arms around the lamp post outside the magistrate’s office, and have my arms locked there by a trusted person. I chose to wear them for that hour, every minute of the hour.
I chose to lock myself there to remind myself that I was part of a system that didn’t unlock the mouths of rape survivors but sealed them shut with inefficiency. I thought of the many hand cuffs not used on perpetrators, despite knowledge of whom they were and evidence enough to prevent them from doing it again.
I chose to lock myself there so that the students of my small university town might notice the signs we had displayed; signs that shouted the rape statistics and asked them to do something about them. I chose to let myself be trapped, and was hoping that people would look as they walked by. Most didn’t. Most could walk by. Most ignored the discomfort in this otherwise normal scene.
Whilst cuffed to the pole for only a short while, I realised that it is all of us who feel handcuffed when we hear about the scale of sexual violence in South Africa.
We are born of a country that uses violence to solve disputes whether they are disputes of power, of class or of gender. We are the ones cuffing ourselves to an old way of understanding the world. We are the ones who have the keys to our own release in our back pocket, but are chained to the idea that we are just one person and our release won’t do anything.
The first time I wore handcuffs was also the first time that they were unlocked. The release of the handcuffs was scary. It meant it was over. My wrists were sore. I wasn’t sure what to do next, everything else seemed a bit strange.
When we choose to release ourselves from believing that gender based violence is normal, it will be painful. We will have to admit that we could have done more, and we will have to admit that there is a fearsome amount of pain in South Africa. Yet this pain is not insurmountable. But to overcome it, we must choose another way.
This choice must be a political one. It must be a choice that decides on the non-negotiability of real lived freedom for everyone.