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Saga of five BMWs underlines misdirected and mismanaged efforts to fight gender-based violence

A gender-based violence protest outside Parliament in Cape Town on 30 June 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

In February 2020, BMW South Africa donated five BMW i3s to the government ‘to aid the fight against gender-based violence’. The handover to the intended recipients – civil society organisations providing support to survivors of GBV – was only announced this November by the minister of women. Where have the vehicles been in the interim? And how will five upmarket cars make a difference to South Africa’s crisis of violence against women?

On 6 February 2020, BMW South Africa donated five BMW i3s to the government to aid the fight against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in South Africa”. The donation ceremony was attended by an audience of invited guests including high-ranking government officials. President Cyril Ramaphosa, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of Trade and Industry Ebrahim Patel and BMW Group board members were in attendance.

The day before the launch, the Presidency released a statement saying that the cars would be used “to support community-based care workers in their prevention of gender-based violence and femicide and in victim support” and would be “presented to the South African Business Coalition on Health and Aids (SABCOHA) to manage on behalf of the multisectoral Interim Steering Committee (ISC) on Gender-based Violence and Femicide”. Indeed, at the ceremony on 6 February 2020 the keys to (at least one of) the BMWs were officially handed over to the chairperson of SABCOHA, Dr Lesego Rametsi.

The handover, according to BMW’s statement “underlines the company’s long-term commitment to South Africa and the upliftment of its people”. The statement also notes that BMW was “instrumental” in the formation of SABCOHA and that “through SABCOHA, BMW Group is proud to join other private sectors partners” in fighting GBV.

However, it was only in November 2020, after her launch of the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children campaign, that the Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities announced that “we will be handing over the five i3 BMWs that were donated to five civil society organisations”.

In addition, somewhere between February and November the link with SABCOHA disappeared, without public explanation or consultation.

SABCOHA: The convenient funding partner that couldn’t

This is pretty much on-brand for the Interim Steering Committee on GBV’s communication and decision-making which, as Daily Maverick had already pointed out in March, was murky and lacking in transparency.

In March, Daily Maverick wrote about the appointment of SABCOHA to run the GBVF Fund, and the concerns raised by members of the steering committee and the public about the lack of transparency in this appointment process. At the time, SABCOHA’s website made no mention of a GBV focus.

Yet, in November, SABCOHA’s newly revamped website includes a focus on GBV, but provides no answers as to what happened with the vehicles, or how the sweetheart funding partnership spearheaded by Ramaphosa’s special adviser, Olive Shisana, went sour. Siyabonga Jikwana, SABCOHA CEO, did not reply to questions sent to him by Daily Maverick, citing personal reasons for being unable to answer. Although Rametsi was included in the email with questions, she also did not comment.

Ramaphosa adviser’s grip over Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Fund

In an interview the SABC3’s investigative television show Special Assignment conducted with the co-chair of the steering committee, Brenda Madumise-Pajibo, she indicated that “those cars had been handed over” to the department of women “a couple of weeks” earlier. Special Assignment discovered that the cars were in fact being held at Right to Care, another HIV-focused organisation.

The cars were handed over by BMW to SABCOHA in the presence of two state leaders, so how did they end up at Right to Care?

“Upon receiving the vehicles, the cars were licensed under SABCOHA, and later registered under Right to Care,” said Shalen Gajadhar, spokesperson for the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. After the president announced the handover to SABCOHA “there were further deliberations and consultations that led to the vehicles being put under the curatorship of Right to Care” following a decision by the steering committee.

When, why or how this decision was made remains a mystery. A trademark ISC decision – made in secret, without public understanding or accountability.

New custodians

Right to Care received the BMWs on 17 August 2020 and held the cars on the State’s behalf under a service level agreement “initially under the Presidency, and now under the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disability”, said Professor Ian Sanne, CEO of Right to Care.

Where the cars were physically between February and August remains a mystery too. BMW South Africa’s group product communications manager, Sibusiso Mkwanazi, indicated that “the cars were handed to SABCOHA and the Women’s Ministry in February and were not kept at BMW”. Special Assignment searched for the cars at SABCOHA’s offices earlier this year, but could not find them.

Some clarity is provided by Sanne. “My understanding is that SABCOHA was not in a position to provide the logistic, tracking, insurance and fleet management as a donation. Right to Care was willing to offer this as a donation to the programme. I don’t believe that the vehicles were ever in the possession of SABCOHA. The first registration documents I have seen were from the BMW delivery directly to Right to Care.”

