As the world battles a viral epidemic and South Africa holds its breath, hoping that the country will manage to take effective steps to avoid the full might of Covid-19, the country battles another deadly epidemic of gender-based violence (GBV). And the struggle to change that epidemic’s trajectory has too many victims, from Uyinene Mrwetyana to little Tazne van Wyk. The list is long, too long. In fact, it is so long that posters with names of the dead covered most of Parliament’s fence at a rally in September last year.
Our country has extremely high levels of gender-based violence, levels that have been persistently high for all of our history. This violence has its foundations in a violent country, in patriarchy, in gender and socio-economic inequality, and remains cyclical due to high levels of child abuse.
For decades, the government’s response to this has been fragmented, one department doing one thing while another does something different. There has been more lip service than we can quantify. They have come up with plan after plan, and each time they have hit the same stumbling block – a lack of resources, a lack of co-ordination and collaboration within government, and a lack of meaningful engagement with civil society. Inevitably it fizzles out.
Nonetheless, civil society and academia have continued to work hard on the ground to provide support to survivors, to attempt prevention programmes, and to document how the criminal justice system is and isn’t working. That is not to say that civil society itself is anymore united or co-ordinated than the state. Donor agendas have shaped the work that has been done, transformation challenges have plagued the sector, and we’ve seen fluctuating resources for support services – both in terms of funding for civil society and for those specialised services the government delivers.
The result of this was that despite many, many people working incredibly hard, the crisis seemed to be getting worse. It seemed that things were never going to change.
So, when hundreds of thousands of women marched together in September 2019 it appeared to be a moment of hope and opportunity. For the first time, the President took ownership for leading the response on this issue. The Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit that followed in November 2018 was a historical moment that showed that government was finally willing to take the input of civil society on board. The declaration that was produced contained many of the demands submitted by the #TotalShutDown marches, and many that were sourced from the room on the day. It felt like finally there was a commitment to work together, and the understanding that unless that happens, the violence will continue.
The Summit Declaration included a commitment to develop a permanent multisectoral co-ordinating structure that would include the voices of civil society and of government, that would be properly resourced, and that would have at its heart transparency, inclusivity, fairness, and accountability.
The opportunity that a structure like this presents is significant – if the state works together the criminal justice system could improve; if the state works with civil society openly then we could begin to hear diverse voices and get new ways of working into the room; if these structures are transparent then people could share information and bring their constituencies on board. There is the opportunity for open and transparent communication. This would be a different way of working. This would be business unusual.
But the risks are great too. There is the risk that powerful structures saying “things are changing” makes it very difficult for those who see ‘“things staying the same” to speak out. There is the risk that in the desire to be involved, the organisations represented their take on the role of gatekeepers, providing a civil society rubber stamp to government actions that continue as they have always done. There is the risk that resources that were going to programmes that were working well could be diverted. There is a risk that in the rush to be seen to be doing something, the state will make the same mistakes – push things through, not choose evidence-based programmes, avoid meaningful representation and engagement, exclude.
Another similar example, the South African National Aids Council, has shown us how some civil society organisations will divide and rule in an effort to access funding and position themselves closes to seats of political influence. SANAC, a body what was supposed to be for HIV what is envisaged for GBV, has mostly become a toothless structure — a big talk shop. There is always a danger that these forums are prey to opportunists and people mainly after status and money. For these reasons insisting on transparency and accountability back to a constituency is a litmus test for an effective institution.
But the first signs of the possibility of working together should not make us complacent. There is no room for taking things at face value, for believing the promises without the evidence that things are happening differently.
When those in power choose not to account, to see accountability as optional – whether it is to Parliament, Chapter 9s, their own constituents, or the public – we should be worried. The Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities on 4 March expressed its concern over the lack of accountability from the Interim Steering Committee on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide
As the article we publish today shows, there is room for concern, especially when senior-level officials such as Dr Olive Shisana and her handpicked representatives threaten journalists who ask questions, or when people in the structure are too afraid to speak out.
This work is hard work for everyone who does it, regardless of whether it is the state or civil society. The work that this structure will have to do to succeed involves not only designing the right programmes and allocating the right resources, but building the relationships and enabling environment that will facilitate a new way of working.
All of us want South Africa’s gender-based violence to stop.
But to even have a fighting chance we need to make sure that those tasked with leading the battle, have public interests and delivery at heart. DM