It was at a BrandSA breakfast meeting on easing doing business in South Africa that President Cyril Ramaphosa was to address first thing on Wednesday morning. His next stop would be Cabinet, where two of his ministers a day earlier indicated that they would raise the killing of women and what to do about violence against women.
Going off script at the business breakfast discussion, the President said it was important to first “collectively pay respects… to the women killed at the hands of men in the most brutal fashion”.
South African men had to rise to the challenge of ending the spate of men killing women, as did government to ensure that women were safe. “The nation is in deep mourning. We are all deeply disturbed,” said Ramaphosa, adding later: “People like that (who kill women) do not belong here.”
And while South Africa was not the only place where women were killed – he referenced France where 125 women had been killed – the situation in South Africa was “much, much worse”.
Everyone rose when he called for a moment of silence for the women who have been killed by men, and those affected in the continuing violence and looting in Gauteng.
Ramaphosa’s blunt statement on men killing women was welcomed by businesswoman and Absa Group Chairperson Wendy Lucas-Bull. Expressing frustration with the phrasing of violence against women, she said: “We have to name the beast to deal with it. Our language must be men raping women, men killing women. Thank you, President for doing this”
There was applause, and not just from the women in the audience.
Ramaphosa’s words had come against the backdrop of his administration seeped in passively-phrased jargon like violence against women, and an approach that put the onus on women to ensure their own safety.
Government was sharply and strongly tasked for initially tweeting from its official handle:
“Violence and abuse against women have no place in our society. Govt [government] is calling on women to speak out and not allow themselves to become victims by keeping quiet. Women who speak out are able to act, effect change and help others”.
The tweet has since disappeared – and instead the official government Twitter timeline @GovernmentZA now says: “Society must break the silence for the sake of our daughters, mothers, nieces – for every women and girl [sic] in our communities and society at large”.
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola at a media briefing after Tuesday’s parliamentary gender debate in honour of Women’s Day acknowledged that the tweet “was improperly worded. We apologise for that”.
Lamola added that he and Minister for Women, Youth and People with Disability Maite Nkoana-Mashabane would bring gender violence and femicide, and what to do about it, to Cabinet for discussion.
That Cabinet meeting at Tuynhyus on the parliamentary precinct was taking place a few steps away from the chants and singing of a civil society march against violence against women. The ministers would have heard the women’s voices “Amandla!” and “Not in my name” at the main gate of Parliament.
Cabinet may well take decisions, but at Tuesday’s ministerial media briefing details remained sketchy about what is being done to ensure women’s safety. Legislative changes may be considered, 8,750 traditional leaders are being trained and work towards establishing the gender-based violence and femicide council is continuing.
This council is one of the outcomes of the gender summit declaration Ramaphosa signed on 28 March 2019, seven months after the gender summit, which gave rise to the declaration.
At the official signing of the declaration while also opening a sexual offences court, Ramaphosa acknowledged the reality of harassment, abuse and violence.
“Our nation is facing a crisis. Our women no longer feel safe, in their homes, and on the streets. Rape, abuse and sexual assault are rampant, often committed by those closest to them. Gender-based violence impacts us all.”
When Parliament hosted a women’s parliament on 29 August to start the process of reviewing the 1994 Women’s Charter for Equality, it emerged that a steering committee is in place and more work to fully establish the gender-based violence and femicide council is unfolding.
Such delays are indicative of the snail’s pace government is moving at. And so it should not perhaps come as a surprise that Ramaphosa and his administration have been slow off the mark to respond to not only the murder of three young women, but also the violence and looting that has hit Johannesburg and various parts of Gauteng since the weekend.
When the world is in Cape Town for a key date on the global economic calendar – the World Economic Forum (WEF) Africa – and the headlines talk of women murdered by men and looting of foreign owned shops, something must be done.
And Ramaphosa made a smooth segue from violence against women to violence against others affected by the looting that is continuing in parts of Johannesburg and Gauteng. And it also wasn’t okay to take the law into one’s hands.
“As much as there may be grievances, taking the law into one’s hands can not be right,” said the President. South Africa was not alone in hosting refugees, migrants and others; millions were hosted by Uganda and Kenya.
“We should make sure we stand side by side in peace. If there are problems, resolve them,” said Ramaphosa. “South Africa must be a country where everyone feels safe…” DM