Maverick Citizen

Op-Ed

Interim body tasked with tackling gender-based violence and femicide is law unto itself

Protesters march against gender-based violence, organised by several NGOs and organisations at the JSE in Sandton on 13 September 2019. (Photo: Alet Pretorius / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

A well-planned and coordinated response to gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) in South Africa is vital to change the trajectory of the country. Yet, the most recent measures put in place and the initial bodies established to be the custodians of the response do not instil confidence.

Last week Daily Maverick reported on the iron grip Dr Olive Shisana, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s special adviser, has over the GBVF sector and the worrying signs that important voices and roleplayers are silenced. An accompanying editorial expressed grave concern over the fact that this writer was threatened and intimidated.

In the GBVF summit declaration, the Interim Steering Committee on GBVF (ISC) was established to implement actions listed in the summit declaration and establish a permanent structure on GBVF by the end of October 2019. Last week Cabinet passed the NSP which includes a draft council structure – neither of these documents has been made public as yet.

But over the past two weeks, three media statements raise issues that will have an impact on this permanent body. At the heart of these questions is the meaning of accountability and representation in multisectoral structures. (Read about the statements later in this article – Ed.)

The ISC has been operating since November 2018. From the outside, it’s hard to see what the ISC is doing and what they have achieved in the last 15 months. The ISC reports weekly to the president, not the public, and they do not have a website where the public can access information about their progress. Occasional media statements through GCIS don’t always give a sense of whether the multisectoral body is operating in a democratic or participatory way, whether the representation of civil society is meaningful, or of the extent to which the government is taking their suggestions on board.

The ISC includes representation from the government, the donor community, and civil society. The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) also sits on the ISC, but in a monitoring role, one that they have struggled to fulfil, but not through lack of effort on their part.

There are already concerns about the financial transparency and accountability of the management of the GBVF fund. In addition, the questions of to whom the ISC accounts, and whom it claims to represent were raised by three media statements released in the past two weeks. 

Statement One: The Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and People with Disabilities 

In Parliament last week, the CGE reported to the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities that it had attempted to monitor the work of the ISC, as it is legally empowered to do in terms of the CGE Act and the Constitution. In terms of the CGE, and all Chapter 9s, the Constitution (Section 181) states that 

“other organs of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect these institutions to ensure … the effectiveness of these institutions” and “no person or organ of state may interfere with the functioning of these institutions.” 

Yet, the CGE reported to Parliament on 3 March 2020 that the leadership of the ISC had in fact done just that – prevented them from performing their legal function of monitoring issues that affect gender equality, specifically progress on the GBV Summit Declaration

The CGE reported that despite having monitored the previous GBV council without difficulty, in this case the co-chair of the ISC (they don’t say whether it was Shisana or Madumise in the recording of this meeting) had prevented their researchers from participating in the meetings of the ISC, demanding a review of their methodology and making it difficult for them to attend. Subsequently, other members of the ISC who had initially agreed to be interviewed by CGE researchers withdrew this agreement. 

The CEO of the CGE, Keketso Maema, reported that her office had written several letters to the co-chair to clarify that they wished to continue their research and should be allowed to do so, but they had not been successful. The CGE then wrote to the DG in the Presidency, Dr Cassius Lubisi, to indicate their dissatisfaction and, as their parliamentary presentation made clear, “the fact that there is obstruction as far as our work as an independent institution is concerned”. 

Parliament itself had had its own challenges in getting the ISC to account. In November 2019, Parliament called a joint meeting of 10 committees to receive information about the progress of the ISC, in particular the development of the National Strategic Plan. A meeting of so many committees is a large feat to organise in a parliamentary calendar, and many in the GBV sector were encouraged by the effort. Yet, the ISC did not bring the documents it had been asked to bring, chief among them the NSP that is set to define the country’s response to GBV for the next decade. 

In the discussion of the CGE’s presentation last week, the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Nonhlanhla Ndaba, revealed that a further invitation had been extended to the ISC to present to Parliament, but the ISC had declined, saying that they only report to the President. 

It is worth reflecting on Parliament’s powers to get information for a moment. Section 56 of the Constitution states that: 

The National Assembly or any of its committees may – (a) summon any person to appear before it to give evidence on oath or affirmation, or to produce documents; (b) require any person or institution to report to it. (My emphasis.) 

If that fails, the same section also gives Parliament the power to compel a person or institution to comply with this summons by law, and receive petitions or representations from any interested persons. Thus, regardless of who the ISC ordinarily reports to, Parliament has a constitutional right to summon them to give information in Parliament. It also has the power to invite others to that meeting to give information. 

Following the presentation from the CGE and the discussion that followed on 3 March, Ndaba released a statement on 4 March on behalf of the committee, indicating concern around the way the ISC had behaved in relation to the CGE, and in terms of their failure to account to Parliament. 

