By Tswelopele Makoe
This past week, the 20th annual Unisa Founders Lecture took place, where the keynote address was presented by Her Excellency President Dr Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the 24th President of the Republic of Liberia.
She remains Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state in addition to being an esteemed economist, Nobel Peace Prize awardee, and – my favourite part – a global leader for women’s empowerment.
This year, as Unisa turned 150 years, the theme of the lecture was: Reclaiming Africa’s intellectual futures into the next 150 years and beyond.
The futuristic event, which was live-streamed to YouTube, was particularly befitting to our country’s annual campaign, better-known as “16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children”.
This internationally observed UN campaign is held every year from November 25, which marks: the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The campaign runs through to December 10th, the International Human Rights Day.
From academia to civil society, to legislature, it is painfully evident that Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) has plagued our society. This was especially highlighted during the Covid-19 global pandemic, where the national rate of GBVF rose by an outrageous 500%.
It was also evident that GBV was not only impacting women, but men and children as well – and that this was being intentionally side-lined by some sections of the mainstream media, the government, and law enforcement agencies.
The GBVF has historically been pioneered by women, for women – particularly in light of the stark gender inequalities that leave so many women vulnerable and destitute.
However, the erasure of certain voices and experiences from the rhetoric and discourses around GBVF is an injustice in itself, I want to contend, and a disservice to those that are violated and assaulted.
In fact, this deters most males from understanding and engaging with GBVF in their society. Much of the time, GBVF is stamped a “female issue” that strictly protects and values women and young girls.
Violence against males is an issue that is increasingly prevalent and cannot be ignored any longer. Tackling GBVF will of course require collective strength, collaboration, and the pooling together of resources.
It requires all of the tenets of our society, from political and religious to environmental and socio-economics.
This year, the theme for the 16 Days of Activism Campaign as led by our democratic state is “Accelerating actions to end gender-based violence & femicide”. It has a sub-theme focusing on “safe access for women, to clean water – “a basic human right”.
This annual campaign, first launched in 1991, was instituted by a group of activists as an organising strategy for individuals and organisations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.
Fact is, this is an issue that remains rampant across contemporary global societies.
According to the World Health Organisation, 736 million women – almost 1 in 3 women world-wide, experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. In South Africa alone, 10 516 rapes, 14 401 assaults, and 1 514 cases of attempted murder were reported within three months only.
According to the UN, majority of violent cases against women emerge as intimate partner violence. In South Africa, the rate at which women are killed by intimate partners is five times higher than the global average. In the final analysis, women are often times at the greatest risks from the people that they live with, the people they otherwise trust.
It is therefore vital, now more than ever, to ensure that that inclusivity, diversity, interaction, and introspection around GBVF and social justice discourse is heightened.
Empowerment, not only of women but society at large, should be rooted in equity and education. The transformation that takes place in educational institutions is one that requires the participation of all of the members of our society.
Women make up 51% of the African continent, yet they remain the most marginalised group across Africa. Education is the starting point for many of our societal ills.
The Unisa Founders Lecture was therefore especially valuable as it underscored the need to develop African intellectualism, and to ensure the promotion of women in spaces of leadership.
Esteemed academic Dr Mantepu MaseTshaba also spoke at the Unisa Founders Lecture. She cast her spotlight on the need to engage a value system that respects education as much as we ought to.
She further stressed the point that we absolutely cannot change education without changing our country’s economy, which is currently shaped according to Euro-western economic models.
We cannot look to the future without first considering the ways in which our current education system is moulding us for the future, she argued.
Ours is a multicultural, multilingual, multi-ethnic nation, with an array of complex challenges.
As the erudite former Liberian President Sirleaf accurately pointed out: “It is the African philosophy of Ubuntu that propagates the essence of mutual human compassion and collective communalism, which has been incorporated into social studies, psychological treatments, workplace behaviours, amongst many more.
“Ultimately, we need to facilitate solutions that are catered to our unique context. We need to intensify the need to harness all forms of knowledge in our society in order to meaningfully enact positive change.”
What was distinctly refreshing about the Unisa Founders Lecture is that the discourse on the 16 days of activism focused on the development of African women, rather than the various forms of violence that they are rhetorical.
It is pertinent that the fight against GBFV is not merely breaking down subjugation, but also building up and empowering its constituents. It was particularly meaningful to have the first female African president in this discourse, as President Sirleaf is truly exemplary of the immense transformation that comes about when women are in positions of power.
She is a true measure of the unique strengths and perspectives that women in leadership hold. Education has always been central to the actualisation of development and progression.
The current South African context holds over 22 million youths as citizens. It is anticipated that by 2050, over a quarter of the total continental population will comprise of the youth.
Critical thinking and social justice discourses, especially amongst the youth, cannot be overstated in building a sustainable future for the African continent.
President Sirleaf was accurate in her insistence that the African leadership of today must prepare for the transition that enables of the dynamic youth – with all of their talents – to have the opportunity to take charge.
It is crucial that we harness African consciousness and African intellectualism in order to address our extensive societal challenges, promote meaningful change, and shape our future for the better.
This issue is deeper than mitigating GBVF. It is the actualisation of social justice and transformation.
Our society is intersectional and deeply interconnected. Violence does not stand in isolation, it is ingrained in our societal systems, structures, and ideologies. In order to tackle it effectively, and enact meaningful change, we need to place an emphasis on collaboration and active participation.
As we embark on the remainder of the 16 days of activism, I implore everyone to consider the future of Africa, and be steadfast in the development of that vision.
As Dr MaseTshaba observed: “The next Einstein will come from Africa - in fact, she will come from Africa.”
* Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist. She is also an Andrew W Mellon scholar, pursuing an MA Ethics at UWC, and affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. The views expressed are her own.