OP-ED

Political parties pay lip service to feminism, but fail to act against their own members

By Avela Mhlwazi, Nwabisa Sigaba and Busisiwe Sea 11 September 2019

Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

It is unacceptable that gender committees in parties such as the EFF, DA and ANC continue to safeguard perpetrators within their organisations, because gender-based violence is about the imbalance of power between men and women and how it is manifested.

Following the outrage over the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, allegedly by a public servant working for the South African Post Office, a serious and pragmatic conversation about femicide, gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women and children has been taking place.

Many women have been encouraged to come out and tell their stories on public platforms. Political parties have written statements about the tragedy, calling on the government to act swiftly against this social scourge. However, a crucial conversation that we as gender and political activists feel is being ignored is: “How are political parties internally dealing with issues of gender-based violence?”

What policies and mechanisms do these “progressive” parties, that claim to ascribe to feminism, have in place to support women within their own organisations who have fallen victim to gender-based violence at the hands of men within their parties?

It is all well and good for political parties to boast about policies within their manifestos about how to deal with sexual violence against women once in government, but even the current government is failing to implement its policies around gender-based violence as we are seeing more crimes committed against women, children and the LGBTQI community.

If political parties are committed to dealing with the high rate at which women, children and other vulnerable members of society are dying every day at the hands of men, what are they doing to eliminate these predators not only from their parties but also the streets?

It is unjust for a party to allow men who have been accused of and/or charged with sexual violence against women to hold positions of leadership. What is even worse, parties allow for an environment that discourages women from speaking out against offenders, more so if they hold positions of leadership.

Having unpacked the inefficient political arm of our democracy that lacks a sense of urgency in combating femicide and GBV in South Africa, we believe it is imperative that we re-evaluate some of the rights enshrined in our Constitution, mainly section 35. Our Constitution was initially drafted as a deterrent to the apartheid regime that saw numerous innocent black bodies convicted for crimes they did not commit. As a result, section 35, which extensively protects the rights of accused persons, ensures that this dark period never repeats itself in a democratic South Africa.

However, 25 years into our democracy, in a country where women and children are constantly under threat, one must question the application of section 35 as it currently stands. It is no longer justifiable to use a broad application method for this section. Political parties in their capacity as law-makers in Parliament need to formulate laws that protect victims of GBV and relook section 35, particularly its application to persons accused of violent crimes against women, children, the LGBTQI community and persons suffering with mental illness and disabilities.

The innocent until proven guilty narrative is ineffective and, in most cases, harmful to the victims of the accused and their families. While pushing for reform of internal disciplinary procedures of political parties, it is imperative that the Constitution and the law, in general, sing the same tune. After all, the Constitution is the supreme law and that is where the ultimate change needs to begin.

Conversations about gender-based violence, femicide and sexual harassment have always centred around corporate, social and educational institutions, yet there is still no comprehensive engagement on how these issues affect and are perpetuated in political institutions and parties. When Karabo Mokoena, Palesa Madiba, Uyinene Mrwetyana and most recently, Natasha Conabeer were brutally murdered and raped, South Africa saw this as more of a societal ill than one that is also political. For decades we have learnt that the political is personal, and the personal is political; however, this understanding is never applied when looking at cases of gender-based violence, femicide and sexual harassment.

A large reasoning behind the poor response from the government in relation to GBV and sexual harassment is rooted in political parties’ inability to deal with these issues internally. This inability has a ripple effect on the laws, policies and motions that political parties advocate for and implement in municipalities, legislatures and Parliament. Political parties lack structured and responsive approaches to members who violate women in their parties, communities and society.

It is unacceptable that gender committees in parties such as the EFF, DA and ANC, to name a few, continue to safeguard perpetrators within their organisations, because gender-based violence is about the imbalance of power between men and women and how it is manifested. Many women in political organisations have come out to “name and shame” their perpetrators, only to be lambasted, ostracised and disappointed by the internal processes of their parties because there is already a justified internalised culture of suppression, abuse and victimisation that occurs at the cost of women’s mental, physical and psychological health.

Even with 50% representation in some political parties, women still face the challenge of self-actualising in an environment that practises gender inequality because of the gendered nature of power. This is evident in the way the general membership of many political parties engages with women in senior positions. If we are genuine about dealing with GBV, femicide and sexual harassment in South Africa, we must begin by dealing with the patriarchal, abusive and sexist culture in political organisations and the Constitution. DM

Avela Mhlwazi is an LL.B graduate, writer, researcher and activist. As a student, she worked with various NGOs including the United Nations Association of South Africa, the Action15 Campaign and the United Religions Initiative.

Nwabisa Sigaba is a political activist currently completing an MA with the University of South Africa. She is committed to the ideas and ideals of Black Consciousness.

Busisiwe Catherine Seabe is an author, gender and social justice activist, national FeesMustFall student leader and runner up of SABC1’s One Day Leader reality show. She is completing a Masters degree at Wits University in Critical Diversity Studies.

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