I want to imagine a South Africa where we are living happily along, sitting around a bush fire, and just appreciating the blessings we have. But somehow COVID-19 has pulled the rug from under us, and just revealed all of the rubbish found swept under this rug. How do we deal with all of this? One of the solutions that makes sense to me is to talk about what is going on around us, to speak to those who are walking on the frontlines, fighting the hard fight for all of us. And today I speak to such a person. Many of you may be familiar with the name June Dolley Major; June started a second hunger strike on 1 July 2020 to get the attention of the Anglican Church on to her plight which has not been dealt with for close to 20 years.
Olivia M Coetzee interviews Reverend June Dolley Major
Can you tell me more about yourself?
I am 51 years young. I have an amazing 25-year-old son and an equally amazing daughter-in-law, whom I love with all of my being. I’m an ordained priest in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. I love nature, sunrises and sunsets, taking pictures of the sky, because God paints a new masterpiece for us all of the time. I love picnics and long drives. I’m passionate about fighting against any form of injustice and I’m very vocal. Even if it makes me unpopular at times, I will not be silent in the face of injustice. By nature I’m shy and an introvert. As an activist I am very outspoken. I’m old-fashioned and romantic at heart. I love personal handwritten letters, compared with typed-up letters. I love receiving chocolates and flowers, even though it rarely happens. I’ve been divorced for many years now. At present I’m single.
What inspired you to become a priest?
I received the calling to be a priest at a very young age. From when I was a young child I was involved at church. I would go with my gran and the Anglican Women’s Fellowship and visit the sick. I’d lay hands on them and pray for them. At a young age I asked Jesus into my life. When I was a teenager, the uprisings of the ‘80’s happened. I was very involved in activities fighting against apartheid. I became very angry at how non- white people were treated. I started to question God why. For the first time since my childhood I questioned God and I was so angry at seeing all the bloodshed and injustices because of the colour of our skin.
Then one night God spoke to me in a dream and I awoke, and my Bible was open to 2 Corinthians 5:11–6:1, a section titled “The ministry of reconciliation”. On 6 April 1986 I asked God to forgive me for questioning Him and once again committed my life to following His ways and this ministry that He had called me to. Also on the day of the Trojan Horse massacre, as I stood there I made a vow to God to always fight against injustices. I was actively involved in church organisations and in missions, both locally and internationally. From school, I went on to Bible College. God called me to the priesthood.
How important is it still for female representation in leadership roles within our churches?
It is very important, in fact vital, that women should still take on leadership roles within the church. Jesus always included women in His ministry. The first person to testify to the risen Christ was a woman. Jesus gave us all the Great Commission. Women are God’s creation, just as men. Women were used throughout the history of our Christian faith. We have so much to offer.
We are living in an age where rape has been so normalised that we do not even bat an eyelid when a mother, or sister, or baby child is raped. What do you think led to this normalisation of this rape culture?
Sadly yes, rape has become normalised, and society is to blame for it. Boys are raised different from girls. Boys are taught not to show emotion, told tigers don’t cry. Or that they are sissies if they cry or show any form of weakness. Boys are taught to fight and grow up being aggressive and to suppress their feelings. We grow up in a patriarchal society, where women are viewed as the weaker sex, told that they need to be submissive to men and to be silent and not question the man. Boys grow up and exercise power over women. When a woman is raped, then fingers are pointed at the woman. What she was wearing comes into question. She’s accused of flirting, drinking, asked what she was doing out late at night, why she was at a bar, etc. Women are told that they were looking for it, that they provoked the man. The woman gets blamed. Then there’s jokes about women, seeing them as sex objects, body-shaming them.
Society sees this as acceptable, but this feeds into rape culture. If a woman wants to report rape, then excuses are made for the rapist, especially if he is a high-profile person. If he is married, then the victim is accused of wanting to break up his home. If the perpetrator is a family member or someone held in high esteem, then the victim is told to keep quiet to protect the name of the family or institution. Society covers up for husbands, fathers, grandfathers, neighbours who rape. We watch movies and there is so much sex and violence and the hero in the movie is mostly seen to have many sexual conquests. So sadly, rape is normalised.
As we are once again stepping into “celebrating” Women’s Month, do you think that celebrating women’s rights throughout this month makes a difference in what women go through daily?
My straight answer is “No”. We do not need a month dedicated to women. We have nothing to celebrate in this month. It needs to be 365 days of awareness and activism and action. Women are still being raped and killed in August, as we run our Women’s Month programmes. What needs to happen is that our laws need to be enforced. No bail for rapists, life sentence with no possibility of parole. I’d like to add that they need to do hard labour, and be paid for it, but that money should go to the rape survivor.
Do you want to talk about how your experience as a rape survivor has affected your relationship with the church, and how it has affected your relationship with God?
My experience as a rape survivor has not negatively affected my relationship with the church or God. We need to remember that the people make up the church, and then there’s the institutional church. My fight is with certain individuals within the church and with the hierarchy of the church, who cover it up and silence the victims. Among the church members are many victims and survivors. Some of the clergy are perpetrators. If anything, my relationship with God has strengthened. He was there for me when many within the body of Christ turned their backs on me and when the hierarchy turned their backs on me. If it wasn’t for my faith in God and His undying love for me, then I would never have survived. I’m resilient because of God.
A year or so ago I shared my story of my rape, and how I am still walking with the unhealed wounds of it. A few of my Facebook friends inboxed me to share their story with me. Have other women within your profession, or in general, reached out to you when you started speaking out about your rape? And how did other women’s responses to your rape influence how you engaged with your battle?
