Outrage over exam rape question justified

"Will South Africans ever be shocked by rape?" a BBC op-ed asked in January this year, shortly before the rape and murder of Anene Booysen. In certain circumstances: yes. This week saw an outpouring of indignation over a question in the matric Dramatic Art theory exam, which required pupils to describe how they would direct actors in the simulation of a rape using props to "maximise the horror". The Department of Basic Education remains unapologetic.

On Thursday, the Cape Times' two biggest front-page stories carried eerie parallels. On the left side: "Exam question appalling, says city playwright": a reference to the Matric exam question dealing with the rape of a baby. On the right side: "Baby of six weeks raped", an article telling the horrific story of a six-week old baby abducted and raped in Kimberley. It was yet another reminder that in South Africa, theoretical discussions about baby rape will find real-life examples all too closely to hand.

If you missed the uproar, a reportedly unseen component of the matric drama theory paper written on Monday presented pupils with an extract from Lara Foot's (previously Lara Foot-Newton) play Tshepang, dealing with the 2001 rape of a nine-month old baby who came to be known as Tshepang. (The actors do not use body parts to simulate the rape; stage directions require a performer to "[act] out the rape, using [a] broomstick and [a] loaf of bread".)

Foot's award-winning play has been performed internationally to rave reviews, described as "superbly written" and "startling and harrowing". The Irish Independent went so far as to say: "Lara Foot-Newton's play does what one hopes theatre is meant to do".

Nobody, then, should dispute the quality or nuance of the source material here. Foot's play is not the problem. It has, in the past, been both studied by, and performed to, South African high school pupils. As a former CEO of Johannesburg's Market Theatre, the Daily Maverick's own Brooks Spector had the following to say about Tshepang's reception by students: "It is an extraordinary play, a work that always had a major impact on student groups when they came to see it at the Market," Spector said. "But, and here's the but, it was part of a process of discussion with the students when they came to see it… When school groups attended there was very often a discussion afterwards and teachers were supposed to have prepped students ahead of time."

Part of the contention about the exam question, then, is that it was allegedly part of an "unseen" component of the exam paper. It was also a compulsory question. The two elements of the question which have caused the most concern were, firstly: "Why did the playwright choose to use the symbols of a loaf of bread to represent the baby and the broomstick as the 'rapist'?"; and, more problematically, "Describe how you would get the actor portraying Simon to perform [the rape act] to maximise the horror of the rape for the audience".

It would be interesting to know what the 'model answers' for both questions were considered to be by the exam-setters. For the first one (and admittedly I'm going in here devoid of the context of the rest of the play), perhaps something along the lines of: "The loaf of bread is passive and defenceless; the broomstick is a hard, phallic object capable of penetrating with force". It's hard to imagine some matrics not feeling discomfort while trying to explain to an invisible marker why a broomstick is like a rapist's penis.

The second question is far more contentious, however. In order to get an actor to "maximise the horror of a rape", albeit while using inanimate tools, it is surely impossible to avoid considering the mechanics of raping a baby. This is arguably even more the case because in the previous question, students have just been asked to bridge the divide between the metaphorical and the literal in analysing the link between the bread and the baby, and the broomstick and the rapist. What would one give as an answer? Truly, the mind boggles. "I would get the actor to brutally stab the broomstick into the bread over and over again until the bread splits in two?" Would that be enough horror for the examiners? Is the attribution of marks contingent on the degree of horror conjured?

It is unfathomable to imagine what a matric student whose life has been touched by rape or sexual assault would go through psychologically while attempting to give an answer to that question. But in fact we don't have to go very far to find out: in an excellent column on the subject for Women24, Sian Ferguson quoted a matric rape survivor as saying: "I basically had to describe the rape of a nine-month-old baby. I couldn't do that without thinking about my own rape. I couldn't do that without experiencing those flashbacks."

Armchair pundits do not need to speculate about potential harm here. Almost every major print outlet has run a story on the exam question quoting some matric students as feeling uncomfortable, distressed or nauseated by the question. Lara Foot herself, in a statement on Wednesday, called the question "totally inappropriate and frankly appalling". She also expressed concern that the question would "lead to pupils being robbed of the chance to study the play".

In some regards it's not hard to imagine what the examiners were thinking. To invoke a tired cliché: some of the best art holds up a mirror to society, and South African art shouldn't shy away from the darker realities of our society. This is precisely why Foot's piece is viewed as such a powerful work. But there are surely many other, less harmful ways to educate matric students as to the evils of rape and its prevalence in society than by essentially asking them to imagine the most awful rape they can muster. In terms of the mental processes required of the candidate in constructing an answer, is there a world of difference between the "maximise the horror" question and simply asking the students to describe a gruesome rape? Many would argue not.

Such a question does nothing to interrogate the roots of rape; examine prevailing gender inequalities and social conditions which might give rise to rape; or ask students to give thoughts to anti-rape initiatives. It simply presents them, in a violent, unexpected way, with the horror of rape, and then requires them to elaborate on the mechanics of the act.

The Department of Basic Education doesn't agree. "The horror and aversion the audience feels [while watching the play] is achieved without resorting to an actual rape," the department said in a statement. "The candidate has to work out the best way to achieve this theatrically and symbolically. Nowhere is it expected of the candidate to have to literally describe the actual act of raping a nine-month-old baby."

The statement continues: "Given the nature and content of Dramatic Arts, it is assumed that learners are familiar with such passages and would have been trained to deal with their personal emotions relating to the matter." This is a wildly, indeed disingenuously, optimistic approach, given what we know about the parlous state of our education system. It also fails to take into account, as many commentators have noted, the already high-stress situation of matric exam-writing - upon which many futures are staked.

At no point in its statement does the department apologise for any distress caused. It concludes by announcing that the question might be scrapped from assessment if there is "evidence that candidates have been affected by this question". Exactly how this will be assessed is unclear, but the department is taking these steps to "ensure that no candidate has been negatively affected". It's a stunningly cold response that considers the only "negative effects" of answering such a question could be losing a few marks, rather than experiencing trauma.

The Department of Basic Education, as a friend pointed out, has a stated "duty of care" to pupils. Such a duty of care does not include shielding them from all the awful realities of our society, but it surely does include presenting them with such realities in a sensitive, compassionate manner, which is empathetic of the degree to which individual lives may have been touched by horror.

This article appeared in Daily Maverick.