Statement Two: The #TheTotalShutdown

On 5 March, in support of the statement released by Parliament, #TheTotalShutdown (TTS) released their own media statement about the ISC via their Facebook page. In the statement, the TTS report that they faced struggles in getting information from those who are on the ISC representing TTS, and indicated that their reps on the ISC no longer represent them. Their statement says, 

“We would like to officially state that there is no representative from the #TheTotalShutDown Movement in the ISC. We did not nominate or agree as a movement to have these former national members represent us in the ISC. Rather, as #TTS was initiated by young black feminist activists, our main goal and thus ongoing struggle was intersectionality. Ultimately we raised concerns about the lack of representation on the ISC and what appeared to be gatekeeping of access to spaces, information, and decisions made. These problems need urgent attention.” [my emphasis] 

TTS spokesperson Lesley Ncube indicated that despite several attempts by the TTS National Team to get information since the ISC was established, the information had not been shared by Brenda Madumise (ISC co-chair), Onica Makwakwa and Sibongile Mthembu (ISC Secretariat), all of whom were former TTS National Structure leaders. The TTS’s calls for accountability had been ignored. For Ncube, the breakdown in communication had put those in the TTS National Structure in a difficult position. 

“Members were saying, ‘If we’re represented on this structure, how come we don’t know anything about what they’re doing there?’ We as the national team didn’t have answers for them. There were emails sent and not replied to, phone calls where answers to our questions were avoided, and WhatsApp groups where we’d ask a question and they [the ISC reps] would just exit. It left us with the question – ‘you have a seat at the table – why aren’t you bringing us along?’ You can’t just have representation for photo optics.” 

But, I suggested, a similar point could be made about getting information about the TTS itself – the website was closed down last year, and it is now difficult to see who is leading the movement. Ncube agreed, but explained that, 

“That’s not because we have something to hide. It’s just because the young black womxn who are leading the movement now didn’t initially have the resources to go on paying for the domain. We now are working on getting a team together to get the website back up and running. So we use Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate because it is more affordable. You need resources to fund the fight.” 

In the absence of an ISC website that is open to the public, civil society has relied on those in the ISC to share the information they have received in these meetings. Information sharing has not always been successful, and this is not a matter exclusive to the TTS. 

But for the TTS, trying to hold the ISC to account was made more difficult by the culture of public shaming that emerged when questions were asked. In a public Facebook video that followed the acceptance of five BMWs by the ISC in 2020, Makwakwa and Madumise responded to questions about the way they were working, disparaging those who asked questions, suggesting that before they were criticised for “taking over”, other members should “do the fucking work.” This was a message that, Ncube suggests, became a way for them to resist criticism. 

“They are not bringing the young womxn along, or trying to be intersectional or inclusive at all. They are positioning themselves as the only ones who were really ‘working’ on this issue and dismissing the work that we are doing on the ground. What does ‘doing the work’ mean? It’s not just being seen with the president. We didn’t even know that they were starting the Wise Collective – we thought they were there for the TTS.” 

Now, it should be stated that many of the representatives on the ISC are representing multiple interests – they were chosen by the GBVF summit team based on their connections to networks, so they are not only there with their own organisations’ interests at heart, but also many broader groups. But, if representatives were chosen based on their connection to networks, and that connection no longer exists, it poses the question of who the former TTS members are claiming to represent. 

In July 2019, Mthembu, Makwakwa, and Madumise registered an NPO that they now run called the Wise Collective, an advocacy and social enterprise focussed on bringing “innovative solutions to the market that will prevent and address challenges in advancing women’s safety from gender-based violence and overall oppression from patriarchy.” On their “About” page they describe themselves as “a strategic power broker”. 

To clarify the issue of representation, I approached co-chair of the ISC, Brenda Madumise, for comment on the TTS statement on Monday 9 March. She responded via SMS – “And the movement is supposed to be represented by who, if I am ask (sic)?” I indicated that since I was speaking with the TTS spokesperson, I would be interested in hearing both sides of the story. 

Her reply – “Who is TTS? Those who wrote the statement must give you proof that they are TTS.” 

My request for information from her on whom she believed to be the correct person to speak to, and whether she would like to give a response went unanswered. 

However, by that evening, Makwakwa – whom I had not yet contacted at all for comment –  had used the same threat of “writing about me” that the government co-chair, Olive Shisana had the week before, attempting to paint me as the problem on her public Facebook page, and on Tuesday in a second post suggested that my interest in this structure was based on my exclusion from it, or my race. 

By trying to make me the focus of their followers’ attention, they attempted to distract from the fact that they are the ones who have been accused of not being inclusive, sharing information, and preventing young black women from accessing opportunities for engagement. 

The TTS leadership has not seen the final GBVF Council structure proposed by the ISC, nor have they seen the final NSP. 

“We never even received an official response from them to our statement. We look forward to the findings of Parliament, and we are more than willing to share all our information about what has been going on with them,” said Ncube. 

