Blaming capitalism for SA’s gender-based violence pandemic is not just rhetoric

By Opinion Time of article published Dec 1, 2020

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By Reneva Fourie

On November 25, President Ramaphosa launched the “16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children” campaign. This campaign, which takes place in South Africa annually, was first launched internationally in 1991 and is supported by more than 6 000 organisations and about 187 countries.

To emphasise the seriousness attached to this matter in South Africa, the campaign is augmented with world-class legislation, national summits, and institutional support – including a Board to monitor a national strategy and programmes aimed at eradicating gender-based violence and femicide in the country.

The increased awareness has also contributed to more South African men publicly condemning gender-based violence, femicide, and violence against children.

Despite the high levels of awareness, the outcries, and the interventions by government, non-government entities and citizens at large, the scourge of domestic violence and rape still features prominently in our society.

A total of 2 930 women were murdered in South Africa in 2017/18, with a femicide rate of 15.2 murders per 100 000 women.

The police recorded 52 420 sexual offences in 2018/19, of which 41 583 were rape. This figure excludes the thousands that go unreported because sexual violence remains a personal violation that is not easily discussed.

The bulk of the assaults were committed by a known person or intimate partner.

Unfortunately, among those who believe that beating an intimate partner is allowable, the number of women who themselves believe that it is acceptable is not significantly less than men who hold those beliefs.

Some of the rationalisations for the violence include arguing with partners, going out without informing their partners, failing to take appropriate care of the children, or burning the food. This demonstrates that gender-based violence, including domestic violence, is systemically embedded.

According to the National Strategic Plan on Gender-based Violence and Femicide, gender-based violence refers to:

“the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with the gender, associated with the sex assigned to a person at birth, as well as the unequal power relations between the genders, within the context of a specific society.

“GBV includes physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse or threats of such acts or abuse, coercion, and economic or educational deprivation, whether occurring in public or private life, in peacetime and during armed or other forms of conflict, and may cause physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economic harm.”

Its stubborn pervasiveness can be attributed to the fact that this phenomenon is deeper than psychology or sociology. While those factors are relevant, they are merely superstructural manifestations of a particular economic base, namely capitalism.

Within this context, the emphasis is not on capitalism as a job creator or promoter of innovation, for those phenomena existed in feudal societies and currently exist in socialist societies.

And while the operations and adverse impacts of the system of capitalism on humanity and the environment are international in character, the emphasis in this context is on how it, as a mode of production, creates an environment conducive to the demeaning of human beings in general, and women in particular, to the extent that ill-treatment becomes acceptable.

Such demeaning conditions include unemployment, poverty, excessive materialism, inequality, gender norms and unequal power relations at an interpersonal level.

In a capitalist system, human beings are primarily valued, and power relations are generally defined in accordance with the amount of money that people have, as opposed to the value that is brought to society.

In the quest to accumulate material wealth, particularly in the sphere of production, profit maximisation becomes a necessity for those who own the means of production; and workers, who do not own the means of production, and are compelled to sell their labour for a pittance.

Those who fail to be absorbed by the system, the unemployed, are left without any sense of social security; and everyone who has an income below what is generally determined as the poverty line, is left feeling worthless, regardless of talent or capability.

In some countries, governments fill the gap by ensuring that basic services, such as water, electricity, health care, education, shelter and food are available to all, through either providing mass public sector jobs or a comprehensive social security network.

South Africa, despite the governing party and its alliance partners being pro-poor, increasingly champions economic development policies that seek to stimulate the growth of businesses, in a hope that it will redress inequities.

The notion of inclusive growth is, of course, a misnomer – as the very system that is supposed to champion egalitarian development is dependent on these contradictions for its survival.

The cycle of exploitative inter-dependence inherent in capitalism results in the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer, as inter-generational wealth or poverty are reinforced.

The expansion of class disparities intensifies inequality and results in a deepening crisis of social reproduction due to, among others, self-esteem, particularly of those who are unable to navigate the system, plummeting.

Within the context where human beings are objectified, those on the lowest scale of the rank, bear the biggest brunt.

So ruthless is the system of capitalism that it also breeds a societal mindset where children too are viewed by some as a burden, until they can be absorbed into the system of production and capital accumulation.

In a capitalist system, power relations are largely skewed against women. Even those who manage to succeed in the echelons of power are generally paid less than their male counterparts.

The majority of women, however, form the bulk of the unemployed, or occupy the lower ends of salary scales.

There are 4.1% more unemployed women in South Africa than men.

Women bear the brunt of poverty with 39.2% of women-headed households not having an employed household member. Nationally, 43% of children live with mothers only, while only one third (33,8%) live with both parents (2018).

The reasons for gender-based violence are many. A significant factor, however, is that those who are excluded economically become vulnerable to abuse in a system where money is everything, and which enables the wealthy to dominate and control those with less.

We cannot replace capitalism with a more egalitarian economic system overnight, but we can begin to challenge the values that underpin it.

We are African, and Africans have a rich historical culture of communitarianism and of inter-personal respect. We can protect our senses of humanity, dignity and decency, and refrain from abuse and gender-based violence.

At the same time, the South African government must choose a development path that draws more on the capabilities of its people, through ending outsourcing and advancing mass public employment around projects that provide basic services and food security.

State-owned enterprises are among the key vehicles that can be used to make this attainable. The provision of public work must be supplemented with basic income grants.

Providing people, especially women, with economic security provides a good foundation from which values – emanating from a denigrating system – can be challenged.

* Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security, and is currently based in Damascus, Syria.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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