South Africa


‘Violence is the breast milk we are feeding our young,’ says Graça Machel, railing against GBV

Graca Machel, wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, speaks during the launch of Mandela Sports & Culture Day 2013 and the official handover of the Confederations Cup Finalist commemorative gift to the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory in Johannesburg July 4, 2013. South Africa's anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela remains in a "critical but stable" condition after nearly four weeks in hospital being treated for a lung infection, the government said on Thursday. The update on the health of the 94-year-old former President followed a visit to the hospital by current President Jacob Zuma. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Graça Machel has described South Africa as a society at war with itself, where grotesque violence against women and children has been normalised, where protectors have become predators.

In an impassioned speech at the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture on Thursday evening, Graça Machel decried the level of violence against women and girls in South Africa, describing the country as at war with itself and locked in a vicious cycle of pain.

Machel, a co-founder and deputy chair of The Elders, a women’s and children’s rights advocate and the former first lady of South Africa and Mozambique, where she also served as education minister, cited teenage pregnancy figures from the Gauteng Department of Health.

More than 23,000 girls under the age of 18 gave birth in the 12 months to March 2021, 934 of whom were between 10 and 14 years old. Machel said the number of teen mothers had increased by 60% during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nearly 1,000 children have given birth to other children in the past year. Why is there not an outcry of what is, in essence, a statutory rape epidemic in this country?” asked Machel.

“There are precious lives between these cold numbers. These are the beautiful faces, the brilliant minds and vibrant voices of our daughters, nieces, sisters, whose childhood and innocence we have left unprotected, and these shocking statistics on teenage pregnancy do not even paint an accurate nor comprehensive picture of our shameful disregard for young people we claim to love and cherish.

tutu lecture machel
Archbishop Desmond Tutu arrives at his 90th birthday Eucharist service celebration at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on 7 October 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

“There are far too many wolves in sheep’s clothes masquerading as predators and entire families harbouring terrorists in their homes.”

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) this week arrested a 59-year-old police officer in charge of the Sexual Offences Unit at Mafube police station in Free State for allegedly committing a sexual offence against an 11-year-old girl and allegedly raping her 13-year-old friend.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has labelled gender-based violence (GBV) a pandemic and he is considering three bills — the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, and Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill — aimed at strengthening the legal framework against GBV. The government has also allocated extra resources to fighting the scourge under the National Strategic Plan on GBV.

Findings from various studies, including a recent survey, suggest the rate of sexual violence is far higher than what is reported to police and collated in crime statistics, which already reflect alarming levels of violence.

“How can we break the vicious cycle of untold and unspeakable pain that visits women and children on a daily basis? While the days of the brutal apartheid regime are thankfully behind us, we are still a nation at war with ourselves. We are plagued by deeply entrenched and festering wounds and perhaps one of the most visible manifestations of this woundedness is our violent, unequal society,” said Machel.

“Why has what is so grotesquely abnormal become normalised to us in this country, the land of Tutu and Madiba’s birth, and on this continent, the home of greats such as Wangari Maathai and Gertrude Mongella? It is an affront to the nobility of our ancestors to allow our youngest generations to suffer in the ways they do.”

Machel admitted she had more questions than answers. She called for the compilation of better-quality data on sexual violence. She emphasised the link between intergenerational trauma in fractured and broken families.

“Violence is the breast milk we are feeding our young,” she said.

“We have to change our mindsets, our behaviours, our value system. We must reinvent our relationships and re-engineer the way we relate in our families, in our schools, in our workplaces with the spirit of ubuntu that Arch taught us and exudes with every fibre of his being.”

Machel was speaking on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 90th birthday. Former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and the Dalai Lama also addressed the event.

Madonsela said the ideals of South Africa’s Constitution “remain a distant dream for the majority that remains trapped in poverty. It is our turn to stand up for truth and justice, particularly social justice, as an investment in peace.”  

Robinson urged those who believe in a common human dignity to pressure leaders to act against the climate crisis and to bridge the trust deficit between the Global North and South, further exposed by the coronavirus pandemic, to bequeath a more equitable world to the next generation. DM


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