#WeAreDyingHere: Erecting A ‘Safe Space’ For Gender-Based Violence Dialogue

The South African theatre production, currently streaming live on ‘Covid-Zero’ till 06 July, puts a magnifying glass on the current Gender-Based Violence (GBV) plight that has women living in constant fear.


By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Images: Supplied

Sanele Mfaba, Tshegofatsho Pule, Naledi Phangindawo, those are just some of the victims of gender-based violence that have been trending on social media due to the gruesome nature of their murders. An 8-month pregnant Tshegafatso was found hanging from a tree. Sanele was brutally murder and dumped under a tree in Soweto. Naledi was senselessly hacked to death with an axe.

The brutal violence and murders of women has been labelled a pandemic, and we have seen another uprising from many women calling for the government to impose harsher policies that will ensure their safety.

While the country is seething from the supposed lack of action from the government in tackling GBV, the theatre production: #WeAreDyingHere has been making waves, bringing the topic into the forefront.

Siphokazi Jonas, Babalwa Makwetu and Hope Netshivhambe during #WeAreDyingHere[Photo: Supplied]

The writer, actor and producer of the production, Siphokazi Jonas, tells Blacklight that they filmed the production during its Joburg Theatre run, earlier this year, to have content and material to present to donors, but the coronavirus global pandemic forced them to put their plans on ice. Instead, they decided to stream the content on a new online platform, Covid-Zero.

“Gender-Based Violence stories started trending again and we realised that this should be more than just about testing the material, but more about being part of a bigger conversation that is currently being had in our country. As a result, the subject of the production is more pressing now because we want to continue the conversation that is already being had around these horrific gender-based violence murders,” she says.

Jonas says the poignant storyline was partly inspired by former University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana’s rape and murder at a Cape Town Post Office, last year.

“When everything with Uyinene unfolded, you felt this wave, this uprising happening across the country. There was something about that incident happening in a place like the Post Office, a space where one should feel safe – which is so bizarre – that made everyone feel like there was no longer any safe space for us (women). We had always known that there were no safe spaces for us, but that was a strong confirmation,” explains Jonas.

The murder of Uyinene also inspired her to pen a poem titled Thanks for the HashTag, But…”When we are in the middle of living and trying to survive, a hashtag means nothing. A trend means nothing; because there are so many trends, and how many names have been forgotten? Also, how many lives lost have not trended?” she adds.

“When I revisited the poem, it gave birth to the production. The intention was to find a way of articulating our rage, our fear, and the complexity of what it means to be a woman in South Africa.

Jonas stresses that the production is not about solutions, but rather, about creating a space where women and those affected by GBV can take a deep breath and realise that they are not okay.

“With every name that comes out, there is this fear of am I next or when is it my turn? There is no space for us to process what is truly happening because we are moving from one story to the next, one hashtag to the next, one trend to the next,” she explains.

“We are hoping that this production will offer a space for us to pause and sit in that discomfort. We want to be hopeful, but first we have to admit that we are not okay – it is not okay to live like you are being hunted. We are afraid.”

Sharing the stage with Jonas is Hope Netshivhambe and Babalwa Makwetu (offering music and soundscapes). The Queenstown-born, says their intention with sharing the story was to let the tension and trauma out that had built up over years, as black women living in South Africa. She describes the process of collaboratively producing the piece as cathartic.

The powerful production has been hailed as powerful. [Photo: Supplied]

She adds that living in a country like South Africa, where one is constantly surrounded by violence; it forces many to adopt certain coping mechanisms – denial, humour and numbness.

“It’s also [a] lack of access to spaces to talk,” she explains, “Not everyone has access or R700 an hour to speak to a therapist. Also, even if it’s not about access, culturally speaking, not everyone believes in that power of being able to speak. Sometimes, we grow up in such a way that we don’t even think about the importance or impact of being able to articulate our trauma. Sometimes its language, you don’t have the proper language for what has happened to you.

She continues, “I do think there is value in finding other ways to cope, only if they are balanced with spaces or platforms of healing. I hope that we as artists offer such spaces – to write our stories because no one is going to do it for us (and they shouldn’t) – spaces for us to imagine, because for me healing is also about imagining our future.”

For those who find the subject to be too heavy to bear, Jonas says gender-based violence is heavy and very serious – it is not a joke.

“We try not to be triggering with this production, we thread carefully. At no point do we show gender-based violence. We don’t want that imagery. It’s a space to share experiences, personal experiences and experiences of our friends, aunts, mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers, and so forth. There is plenty of that violence going around; we don’t want to re-traumatise people.”

The well-versed Siphokazi simply refers to herself as a “storyteller”. The poetess holds a Masters degree in English Literature and an undergraduate degree in Drama and English. She has shared the mic with greats like Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Freshlyground and Pops Mohamed.

“Telling stories is one of the most powerful ways of existing in the world,” she says. “When I tell my story, I exist. There is power and autonomy in telling our stories, instead of our stories being told on our behalf.”

As a black female artist trying to infiltrate infamously white spaces, like theatre, she says the best way for people like her to exist in such spaces is to create their own spaces – to carve their own lane – which is what they are doing with #WeAreDyingHere

“Because we create our own spaces, we are changing audiences and the people that follow the work end up being people who look like us,” she says. 

With the coronavirus making it difficult for people to gather, especially the hosting of public events, like concerts, exhibitions and theatre. Siphokazi says the virus has opened artists up to a whole new world – a virtual space – and has forced them to adopt new ways of engaging audiences.   

“Yes, with theatre we still want to have that intimate experience with the audience. But, if we still want to continue working and to be connected with people, we have to also go online. It’s also great to have global reach because a physical space can be limiting at times. With this, we simply took the theatre experience and tried to make it work for a digital space or audience.”

#WeAreDyingHere: Written by Siphokazi Jonas, Hope Netshivhambe, and Music and soundscapes by Babalwa Makwetu.

‘#WeAreDyingHere’ is streaming live on www.covid-zero.co.za till 06 July, ticket: R50/$3.

Gender-Based Violence Emergency Line: 0800 428 428

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