The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
IT was a video that might have won her the sympathy of some that had been hostile to her cause.
It was the video of Gugulethu Ncube, her arms and legs flying wildly about, as she was dragged, kicking and screaming, from the Union Buildings.
When she was thrown, feet first, into the open mouth of a South African Police Services van, her screams sounded like daggers aimed at anyone with ears, eyes and a beating heart.
When the video of the incident inevitably found its way to social media, the outpouring of sympathy and outrage was almost immediate.
“Nudity is a sign of my dignity that I have been stripped off of. I have nothing more to protect. My dignity is gone,” she had said before her protest on Wednesday. On the evidence of that video, it seemed she was not far off the mark. A woman, albeit a naked one, was being manhandled and mistreated by the very same law enforcement officers whose failure to hear her screams had led to her desperate actions.
When Ncube was later arrested and slapped with a public indecency charge, the online outraged intensified. When she stripped down to just a few pieces of clothing on Wednesday, Ncube was putting the law enforcement and justice systems on trial, charging them publicly for their failure to protect her and other women from the epidemic of gender-based violence that seems to have taken a firm grip on South Africa.
Now, it seemed, the system was fighting back, whipping a victim that was allegedly already wounded by authorities that do not take the abuse of women seriously.
Some of South Africa’s leading personalities immediately piled up behind Ncube, defending her right to protest against a sick society that is failing its most vulnerable. Ncube’s battle was bigger than her, they said, and by treating her as the problem, authorities were only treating the symptom rather than the disease itself.
Some however, maintained that Ncube was the one in the wrong. The sight of a naked woman in public unsettled many, and many suggested that she could have protested in a way that did not embarrass her even further. A body tormented in private surely did not deserve self-inflicted humiliation is public.
However, as upsetting as it might have been to Ncube’s critics, the sight of a naked woman protesting was not a first. Naked protest, known as disrobing, has been used as a weapon over generations. In the 1600’s, during the Quaker invasion of Massachusetts Bay Company, a woman named Lydia Wardel walked into a church and promptly removed all of her clothes in protest. On February 5, 1969, students from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa made a similarly bold display during a speech being given by a Playboy Magazine representative.
In 2016, Ugandan academic Dr Stella Nyanzi brought Makerere University to a near standstill and set a discourse on the social media when she stripped naked to protest being locked out of her office.
What is arguably one of the most powerful manifestations of naked protest over the past century took place during the Women’s War in Eastern Nigeria (1929). The revolt broke out when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the Warrant Chiefs, whom they accused of restricting the role of women in the government.
In Ndebele culture, women have also been known to show their outrage by stripping.
“The strategy is not new. It has cultural significance,” said historian and cultural activist Phathisa Nyathi.
“When it is done in Ndebele culture it is said that the ladies bayaphekula. It does not mean that the lady strips and exposes the whole body. Instead it is a show of disgust. The private parts of a woman’s body are sacrosanct in Ndebele culture and so if you see women exposing themselves in that manner it is an expression of deep anger and outrage.”
According to Nyathi, the exposure of a woman’s body shows the gravity of the situation.
“Even artistes don’t draw the private parts of women in our culture. It is quite simply taboo. You don’t express yourself in that manner because there’s never meant to be an expression of a woman’s private parts in public,” he said.
Ncube’s strategy, like other naked protesters before her, seems to have been designed to shock the public into awareness. In the hallowed steps of the Union Buildings, she brought out the stench that has been hidden from the public. Ncube’s official reports to the SAPS might have gathered dust on the desk of police station in South Africa but the sight of her naked brought cameras and thousands of eyes eager to watch the unfolding spectacle. Nonetheless, the man he accuses of abuse has since denied ever sexually abusing her.
If getting attention was her objective then her protest seems to have been a success.
However, that kind of attention was inevitably going to lead some to sniff around the private life of the drama’s main protagonist. Immediately, her claims seemed to have come under scrutiny as it has emerged that she has accused several men of sexually assaulting her in the past. She has also claimed to be local politician Welshman Ncube’s daughter, a claim Ncube vehemently denies.
“I don’t know this woman. I read somewhere she was born in 1981. I was in high school at Mzilikazi in 1980 when she was conceived and very much in love with a girl I thought I would go on and marry. Her mother is not known to me, there’s just no conceivable possibility she could be my daughter,” Ncube told an online media outlet.
Resultantly, Ncube’s mental fitness has also come under scrutiny in some circles. Nonetheless, questions about her life are about to intensify in the coming days and in the scrutiny that will follow more unpleasant details of her life might continue to come to light. However, while the credibility of the messenger might be eroded by the spotlight shone on her life, the message which her outrageous protest tried to give the public seems unlikely to be tainted.