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Change the world

24/12/2023

Nelson Mandela University graduate Cassandra Tregoning has earned accolades for her research on sexual violence representation in South African short fiction. 

 

The Pearson High School English teacher achieved a remarkable 87% for her English honours degree this year, clinching an Honours Award: Social Sciences and Humanities at the university’s Celebrating Excellence Awards on 27 November.

“Society and literature are in constant conversation, and I examined its connection as it relates to a serious, sensitive issue in South Africa. Literary analysis can illuminate how we think about perpetrators and victims,” says Tregoning, 27, who lives in the city with her partner, Rio, matriculated at Collegiate High School and has taught at Pearson for three years.

Tregoning’s treatise, ‘Short Fiction on Relentless Reality: South African Rape Narratives’, argues that short fiction has an important place in the South African literary context, as it was often used in protest writing.

“Writers of colour experienced temporal constraints, as well as difficulty printing and circulating texts during the (apartheid) struggle. It is the type of genre most used across different language and racial groups and thus provides a broad range of voices.

“It is known for being experimental in style, and conversely, it can be traditional in its link to African storytelling. Its brevity goes against completeness, and it can therefore show the fractured narratives of trauma.”

Tregoning says that for these reasons, the short story can be seen as the most suitable vehicle to grapple with power dynamics, and pain, across different divisions in society.

How would she describe sexual violence representation in South African short fiction?

“It’s ethically complex. Firstly, there is the question of whether or not the (re)creation of sexual violence is even necessary or useful in an anti-rape social agenda,” she says. “It can be argued that texts can perpetuate rape myths and the male gaze, and that the act of reading becomes voyeuristic.

“The choice is between silence, rendering sexual violence invisible, or potentially causing harm in disseminating texts depicting gender-based violence. My thesis was very inspired by the work of Dr Lucy Graham, my supervisor. Her book, State of Peril: Race and Rape in South Africa, is a key text in understanding the ‘uneasy relationship’ the South African literary canon has had with the representations of sexual violence.”

Tregoning says that the statistics of sexual violence in South Africa resemble a country that is at war. “As a feminist and a teacher, I believe that only education and discussion will change the culture in South Africa.

“Rape culture exists in a pyramid, whereby micro-aggressions and casual sexism feed into a society that allows rape to happen. At the moment, freedom is enshrined in our Constitution, but it is not given to us – and I believe that we must strive for our rights to be safe.”

Tregoning’s research is timeous, given that the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign began on 25 November – a global push to end violence against women and children.

Data from Statistics SA shows that rape and sexual violence have become hyperendemic, with 51% of local women saying they have experienced gender-based violence (GBV), and 76% of men admitting to perpetrating it, according to the Africa Health Organisation (AHO), which further notes a prevalence of femicide, rape and intimate partner violence.

Tregoning borrows a quote from socialist December Green to explain the importance of recognising and understanding sexual violence: “A rape culture is the result of a complex of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and support violence against women. In ‘rape prone’ societies, the incidence of rape is high, and likely to increase during periods of stress. The reasons work together to enmesh the women of South Africa in a war on their bodies.”

Literature is a discursive space for history, philosophy and human nature, says Tregoning, and not only is it fertile ground to think through ideas, but a mirror for our own identities – a magnifying glass to society.

“Storytelling is an intrinsic part of human nature, and so literature is an essential part of society.”

Literature opens up a “creative space” for examining the persistence of rape myths surrounding victims and perpetrators, she says. “Examining literature past and present allows critical reflection of masculinity past and present in South Africa, and how the persistence of patriarchy can be seen in our society, and its literature.

“By analysing how texts characterise rapist and victim, and the stylistic choices that underscore these choices, we can speak back to power and deconstruct these problematic narratives.

“Critical study of the purpose and aesthetics of the recreation of sexual violence in texts expands to an ethical engagement with feminism.”

In general, says Tregoning, literature allowed for open dialogue surrounding taboos, helping readers to deconstruct narratives that are too easily accepted, and allowing readers to engage with the impacts of topic and character representation.

Actively teaching English and literature to teenage pupils has been a blessing on her academic journey, says Tregoning, as they are the future generation currently at the coalface of today’s social issues.

“Teenagers are often overlooked, but my students have important questions and ideas about the world. As a teacher, I encourage them to believe in their own voice, and to value the potential that they have to be world changers.

“I also have students who have great potential in creative writing. I love to mentor promising students and act as editor and encourager!”

Tregoning, who also holds a BA in English and Media from the University of Cape Town, leaves for Southeast Asia next year SUBS:2024 where she will continue teaching English.

She plans to study for her master’s in English literature, and intends publishing either academic work or more creative writing in the young adult fantasy novel genre.

“I love short stories. I have been working on a few of my own and will build up the courage to write a novel – but for now, I’m hoping to write enough short stories for an anthology.”

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160
elma.dekoker@mandela.ac.za