By Nomali Cele
Iconic, multi-hyphenate entertainer and activist, Eartha Kitt, famously once said of her approach to relationships, “What is compromising? Compromise for what? Compromising for what reason? A man comes into my life and I have to compromise?” She went on to say that all her lovers and partners are invited to enjoy her with herself not that she must shrink to accommodate them.
In my language, the instruction is “bekezela” in isixhosa it’s “nyamezela,” you might also know it as “kgotlella” or “mamella.” This is the expectation that in heterosexual romantic relationships, especially in marriage, women must endure whatever turmoil their partner puts them through at whatever point of the relationship. It’s the belief that only women who endure will be worthy of a healthy, functional relationship.
The most alarming thing is that “bekezela” isn’t used to respond to petty issues such as having to tell your partner to put down the toilet seat down for the hundredth time or that he forgot an important milestone. It’s used to justify all manner of intimate partner abuse, infidelity and absent fathers who live in the same home. “Bekezela” is used to excuse someone drastically changing the relationship agreement and turn the narrative into “if you were a good partner/wife then you would adapt and endure.”
Whether the relationship eventually becomes worth the compromise you are expected to put in is still up for debate. But in a country like South Africa where the domestic violence statistics are staggering and the mortality rates in these cases even more jarring, it’s hard to see how “bekezela” is a philosophy that yields good results for the women involved.
And what place does the idea of ukubekezela have in our culture and society when we have just come from 2017, a year when femicide and intimate partner violence was highlighted in jarring and painful ways? The statistics and incidents were nothing new, but, for once, most of the country, as opposed to gender equality activists and advocates, was talking about the scourge.
In a survey conducted in 2016 and released in 2017, in a partnership between Statistics South Africa and the South African Medical Research Council, it was shown that one in five South African women over the age of 18 had experienced abuse. Four in 10 divorced or separated women had experienced domestic violence. The margin, according to the survey, shrunk even more when the women were poor with one in three women saying they’ve experienced abuse. Africa Check found that every four hours a woman is killed in South Africa and of those femicides, half happen at the hands of intimate partners.
Intimate partner violence is still very under-reported in this country, which suggests that “bekezela” is not falling on deaf ears. Some women who leave abusive relationships leave without financial means and need assistance with housing and job placement, which are crucial services South Africa has been failing to provide. The finincial hold abusers have in their relationships cannot
There’s also the stigma and shame that comes with a “failed” relationship and the potential that someone you love will tell you that the relationship wasn’t that bad.
And so what if the compromise you’re expected to make in a relationship isn’t one detrimental to your health and life? What if it’s the expectation that you put your dreams on hold? It doesn’t make the compromise any less diminishing because these compromises are generally one-sided, which means one person is always losing out on the opportunity fully be who they want to be.
During our “I Belong to Myself” dialogue in November, both Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola and Soul City Institute CEO, Lebogang Ramafoko, repeatedly brought up the many ways a patriarchal society grooms and expects women to compromise. It’s in the subtle messages such as “men don’t like women who are over-educated” or the belief that a woman who earns more than her partner is somehow emasculating him.
What then if the compromise you’ve been making in a relationship is one that has led to you shrinking your aspirations?
According to life coach, Thina Ngcingwana, who says of her service, “answers come from the client not the coach, as the client knows their journey better than the coach,” if you feel a relationship is stunting your development, you’ll be surprised to learn that it’s not just the relationship holding you back but “it would be the choice you make of staying in a relationship you feel no longer serves you.” She shared her views of the “bekezela” phenomenon from a self-development perspective.
“I would advise that compromise be lived out in a way that does not destabilise, confuse or frustrate the core of who you are as a person – your values, identity, need for safety,” says Ngcingwana. Compromise should work for both parties involved.
You have a right to say how you want to be loved and how you want to love without compromise. Endurance is not a virtue in relationships. We, as a culture, need to make it easier for women to leave.
Listen to Portia Kobue and gender equality activists, Zukiswa White of the Soweto Women’s Forum and Matokgo Makutoane of The Soul City Intitute discuss domestic violence
Listen to Michael Motsoeneg Bill discuss the reduction of barriers to reporting crimes of domestic violence and sexual offence