Many women, and even men, reached out to me and shared their stories of rape, most saying that they are too afraid to break the silence and encouraging me to continue fighting for them as well. It made me more determined to continue with my battle. I was silenced for many years, so know exactly how they are feeling. When you are raped, a part of you dies. Their stories help me to be the voice of the voiceless. It makes me more determined to fight patriarchy, gender-based violence and systems that fail the victim.
Are you able to share a bit of your experience after your first hunger strike in 2016 and how the Anglican Church handled it, and if it is any different from what you’re experiencing now?
At the end of my hunger strike in 2016 Archbishop Thabo Makgoba made certain promises to me, which I believed that he would honour. Unfortunately, as he turned his back and left that day, that was the last that I heard from him. He literally turned his back on me. From the end of that hunger strike to the start of my second hunger strike a lot happened in my life. I suffered tremendously; I lost every worldly possession that I had. I faced hunger and homelessness and stayed a while in a shelter. Found work in a low-income lodge in another province. It was not a nice environment. I was beaten up by drunken guests a few times and held up and tied up and beaten up in an armed robbery. So, with my second hunger strike I decided to do it outside the residence of the Archbishop in Bishopscourt. The Archbishop came out to see me on day one, but he embodied patriarchy and was so cold in his approach. In fact, he was callous and not willing to do as I asked. A few days later he came again, and I gave the same requests. This time I put it down in an e-mail. He asked me to end my hunger strike, but after having learned a hard lesson in 2016, I refused to end it until I received a response to my e-mail. After receiving the response, I ended my hunger strike. The process that was suggested has been very frustrating. I cannot go into much detail now, as I will be responding to them on Tuesday, God willing. This time around I am wiser in my dealings with the hierarchy. I learnt the hard way from my first hunger strike.
The church (the building as well as the culture) is supposed to be a safe space. Is this true or not, and can you tell us why you think so?
Sadly, the sanctity of the church and its culture has been tarnished by certain clergy who abuse their power as priest and bishop. Many boys over the years have been raped by priests, and this has been covered up for decades. Women have been sexually abused and raped by priests. Though the church is supposed to be a safe space for women and children, not all churches are safe.
Patriarchy says that if a woman reports abuse or rape, then it is the woman who has problems with men. This was also told of me. So in essence, as long as patriarchy rules the church, women and children are not 100% safe there.
How do you see the difference between a rape survivor and a rape victim, if any?
This is a tough question and I will try to keep it as brief as possible. The words “victim” and “survivor” are words that I’ve grappled with for a very long time now. People are always telling us to get out of victim mode and go into survivor mode. But should we? We do not speak of a victim of robbery, as a survivor of robbery, so why is it then different with sexual offences?
To me, when the word “survivor” is used, the focus is placed on me. The word “victim”, however, puts the focus on the perpetrator, the person who violated me. The crime should be the focus and not me. When we hear the word “victim” we are reminded of the crime. When we hear “survivor” it takes the perpetrator out of the picture.
How does one actually survive rape? The scars are always there, the person penetrated me without my consent, then there’s PTSD, the years of pain and nightmares, everything that I’ve lost, both materially and as far as relationships are concerned. Rape changes a person. Before the rape, I was a survivor, a strong person already. The rape did not make me strong; I was already strong. It did not make me a survivor; I was already a survivor. I was all that before a man raped me.
I’ve said it numerous times, after I broke the fear and silence, that it was and is not my shame. It is the shame of my rapist. So society wants to hear me say that I am a survivor – they identify better with that term. There’s a stigma attached to identifying yourself as a victim. So, I say that I am a survivor, but I also know that I am the victim of a heinous crime. Let us consider language carefully before we judge.
Sexual abuse and rape within our communities has been swept under the rug for as long as I can remember. Why do you think we turn a blind eye when we see these things happen in our families, communities, or in our professional spaces?
We turn a blind eye when it does not affect us personally. We turn a blind eye when we are protecting family members, friends, institutions. We turn a blind eye because we blame the victim. We turn a blind eye because it is such a part of life that people are no more shocked by it.
The word “femicide” is used a lot, and you have used it before. What does this word mean to you, and how do you see us fighting this system of injustices and oppression that women and children face in South Africa?
Femicide is basically the killing of women and girls. Its evil root is patriarchy, systemic gender-based discrimination, both of which I experienced. It is violence against women and children, which is sadly accepted, tolerated, and even justified.
We need to break down patriarchy and all the evils associated with it. Though the law is there on paper, it is not always practised. We see victims are raped and killed over and again by the system. A system that is supposed to protect us but has abandoned us. This includes SAPS and the judicial system. Again, the language that we use, like "innocent until proven guilty", puts the perpetrator at an advantage. We are basically telling the victim that she needs to prove that she’s not lying.
SAPS officers need to get proper training in dealing with GBV. There should be victim-friendly rooms with trained workers at each police station. All police stations should have rape kits. We need sexual offences courts. Stop victim-blaming and body-shaming the victims. Perpetrators should be arrested, no bail and no parole. Proper counselling should be arranged for the victim. Fund safe and emergency houses for victims of GBV.
We are excluding men when we speak out about sexual abuse and rape, but they are not excluded – many are sexually abused, many are raped, but don’t speak out. What is your opinion about this?
I have never excused men as also victims of rape. In fact, on numerous occasions I’ve asked them to break the fear and the silence. Some have reached out to me, but are too afraid to speak out. To some extent it is harder for a man to break the silence because society teaches them that men don’t cry. Their manhood and male ego will be brought into question and they will be called derogatory names. Again, I say to male victims, as I say to female victims, it is not your shame. It is the shame of the rapist. Break the fear so that you can break the silence.