Between the 15th and the 20th of December 2012, many South African music lovers will flock to see Chris Brown, the R&B star and the man who assaulted pop superstar Rihanna in 2009. Rihanna was also his girlfriend at the time. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few years, you know a few vivid details about that assault. You may have seen pictures of Rihanna’s bruised face, read about blood in her mouth as he continued to beat, strangle and threaten her while driving. Both pictures and details of the charge sheet made their rounds through mainstream media outlets and went viral on social media. For a quick summary, you can read this. Or you can just google the whole ugly saga.
Since then, we have also been subjected to constant suggestions that Rihanna may have taken Chris Brown back as boyfriend/lover/friend after forgiving him. She has recently been on Oprah and there was widely circulated news that even her father feels warmth and sympathy for Brown. We have even been told of how Brown grew up in a violent home himself and, therefore, that his own violence is explained by this past. After all, violated children also sometimes turn into violent people, right?
This means that Brown’s South African fans are supporting him with full knowledge of his record. Indeed, many who are quite vocal about their support of the call to end gender based violence in South Africa will buy tickets to his concerts as part of the general partying that characterises the “festive season”. It will not matter that they have previously expressed concern that the international annual campaign of 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children should really be 365 days. South Africans are not renowned for a healthy sense of irony. Nor do we hold violent men accountable. We simply like to march against violence against women, but we are generally loathe to intervene and condemn it when it actually happens. We don’t really like to denounce men who beat and/or rape women. We do often judge and badmouth abused women. So much commentary has focused on what Rihanna and her family feel or do not feel. If I had a rand for every time I heard “but women are their worst enemies in such cases”, I would be a rich woman.
Feminists, gender activists and people opposed to violence elsewhere in the world have not found this such a complicated issue. In Guyana, several women’s rights activists made it very clear that Brown was not welcome in Georgetown to perform on the 26th of December 2012. The Code Red for Gender Justice website outlined that although there was disagreement over the Guyanese government’s decision to welcome Brown to Guyana in order to boost tourism to the Caribbean country, those critical of Brown’s tour and the Guyanese government’s insensitivity did not mince their words. It quoted Guyanese feminist columnist, Stella Ramsaroop saying that the “decision to bring Chris Brown to entertain Guyana is a slap in the face to every single victim of domestic violence in the country”. Sukree Boodram of the Caribbean American Domestic Violence Awareness (CADVA) said “as the grim situation on domestic violence has become a staple part of Guyana’s everyday life and landscape, I believe that having a known abuser perform, gives credit to him and sends an unspoken message that it is okay to beat up on your wife or girlfriend and still stay popular and famous”.
Vidyaratha Kisson wrote a much publicised letter in which he suggested what what he saw as more useful options to the Brown tour. His solution is similar to that proposed by Nicole Cole from the Guyanese Women and Gender Equality Commission here.
I am not convinced that there is a good way in which a woman beater can be supported. We simply cannot have it both ways: claim we want to end violence against women at the same time that we swoon over men who violate women. We should make Chris Brown unwelcome in South Africa if we are serious about ending the siege under which women live. I share Sukree Boodram’s stance, where she says “The fact that we are allowing a publicly known abuser to enter our country is blatant disregard and disrespect to our people and the cause we claim to want to eradicate. That cause is domestic violence. What kind of signal does this send? It says that ‘bringing wealth into Guyana’ is more important than the safety of the nation’s women. It says that talking out of both sides of your mouth concerning violence against women is justified so long as everyone can dance.” (emphasis added)
And, although there have been suggestions that Brown and his team did not cancel the Guyanese concert because of the outrage from women’s rights activists, there is no convincing alternative explanation. South African feminists would do well to emulate our Caribbean feminist counterparts in telling Chris Brown that he is not welcome here. If we succeed in keeping him from performing, or even cut his trip short, it does not matter who gets the credit.