Like brawling over it, talking about violence against women isn’t enough to stop the tidal wave of gender abuse sweeping South Africa. It’s time for leaders to lead and the rest of us to get organised.
How often do we consider issues of gender inequality and abuse? I didn’t—until I faced a barroom brawl. Don’t you do the same; we can face the issues.
I knew him only as “Fuck Off”. That’s what we nicknamed him later. We were at a nightclub in downtown Joburg when a friend pointed him out. He stood while the two girls sat. He grabbed one of their wrists, craning to talk in her ear. In his left hand he crushed weed, rhythmically rotating his fingers as though he was handling Baoding balls. The girls tried to move. He followed. They pushed him away. He remained.
I watched for too long, then went to ask if the girls were okay. They didn’t know him and were scared. A cross hung on a chain over his orange sweater, his muscles tensed below.
I told him he was unwelcome and must leave them alone. “No, you don’t understand. They want me,” he said. I refused his explanation, so he turned on me.
We argued around the dance floor. Our foreheads pressed together, his sweat dripping down my brow. I refused to let him continue to hassle the girls. My right arm hung stiff like a knobkierrie, fist clenched. I was expecting my first real fight. My legs trembled as I prayed my body would instinctively recall the panting boxing sessions at the Hillbrow gym. His hand clenched around the weed.
“You don’t understand,” he repeated, “I’m here with my chick and when you’re here with a girl, everyone wants you. These girls won’t leave me alone. They’re jealous and want this.” That’s not what I saw or was told, I said in his face.
He got his nickname when he objected again. Our heads still pressed, I widened my eyes and punched my words. “Fuck off. Fuck off. Fuck off!”
I remembered the incident as we celebrated another Women’s Day on Thursday. The girls were happy I intervened. Afterwards, their thoughts drifted to the worst that can happen when a man refuses to take no as an answer.
But how often do I stand up for women who are being harassed or abused, I wondered. How often do I even consider gender abuse or the right women have to equality?
It’s usually only when someone I know is involved. The nightclub incident was no different. When I was in the bathroom, “Fuck Off” pestered a female friend of mine, infuriating others who later pointed him out.
Yet almost every day I see unacceptable behaviour. Sometimes it’s as obvious as boys looking for their manhood between a woman’s legs, trying to snatch them from the shelf like a Black Label (or a Grolsch; it affects all classes).
Every day I read a list of gender-based violence, recorded by the Daily Sun, NGOs and court rolls. Such violence is a scourge in any culture, which I ashamedly admit I can now read without that spoonful of vomit fighting its way up my throat to the rear of my tongue.
I also see inequality which is harder to define, like the institutionalised patriarchy that forms the pillars of our economy and family units. This might be a proudly capitalist publication, but the communists got it right in 1996. “The neoliberal option or the modernising route of the democratic transition permit a kind of solution to racial and gender oppression.
“It can make the upper strata of society more representative in terms of race and gender. But along with this goes a widening of the socio-economic gap between women of the middle and bourgeois classes and those of the working class. Ultimately oppressive gender relations remain entrenched,” wrote Jenny Schreiner.
The statistics are telling. “Just 4.4% of managing director and chief executive positions in SA are held by women. It’s only nominally better in other positions in the corporate world, where just 5.3% of board chairpersons and 15.8% of directors are women. In the public sector, women hold 35% of all senior management positions,” Aubrey Masango recorded on these pages Tuesday.
It was Jay Naidoo’s turn on Wednesday. The stats he pulled revealed 25% of boys admitted gang rape was fun, 24.4% of girls said they became pregnant by the age of 19, and 37% of Gauteng men had admitted to rape. Those are just some of the figures on a topic on which it is notoriously difficult to collect data.
In her women’s month address, Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana conceded, “A life of abuse, discrimination and violation of human rights remain the harsh reality for the majority of women in our country.” Often left with the responsibility of caring for their families, they suffer the brunt of unemployment, inequality and poverty.
Simply put, they receive fewer opportunities to get involved in the economy than men. They have less access to jobs, credit and land. Then, while caring for their families, they bear the burden of their jobless husbands, fathers and brothers. While trying to survive, women also have to deal with domestic and gender-based violence.
Before my days writing for the Daily Maverick, I was involved in community organisations dealing with youth issues, homelessness, indigenous Australian rights and HIV/Aids. But I have little idea of what to do to help our South African women. Neither, I suspect, do you.
I suggest three starting points. Firstly, we must condemn violence against women. Criticise rape and domestic abuse whenever you hear of it. Don’t wait until a scandal makes every paper in the country. Each act of hate is an issue of national importance.
The president could lead on this front. Instead of congratulating Ernie Els and every other sportsman who achieves some level of success, he must condemn every incident of heinous rape—and they’re all heinous.
Secondly, we must take the initiative upon ourselves to solve the issue. The only way to do this is to understand it. Read the reports from the Commission for Gender Equality. If reports aren’t your thing, try the poetry from Lebogang Mashile, Gabeba Baderoon, Myesha Jenkins or Makhosazana Xaba. Don’t like poetry? Hunt down the film Can’t just fold your arms, discussing the fight to make men reassess their attitudes to gender issues.
Thirdly, we must follow the successful movements around the world and organise. Organise. Organise. Organise. Join one of the many groups dealing with these issues. Raise the points that concern you with friends and make a plan of action. Host those who have the resources to make an influence and talk to them about it.
The issue of gender justice remains on the outskirts of conversation. Perhaps that’s because South Africa comprises such an array of opinions, many of which aren’t compatible with the constitution. But each person within the country was born by a mother.
If we’re to tackle the issues that cripple us—unemployment, inequality and poverty—we must tackle the affliction of gender imbalance and abuse. Behind those grand terms are the realities: women are the most susceptible to HIV/Aids, and empowering and educating them is widely considered the key to tackling poverty.
We can no longer allow any man or woman to believe the key to their identity or success is between a woman’s legs. We must fight the notion that the problem is too big to solve. We must return gender issues to where they belong—at the centre of discussions over the country’s past, present and future.
Engage in and discuss these issues at home, at work and with your friends. Don’t wait until you get in a barroom brawl until you decide your opinions. Let’s face our problems today. DM
Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle