South African women ask: What have we done?
Following the murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, women took to social media and told how they had been abused by men, using hashtags such as #AmINext and #BringNathaHome. The #DearMrPresident tag was created earlier in the day in an attempt to get President Cyril Ramaphosa to comment on the wave of femicide, abduction of children and looting of shops that has engulfed the country.
On Monday night, students at UCT held a night vigil for Mrwetyana where they sang the popular Struggle song Senzeni Na (What have we done?)
A 42-year-old suspect appeared in court on Monday on charges of murder, rape and defeating the ends of justice. He is accused of luring Mrwetyana to a Post Office after working hours and raping and killing her, and then bludgeoning her to death with a scale.
A probe has been launched into how the man got a job at the Post Office despite having a criminal record.
In another incident, Leighandre Jegels, a renowned East London professional boxer, was shot and killed by her policeman lover over the weekend.
World Health Organisation statistics show that South Africa’s femicide rate was 12.1 per 100000 people in 2016. This is almost five times higher than the global average of 2.6 per 100000.
The end of August - when South Africa marks Women’s Month - saw women and children killed and abused. On Monday, while the country was mourning Mrwetyana, Grade R pupil Amy Leigh de Jager was kidnapped outside her school as she was being dropped off. She was found on Tuesday.
UCT has declared Wednesday as a day of mourning and activism against gender-based violence. The institution’s chancellor, Graça Machel, and the chairperson of UCT’s council, Sipho Pityana, are also expected at Mrwetyana’s memorial service.
President Cyril Ramaphosa joined the leagues of people condemning the killing of women and children and called this “a very dark period for us as a country”. Ramaphosa said: “The assaults, rapes and murders of South African women are a stain on our national conscience. We have just commemorated Women’s Month. Sixty-three years after the women of 1956 marched for the right to live in freedom, women in this country live in fear - not of the apartheid police, but of their brothers, sons, fathers and uncles. We should all hang our heads in shame.”
Higher Health and the SA Union of Students have challenged men in the higher education space to speak out against abuse.
“As a priority, we challenge men within the higher education sector to speak up. To reject being part of social circles that condone the culture of sexism and patriarchy. To report men who are suspected to have committed crime and violence against women. To demand accountability from university and college leadership. And to help instil respect and positive values and emotions in a new generation of boys and younger men,” they said.
This was echoed by Universities South Africa chairperson Professor Ahmed Bawa, who said: “This tragedy is a clarion call for all men in our society to take a stand and be counted.”
South African Local Government Association spokesperson Sivuyile Mbambato said: “The unfortunate and senseless killing of Uyinene confirms that the fight against gender inequality, and for respect for women’s rights, is still a far-fetched dream in South Africa. Until the day when women can walk freely in our streets and even jog in the evening without having to watch their backs in fear of being kidnapped and raped, the freedom we claim to have is meaningless.”
Meanwhile, Sonke Gender Justice activist Nonhlanhla Skosana said women were under siege.
“You can be in your own home and you will be violated. Most of these incidents are happening in the home, so it tells us there is no space in South Africa for women that is safe,” said Skosana.
“It’s an issue that needs to be addressed at a family level. We really need to report these cases because these men start doing these things at a family level, and they see that it is possible then graduate to the community level.”
She said that in most cases incidents that took place at home in family set-ups were never reported.
“Even if they are aware of what is happening. Even in spaces like at funerals and celebrations, it is young women in those spaces. People act as if nothing happens, and their family members get hurt, but still they can’t talk about it. We are grooming this kind of product that will go to the community. We are normalising it and creating a conducive environment, whereas we should deal with it in that space and talk to men in our families to say as a family this is what we don’t stand for, and take action against it.”
Skosana added that the men’s silence made the process even more difficult.
“Men’s voices are quiet and they blame victims, they tell them to stay in safe spaces, but where is that?” she asked.