It is that time of the year, when we all reflect on the past year that was and has been and 2019 is no exception. Unfortunately, South Africa has not disappointed in its extreme levels of violence meted against women and girl children. Not a day went by without a headline story of a young girl or a baby raped, or a woman gruesomely killed by an intimate partner, or a queer woman killed for being lesbian.
There were other sexual violations of women and girls that never made the headlines, including the many sexual harassment incidences at various workplaces, the endless number of women applying for protection orders against abusive partners.
As well, we recall the many women who took time off work to sit at a maintenance court to claim what is legally and lawfully due for their children, women who covered their bruised faces with make-up and pretended that they are in control and have it together, the women who qualified for promotion or a salary increase but were denied such unless they have forced sex with their male bosses.
We are reminded of the many women who woke up at 4am daily to read themselves to beat the dark streets of their townships to catch a taxi or a metro train and were sexually assaulted in the dark alley or in the taxi.
We are constantly reminded of many women who cannot leave an abusive relationship because of the dependency on the abusive partner, women who are controlled by being financially abused by the lovers and partners.
We know of the women who quit their jobs because of sexism and discrimination at the workplace, women who left their lecture rooms at UCT to protest the brutal killing of one of their own and the many women who placed their bodies at the #SandtonShutDown protest, demanding accountability and response from corporate South Africa on gender based violence, specifically sexual harassment.
In response to these protests against gender-based violence and femicide and their determined spirit forced the Administration of the country to announce an emergency response action plan accompanied by a R1.6 billion budget. We, as well, know that women who went to police stations and reported sexual assaults or domestic violence against a husband, spouse or partner and were given unsolicited advice to go home and work it out or that they caused the assault because they angered their “precious men.”
We know of women who never reported the sexual violations for fear of reprisal and/or intimidation from the perpetrators, women who refused to report rape because society never believed them. We know of women who did not report rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence to law enforcement agencies because the justice system failed those before them.
We know, as well, of women who refused to be silenced by naming and shaming those men who sexually assaulted them but confronted with endless questioning about the authenticity or truthfulness of their stories and how they chose to tell their sexual violation stories.
We know of women who have been steadfast in their fight and quest for equity and equality, the women who through their pain of physical, emotional and financial abuse refused to be silenced by demanding changes in attitudes and behavioral norms. They broke their silence and exposed perpetrators of violence against women and young girls.
We pay homage and respect to the many women, whose faces, bodies, voices, demeanour, ideas, accomplishments, integrity were analysed because they dared to contest a school governing seat, political office or shop steward position or speak truth to power or stood up for those women who could not speak for themselves.
The violence against women and girls in this country has been met with more speeches from politicians, denouncing the violence and the convening of several events meant to highlight the scourge of the violence as a crisis. Since the announcement by the President of the emergency response action plan, we saw more attention given to gender–based violence by various news outlets, we witnessed push back from certain sections of society when a perpetrator of violence named is known to them - excuses, justification and “mansplaining” these grotesque, egregious and criminal conducts away.
Meanwhile, we are yet to hear the voices of the religious community which has been found wanting on this issue. More cases of sexual abuse have been reported against pastors of churches, priests and bishops but the leadership of the religious sector has kept mum.
We are yet to hear the unequivocal voice of the traditional leaders that has been missing in the discourse despite cultural practices used as an excuse for the subjugation and violence against women and girls.
Our courts were kept busy during this period. We witnessed magistrates granting bail in cases where it was not justified, we have seen other magistrates granting bail where appropriate - accepting that each case must be judged on its own merit one can only comment on the inconsistencies in sentencing, which leads to a culture of impunity.
As long as our lower courts allow evasive cross examinations that deal exclusively with sexual history and behaviour, attacking women’s character and fail to develop fuller appreciation that few women invent allegations of rape, the chance of successful rape convictions and consistent sentencing is dimmed.
The cherry on top was the Constitutional judgment in the matter between Mr. Ntuli and Mr. Tshabalala and other accused who were found guilty of eight counts of rape, seven of which were imposed based on the application of the doctrine of common purpose. In 1998 the men above-mentioned went on a rampage by forcing themselves into several homes, ransacked, looted and stabbed one of the occupants in one of the houses. While committing these crimes, the group of men raped eight women repeatedly; amongst those raped was a 14-year-old pregnant girl, whilst the rapes were ongoing, some of the men stood outside to be on the lookout. These men were apprehended and charged in 1999 and appeared before the High Court.
The two convicted rapists mentioned above, applied to the Constitutional Court to set aside their convictions and sentences, the application was unsuccessful but the instructive judgement is one penned by Justice Khampepe, “Rape is a scourge that affects women of all races, classes and sexual orientations, but we know that in South Africa rape has a pernicious effect on black women specifically. To erase the racial element in this epidemic is to erase the experiences of the women of that horrendous night. This “intersectional erasure” is a rhetorical gesture that only negates the lived experience of women at these intersections of oppressed identities but also means that our response to the crisis will always be deficient and under-inclusive. Speaking of rape on these terms is not a preoccupation with personal identity but an analysis of the ways in which power impacts particular women.”
This judgement has put notice on impunity and power and it has to go beyond this judgment in this society’s rude awakening that rape is never committed by an unknown monster, or because the man was drunk, or because he is poor or unemployed. Husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, lovers, mentors, bosses and colleagues commit this vile, hideous and criminal act.
We will, no doubt, start the new year with a renewed sense of urgency to work tirelessly on the prevention of gender based violence and femicide interventions, recognition and acknowledgement that the elimination of violence against women and girls are not the sole responsibility of women but is the responsibility of all the 58 million South African found in the churches, trade union movements, government, corporate South Africa, political parties, traditional leadership, religious organisations, civil society organisations, schools, institutions of higher learning and in our respective homes.
We are now at a point in society wherein we are no longer reluctant to publicly discuss sexist oppression. Acts of violence against women and girl children are an expression of perverted power relations and general lack of control over one’s actions and that power must be smashed.