However, Sanne says the cars were parked at the Right to Care offices “in Centurion from early August” with mileages of between 100km and 130km on each vehicle, with “the highest mileage [at] 200km”. Sanne assured Maverick Citizen that the cars had not been used for any other purpose, and the mileage on the odometers was simply to maintain charging at BMW and for the pre-delivery check prior to distribution to the NGOs in November. “I have personally checked the tracking device records to confirm this,” he said.

Gajadhar explained that the delay in the handover occurred because once the cars were donated, the department experienced a number of challenges, including getting vehicles through roadworthiness testing, insuring them, ensuring that each had a charging cable for home use or a port at the office, re-ordering a key that went missing at the handover, and ensuring the cars each had tracking devices. Of course, these logistical challenges were exacerbated by Covid-19, which caused delivery delays.

Sanne expressed relief that these delays had finally ended. “I can assure you that as CEO I am relieved that the vehicles are now in the field.”

Where are the cars now? And who decided who received one?

The process of deciding which of the many hundreds of thousands of NGOs across the country would receive a vehicle was also not transparent, but it would seem that the state did make an effort to think through the allocation in terms of provincial rates of violence and the “types” of organisations providing services to survivors.

The organisations were chosen based on three criteria, according to Gajadhar. The department considered the location of the 30 hotspots for GBV, which were in Gauteng, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. However, “Western Cape indicated that they can’t accept the cars due to safety reasons as they are servicing areas that are riddled with crime,” he said.

Second, the cars were allocated based on the sectors as listed in the National Strategic Plan on GBV. And finally, “the allocation was also informed by programmatic interventions as per the victim empowerment programme, while noting that women are not a homogenous group.”

According to Nkoana-Mashabane’s 24 November 2020 statement, the BMWs were handed over to five civil society organisations. The organisations identified were distributed across five provinces, and, according to the minister “reflect an array of services in relation to gender-based violence”. The five organisations selected were

  • Youth for Survival in Tshwane, Gauteng;
  • Mzamo Child Guidance and Training in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal;
  • Victim Support Centre Middelburg, Mpumalanga;
  • Disabled People South Africa, Limpopo; and
  • Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre in East London, Eastern Cape.

All five of the organisations were approached in December to find out if they had received their vehicles. Three of the five – Mzamo Child Guidance, Victim Support Centre Middelburg, and Youth for Survival Tshwane – all confirmed receipt. Masimanyane indicated they did not have time to respond to questions as they were imposing a voluntary lockdown on the organisation as a result of peaking Covid-19 infections in Buffalo City.

Disabled People South Africa’s Limpopo branch could not confirm receipt of the vehicle, despite several emails and calls. Maverick Citizen was directed to the national office, where the national programmes manager, Gillian Moses, initially indicated that the Presidency should respond, then asked the Maverick Citizen to call her back, then directed us back to the provincial manager, Nomvula Mhlari. Mhlari could not be reached for comment.

At least three organisations do have their BMWs. But does that really “aid the fight against GBV in South Africa”?

Silver bullets or white elephants?

Between February and November 2020, during one of the most difficult periods in global history – one that has had profound negative impacts on gender equality – cars that could have been used by community-based carers to support survivors of GBV instead sat in a parking lot somewhere, idle.

At the time of the handover, many on social media critiqued the idea that five BMWs could even make a difference to South Africa’s high rates of violence. In an Irish Embassy event later in February, Shisana said that the five cars were just the start, and were part of a larger plan “to have cars in the entire 44 districts across the country” to support community interventions. This plan has not yet been achieved.

What about those that do get the vehicles? Are the cars suited for the reality of responding to GBV, or were they just a case of business not knowing how to support the government? The i3s – a model that BMW describes as the “ultimate urban explorer” – are fully electric, reducing reliance on expensive fuel, and are valued at more than R700,000 each.

The cars can be charged rapidly from the offices of the NGOs or BMW’s fast-charging points. This is, theoretically, easy enough if Eskom is not load shedding, the municipality has paid their electricity bills, and your NGO is located in one South Africa’s urban centres. But this will likely pose a challenge for organisations working in rural provinces.

In addition, when many NGOs are cash strapped, and the government provides inadequate and inconsistent” funding to NGOs that often only cover a small portion of the services that the state demands from them, the cost of electricity may still limit their ability to use the vehicles.

And, according to BMW’s latest map, there are no fast charging points in Limpopo or the Northern Cape, and charging points in other provinces are concentrated in urban areas. DM/MC

Jennifer Smout is a feminist writer and researcher.

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