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SA is a nation at war with women and children

Black women, especially young black women in post-apartheid South Africa, remain the most vulnerable economically and socially, says the writer. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Black women, especially young black women in post-apartheid South Africa, remain the most vulnerable economically and socially, says the writer. Picture: Tracey Adams/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Jun 12, 2022


By Nonceba Mhlauli

The recently released crime stats for quarter one of 2022 depict an alarming picture of a continued war against the bodies of women and children in our society.

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The reported crimes committed in the first quarter of the year indicate a sharp increase in the number of women and children who were raped and murdered. In the first three months of this year, 10 818 people were raped in South Africa.

Almost half of the cases took place at the home of the victim or the home of the rapist. Of the 6 083 people killed in the country, 898 of them were women, and 306 were children under the age of 17. Alarmingly, the murder of children recorded a 37.2% increase in the period of reporting.

Therefore, the declaration of gender-based violence as the second pandemic was accurate. However, unlike Covid-19, we seem to be losing the battle against this pandemic. With all the progressive legislation in South Africa, which seeks to eliminate unequal power relations between men and women, one question we must ask is why are women becoming increasingly unsafe in this country? Where does this culture emanate from, and more importantly, how do we bring it to an end?

To borrow from the words of Karl Marx – history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. It is, therefore, important to get a brief historical account of the violent masculinities engraved in the DNA of South Africa, which manifests itself through social ills such as gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) today.

Defining GBV, the Women Empowerment and Gender Equality Act states that GBV denotes “all acts perpetrated against women, girls, men and boys based on their gender, sex or sexual orientation which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economic harm, and includes any threat to cause harm”.

At the minimum, we agree with this definition, although in the context of South Africa, GBV is almost always perpetrated by men on women because of the unequal power relations between the two, as depicted by the staggering crime statistics.

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Tracing the crisis South Africa is a very violent country. There was a perpetual normalisation of violence under apartheid, and post-apartheid South Africa has not been able to cleanse itself from this culture of violence.

As it were, this culture of violence saw white Afrikaner men embody hegemonic masculinities – something Bell Hooks defines as “White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”. To date, this behaviour continues, and it is not only prevalent among white Afrikaner men – it is a South African problem.

The tightening racial edifice of the apartheid state evolved into a political and social struggle that became increasingly defined by violent opposition. Masculinities were constructed alongside and amid these realities, creating what Penelope Andrews terms “(t)he lethal cocktail of apartheid masculinities.

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Apartheid has left a legacy of violent masculinities. Apartheid emasculated black men. They were called boys, denied respect, and treated as subordinates.” The struggle of apartheid was both the struggle for freedom and, for men, it was a struggle to regain their masculinities. Men were forced to migrate for employment and work in mines. As men were forced to migrate to the mines for work, wage labour became critical, and was a crucial defining characteristic of masculinity as men increasingly became the sole provider for their families back in the reserves.

Today, as traditional expectations underpinned by this history are entrenched, the questions of strength and the extent to which one can provide for one’s family are key among men.

In the absence of these apparent manhood symbols, men seek alternative dominance through violent means. Black women, especially young black women in post-apartheid South Africa, remain the most vulnerable economically and socially, with 40.6% without jobs in the first quarter of the year. This is a crisis.

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The question of what is to be done with these misplaced masculinities in post-apartheid South Africa remains and needs thorough thinking, especially among young people across party political lines, as we are the most destitute and most affected by the increasing levels of unsafety in our communities. Is there any hope for women and children in South Africa?

Our criminal justice system is failing women and children in this country. The crime statistics reported on are but a fraction of the actual levels of crime that take place on a daily basis. It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported.

The reluctance in reporting GBV is precisely because of the low levels of conviction and the masculine nature of the police conduct, which further traumatises victims. Therefore, the first component of ending this war on the bodies of women and children is addressing the institutional challenges in our law enforcement agencies tasked to keep us safe.

We need a police service that is seen as the centre of communities instead of a police that is highly militarised, victim-blaming, perpetrator-protecting, and mostly lacks accountability. The question of what it means to serve has to be central in this regard.

At a societal level, we must admit that we will never overcome GBVF with the dominance of patriarchy, which in the South African context, is rooted in apartheid racial and class divisions.

Therefore, the mainstreaming of gender studies in all our schools from early childhood development stages is paramount. Young boys and girls must be conscientised from their earliest socialisation. We must, as society, revitalise and promote a culture of dialogue. Our legal frameworks must be supported by social action.

Government must invest in key points of intervention that will encourage behavioural change. The creation of platforms where the type of behaviour expected from men in post-apartheid South Africa is discussed is one of the questions that government should be seized with.

Lastly, and more importantly, because the South African patriarchal system is racial and capitalist in its nature, the radical socio-economic empowerment of women is now more urgent than before. This must be the foremost priority of all progressives for a future South Africa that is safe and non-sexist.

* Mhlauli writes in her personal capacity.

* * Mhlauli is the National Convener of the ANCYL and Spokesperson for the Ministry in the Presidency