Statement Three: The ISC responds

On 6 March, the statement battle continued with a media release from the ISC through the Government Communication and Information Service (GCIS). Although the ISC is multi-sectoral and this would have been an opportunity to respond on the issues of representation raised by the TTS statement, the ISC chose only to respond to Parliament’s statement. 

I asked Olive Shisana, co-chair of the ISC, whether this statement had been viewed and contributed to by the civil society members of the ISC.

“The Steering Committee drafted and released it,” she replied. 

And who might be on the steering committee of the steering committee I asked? 

“Key people. It wasn’t sent to every single member because there wasn’t time.” 

I spoke to three civil society members of the ISC for this piece, and of those two had not seen or known about the statement before it was released. 

It seems apparent from the above that there is a group within the ISC that is operating separately from the rest –  making decisions and releasing statements without including the group that was founded on inclusivity and representativeness. 

The ISC’s statement suggested that the Portfolio Committee was correct on some matters but wrong on others – Parliament was wrong that the ISC got any funds from the government for its work (even though it says this in the declaration) and wrong that the ISC resisted invitations to come to Parliament.  The statement also offers some advice to Parliament on who is best placed to speak to them: 

“The Interim Steering Committee has indicated to the portfolio committee that the draft National Strategic Plan is currently the subject of Cabinet deliberation and that Cabinet approval will be followed by the unveiling of the plan by the Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities who will be the appropriate authority to address the committee… Accountability, therefore, remains in place. In terms of a proposal made in the National Strategic Plan, a future, statutory, independent National Council on GBVF will report to Parliament on its programmes and activities.” 

Shisana repeated this messaging to me in our telephonic interview. 

“We are a temporary structure established by the president and we report to the president. So we can’t go to Parliament on the president’s behalf. The Ministry of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities – as well as many other departments – are part and parcel of the ISC. They’re the ones who are politically responsible for accounting.” 

I suggested to Shisana that Section 57 of the Constitution gives Parliament the power to summon any person, not just government departments. Would she attend, I asked, if Parliament were to invite her and the ISC again? Her response suggested that this was unlikely. 

“Are you Parliament yourself? We’ve answered the question of who should account,” she said, and a long silence followed in which I repeatedly checked to see if she was still on the line. When I eventually hung up and tried to call back, she did not answer. 

What to be done, and who should do it?

On 11 March, Cabinet met and approved both the NSP and the structure for the National Council on Gender-Based Violence. The council will coordinate all state activities in relation to GBVF at a national, provincial, and local level and will be responsible for implementing the NSP. The council has already been allocated R15-million from the fiscus over the medium-term according to the 2020 Budget. The council will report to the president through the minister for women, youth and persons with disabilities. The structure of this council, and the details in the NSP have not been made public at the time of writing this article. 

Details on what happens to the ISC, and whether this announcement results in their complete dissolution are not clear. But it is worth remembering that it was the ISC that was responsible for developing the NSP and the ISC in partnership with ministers that developed the structure for the council. 

In addition to the council and the NSP, Cabinet announced the establishment of an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) on GBV comprised of the police minister, the minister of justice and correctional services, the minister of public service and administration, and the minister of social development to be led by the minister of women, youth and persons with disabilities. It specifies that the IMC now has the responsibility for setting up the council, and exploring the possibility of legislating the council structure.

It is as though we have just jumped in a time machine and gone back to 2012. 

In 2012 an IMC on Violence Against Women and Children was established. This IMC was responsible for implementing the Programme of Action Addressing Violence Against Women and Children (POA). The majority of the work of the previous IMC was delegated down to a Technical Task Team, made up of the DGs of various departments.

In the same year, South Africa tried to establish a council and it failed, not just because of the overlapping mandates, lack of funds and battles for government leadership, but because of destructive relationships with civil society. The 2013-2018 POA failed, and the council collapsed. The reasons for this are well documented, by the CGE and the Department of Performance Monitoring and Evaluation. In 2018, the Technical Task Team led by the Department of Social Development was in the process of drafting a new programme of action to mitigate past mistakes, but when the summit happened and the calls for an NSP emerged, this POA disappeared. 

The risks of repeating old mistakes are very real, in particular if the issues of accountability, transparency, and representation are not addressed. This leaves an important question, one that Lesley Ncube asked in our interview: 

“What habits and cultures will they [the representatives on the ISC] bring from the ISC that will affect the way the permanent structure will function?” 

So far the ISC, or a certain sector within it, has attempted to obstruct a Chapter 9 institution, ignored Parliament’s powers and requests for information based on the suggestion that they only report to the president, and left unanswered questions about civil society representation and participation in important decision-making. Add to that an attitude of impunity and the willingness to threaten journalists in person and to use social media to try to cast dissenting voices as problematic… Pretoria, we may have a problem here. MC

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