While there is important momentum on racial justice in South Africa, the situation of women continues to stagnate. When it comes to violence the news is nothing short of brutal: our bodies are cannon fodder and the aggressors are often men who love us. Yet there is no government plan to address gender-based violence. I wonder when South African women will have our #RhodesMustFall moment. Which woman will be the first to throw a stone and at whom will she throw it? When will the poo fly and on whose face might it land?
As outrage over #Luister and the state of race relations in Stellenbosh has mounted over the past few weeks, I have become intrigued about the factors that spark a movement. What transforms an incident of routine harassment into a moment in which an oppressed group says enough is enough?
There is no magic of course; it takes months of planning, years of chipping way at the edifice of discrimination and decades of pent-up frustration. Then suddenly the dam breaks. Victory is not assured, but the beginnings of change are seeded and work begins again. When someone says ‘no’, we may push the boulder further up the hill slowly, but we move: in those moments progress seems imminent.
While there is important momentum on racial justice in South Africa, the situation of women continues to stagnate. There are role-models and exceptional sheroes to whom we can all point during Women’s Month but when it comes to violence the news is nothing short of brutal: our bodies are cannon fodder and the aggressors are often men who love us.
This week began with the news that a four-year old girl was found hanging from a tree in Verulam after allegedly being raped. She is alive but when I read the news I wondered what parts of her didn’t wither on that lynching vine. There was no public outcry. Worse, there is no government plan to address gender-based violence. Ours is the only crisis that politicians are happy to leave unaddressed. Our lives it seems, simply do not matter.
When I read the news I wondered when South African women will have our #RhodesMustFall moment. Which woman will be the first to throw a stone and at whom will she throw it? When will the poo fly and on whose face might it land?
Will there we a day when a mob will be angry enough to pierce the complacency of our government, which has abandoned any pretence of caring about the lives of women and girls?
Will there be a rampage damaging enough to rattle the trays of the madams and sirs who like their breakfast served to them in bed and don’t mind the violence of tearing babies from the breasts of their mothers?
Will there be a five-month strike in which the women sit on a koppie – all the women from the suburbs to the villages – and wait while the men negotiate on when they will stop killing us? Will there be guns aimed against them because they decide that it is all enough now?
Will the women ever finally understand that rape is rape; that the boy who hijacks the madam in her luxury Range Rover was the son of a woman whose father was away, working in the mines and whose mother was in someone ‘s kitchen, ‘loving’ someone else’s child? Will they understand that behind the walls, in the pretty homes with security, the white father prowls and hisses and does unspeakable things to his own daughter? It all feels the same when his hand is on your throat and there is violence in his eyes even if the roots are different.
Anene Booysens’ disembowelment and murder in Bredadorpwasn’t enough to get us out onto the streets. Reeva Steenkamp’s killing in Pretoria got us talking – gossipy and irate chatter on the radio but God forbid anyone might have actually taken to the streets for that. The baby cousins in Diepsloot, Yonelisa, two, and Zandile Mali, stuffed in a toilet and both now dead weren’t enough to make us stand up. The gang rape and taunting caught on video – the horror of what was done to that nameless disabled girl in Braamfisherville – wasn’t enough to make us do anything but shake our fists at the television screen.
Our anger means nothing if we don’t act on it. But what does action to end gender-based violence look like and why has there been so little progress in addressing violence against women?
While there are many complex reasons, there can be no question that more young black people would be interested in joining the movement to end gender-based violence if they could relate to the leaders who preside over the groups fighting to end violence. The reality is that too many of these groups – the professionalised nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) especially – are completely out of touch.
The hierarchy of the gender-based violence sector mimics that of other sectors – whether private or non-profit: black women do the fieldwork and white people (in this instance women) are the researchers who explain it all and translate it into policy language. This means the language of analysis is itself often mediated in ways that are alienating for potential activists.
One of the biggest obstacles to talking about gender-based violence is that in each discussion there is always the spectre of the black demon, the predator with his unchecked and rampant sexuality hanging around. The conversation itself is raced, even when race isn’t brought up by the well-intentioned NGO types launching their latest report, or by the journalists filing their reports.
Despite this, a generation eager to embrace real political change is already making the links between gender-based violence and the economy. It is impossible to tackle gender-based violence without examining the violent practices and policies of the captains of industry who force millions of men to live in squalid conditions. Many are beginning to realise that violence is the very logical outcome of living in and surviving in circumstances of abjection and inhumanity.
I don’t say this to excuse what we see all around us, nor do I say it to pathologise black people: despite the narrative to the contrary, there are a great many white crooks in this country and their crimes are interpersonal, economic and social in nature. My point, however, is to focus attention on the fact that the actions required to stop the violence cannot be simply aimed at individuals. We cannot continue to pretend that the only perpetrators of gender-based violence are the men caught in communities who are shackled in handcuffs looking down at their feet; the ones we see on television who are poor and almost always black.
Gender-based violence will stop when the hostels are converted into decent housing worthy of human beings. It will stop when religious institutions stop making excuses for the men who molest their children behind electric fences and klap their wives in their mansions and shacks alike. Gender-based violence will stop when madams – black and white – begin to pay domestic workers a decent wage including pensions and health insurance and child-care options. Gender violence will stop when the gender pay gap is a thing of the past.
Many of the students movements working under the banner of #RhodesMustFall have reminded us that struggles for justice are interconnected. The work they have begun is crucial, and they have forced all of us to look again at the ways in which Rhodes continues to operate in our own lives and in our own sectors.
Too many women and girls continue to die in South Africa. Its time we threw poo at the real perpetrators; the ones in suits have been let off the hook for far too long.
*This opinion piece first appeared in the Daily Maverick.