OPINION - Women of all orientations came out in large numbers last week in Ethekwini, assembling at Curries Fountain. Energized, we came together in our black and red ensembles – intentional, thought out and even, fashionable. 

Amongst the crowd, I spotted members from most of our political parties, representatives from NGOs as well as government departments including the Department of Social Development and the Department of Justice, who it was shared, loaned the organisers a PA system.

The air was peaceful yet resolute, celebratory but determined. Women were singing and dancing as an expression of power and pain and there were chilling offerings from several poets that spoke directly to the march’s tagline: “My body – not your crime scene”. All of our orientations, ethnicities and political party allegiances cannot stand in the way because we have a common goal – to decrease and eventually eradicate gender based violence.

The #TotalShutDown march, is an intersectional women’s march against gender based violence organized by a group of ordinary women who grew weary of reports of violence against women. 

Women, children, and the LGBTQIA+ community continue to die at the hands of men in South Africa. Women (especially Black women as numeric majority) face ongoing abuse, murder, kidnapping and sexual violation yet crimes committed against them are either under reported or watered down. 

For those reasons, what initially started as a Facebook group has now come to life in the form of a national shutdown on 1 August 2018. Organisers asked that only women and gender non-conforming people all over the country down tools and stay away from work on 1 August. 

This will be the first of many steps that will be taken in the month of August to hold the government accountable for gender-based violence.

The shutdown emphasizes an intersectional approach to mobilizing, that means one that recognizes how gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social class, educational achievements, resident status, ethnic regionalism, and other variables contribute to social life and shape identity, behavior, opportunities, and access to resources within and between societies.   

The march takes on the spirit of 9 August 1956, when activist Lillian Ngoyi, who was president of the Federation of South African Women, led a protest march to the Union Buildings against the government's policy of forcing African women to carry government issued identity documents. 

At this protest march, the famous slogan "wathint' abafazi wathint' imbokodo, uzokufa" (You strike a woman; you have struck a rock; you will be destroyed) was uttered for the first time. 

Now, in recent years, young black women activists are again adopting the rallying cry: Mbokodo Lead Us!, imploring these unshakable rocks, the force known as “women” to pick up the baton and play a leading role in changing structures and seeking justice where there is none.

South Africa has a patriarchal tendency to treat women as beneficiaries of protest and activism rather than as agents in the construction of a new socio-political order and as drivers of change through protest. Nationalism was always the overriding motive for political organising, and women’s liberation was always held against that frame at the cost of gender equality concerns.  

Consequently there was, and continues to be, tension between nationalism and feminism in South Africa as an ideological framework within which to organize, partially because feminism is often perceived as a western middle-class and white ideology. It was thought that feminism could not fully address the particularities of (apartheid) South Africa. 

For example, issues related to sexuality, reproductive rights and bodily integrity, and gender-based violence were often overlooked as concerns of ‘western feminism’.  

Moreover, women’s movements during and shortly after apartheid were undeniably heterosexist, in the manner that they side-lined the concerns of lesbians, bisexuals and transgender women. 

Activist and scholar Shireen Hassim makes the point that “women do not mobilize as women simply because they are women”. By this she means to draw attention to the heterogeneity of women and their range of identities, resources and abilities which reinforces the emphasis on intersectionality at the #TotalShutDown march.

In South Africa, sexual violence is thick in the air we breathe. We often hear stories in passing, anecdotally or more intentionally as told by survivors. 

Some of us have to bear witness to testimonies from friends, family on experiences of sexual assault from both intimate partners and family members. We can list statistics, we listen to stories with horror and wide eyes and we see images circulating of attacks and dead bodies at the hands of femicide or ‘corrective rape’. 

We are all horrified, scared and frustrated and yet, we do not see the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction in the face of what has become a national crisis – after all South Africa did not earn the label of the rape capital from nowhere. What is it about our society that makes it so violent, pathologizes the victim and protects the perpetrator? 

In her seminal work Rape: a South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola charts a genealogy of sexual violence in South Africa, describing patterns of rape, asking what we can learn from famous cases of rape.  She questions why South Africa is losing the battle against rape even where we have a rich history of women mobilizing against injustices. Perhaps the remedy can be found in demonstrations like #TotalShutDown.

Already in mid-April 2016 students at Rhodes University publicized an infamous list dubbed the RU Reference List that contained the names of 11 men accused of committing rape at the university.  

There had only been two reported rapes in that year (one of which had been withdrawn) and as a result, the university’s management saw fit to admonish the publicized list dubbing it as a human rights violation and unconstitutional. 

What would unfold in the week that followed is a series of demonstrations and police interventions that would result in the university temporarily shutting down. 

While the action taken to draw up and publish the list of 11 men was indeed shocking and drastic (mainly because they have not been tried in a court of law and are therefore innocent), the black women activists’ actions was a desperate act to get the university to commit to reinforce policies and practices around sexual assault, increase prevention efforts, provide adequate support to sufferers and give appropriate penalty to perpetrators. 

Shortly after the RU Reference List, in August 2016, the infamous Kwezi protest took centre stage and interrupted then president, Jacob Zuma’s speech at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) briefing on the election results. The silent protest sought to spotlight Zuma’s power despite being accused of and on trial for rape some 10 years earlier. He was acquitted of raping a then 31-year-old HIV-positive family friend, known only as Khwezi.

Seemingly it is only when we shut things down in the loudest most inconvenient ways that we are not only seen but heard. I predict a future of many more protests of this nature. At least until major action is taken by the government.

Dr Mahali is a Senior Research Specialist in Human and Social Development (HSD) programme of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) but her views do not necessarily reflect those of HSD-HSRC.