Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 19 March 2014

ANCWL, what have you done for women’s rights lately?

The ANC Women’s League is clearly visible at the Oscar Pistorius trial and has expressed solidarity with the pain and suffering of mothers such as June Steenkamp. But aside from empathy, one has to ask: what have they done for women lately?

Having been tasked with the job of covering the Oscar Pistorius trial for Primedia’s latest online streaming package, entitled Oscar Extra, I have had to keep my eye fixed on proceedings. A three-day stint of meticulous forensic scrutiny has finally stalled in the wake of Captain Chris Mangena’s compelling ballistics evidence. Is the trial still exciting into its third week? Of course, especially for a fence-sitter such as myself, academically legally trained, but practising the fine art of media.

But the developments around testimony and evidence are not the subject of this musing – rather something peripheral, something that could easily have gone unnoticed: the ladies in green blouses with black trimming, flanking the late Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June Steenkamp. I have not seen any of them comment in the media, and their presence is only felt when the camera occasionally pans to the North Gauteng High Court Gallery and gives us a glimpse of these ladies sitting with Mrs Steenkamp. But in as much as their presence is felt here, where the world’s eyes and ears are fixed on Oscar Pistorius’ fate, so too their absence is felt more profoundly elsewhere.

My concern started on the anniversary of Reeva’s untimely passing. The ANC Women’s League was to stage a march in remembrance of Steenkamp, and with women’s rights as the point of focus. What concerned me was that gender equality, in particular an attempt to cease the onslaught of gender-based violence faced by women in this country, seemed to take a secondary role – as the focus was clearly on Steenkamp and what happened to her. Posters read: “Oscar Pistorius should rot in jail.” Reeva may well have been the victim of intimate partner violence, if not homicide, but Pistorius’ case is yet to be decided on, and compelling and obvious examples of victims of gender-based violence could have been remembered through the efforts of the ANCWL.

Ironically, or tragically, this ANC Women’s League march was held less than two weeks after the one-year anniversary of Bredasdorp teen Anene Booysen’s death. Here, the ANC Women’s League did not have a much-publicised march in remembrance of the teen. Instead, 2 February 2014 passed quietly, with a few reports the next day pointing out that the first anniversary in commemoration of the 17-year-old’s death had passed the previous day.

It was most certainly a missed opportunity for the ANCWL, an organisation at the forefront for the struggle of women’s rights, by their own recognition. After all, Johannes Kana, who admitted to punching, kicking and raping Anene, has been found guilty of her murder and is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for her murder, rape and mutilation. There is no ‘mistaken identity defence’ that might see him acquitted, and if there is one case of gender-based violence that galvanised this nation into at least talking about our dirty secret, it is that of Anene’s. But do note the absence of action a year after her tragic death.

This prompted me to take the opportunity to use my public soapbox and ask Jackie Mofokeng, not former Miss SA, but current ANCWL spokesperson, to explain why they were so visible at the Pistorius trial, but seemingly absent elsewhere, where it matters equally, if not more so. Jackie was at pains to point out two flaws in my offensive. Firstly, the League supposedly regularly attends and supports women who are survivors of gender-based violence in court. The difference is that there is no media hype as in the Pistorius case, and no one pays attention. The second point was Mofokeng paraphrasing Gauteng Premier and Women’s League stalwart Nomvula Mokonyane’s words: that they want to share the burden of pain every mother, such as June Steenkamp, feels. In essence they empathise and want to play a supportive role.

All well and fine, some might say, that is admirable; some might wonder what my gripe is with something so virtuous. In as much as the Women’s League have taken on the burden of shared martyrdom, Mofokeng did mention that very powerful women, within government and the ANC, sit at the forefront of the ANCWL. Names such as Lulama Xingwana, the aforementioned Gauteng Premier and a litany of other members of high stature seemed to roll off of Mofokeng’s lips. Sturdy and impressive support indeed, especially with the politically secure Angie Motshekga at the helm.

But a little more than ‘support’ is required. Firstly, with a member such as Xingwana, Minister of Women, Children and Persons with Disabilities, one would expect that policies and legislation would be easy to introduce and implement for a League so concerned with gender rights with the obedient ear of the Legislature and Cabinet. Sadly, Xingwana’s most intelligible response to the gender-based violence discourse was, interestingly, a commentary on Reeva’s death: “Young Afrikaner men are brought up in the Calvinist religion, believing that they own a woman, they own a child, they own everything; and therefore they can take that life because they own it.” She subsequently apologised and withdrew the statement, but it will continue to live on in infamy.

When questioned on the League’s contribution in the area of legislation and policy, Mofokeng pointed to two things, the Domestic Violence Act and Ikhaya Lethemba, a One Stop Centre for female victims of crime and violence, based in Braamfontein. Let us give credit to the League for both these interventions, but what Mofokeng fails to admit is the League’s silence on ineffective and poor legislation such as the Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (WEGE) Bill and the fact that other government-initiated care centres have a minority that are centres of excellence and many that are underfunded and poorly operated. The litany of failures for survivors of gender-based violence is further aggravated when one looks into courts, police stations and many other essential extension services.

Last but not least, I wanted to know where the League stands on the WEGE Bill. Tshwarang Legal Advocacy Centre, along with Sonke Gender Justice and other organisations, made submissions on the Bill recently, in part stating: “While the legislative framework has been good, implementation has fallen far short in many areas, especially in addressing and responding to women’s unequal position in society and the rampant violence against women and girls. While the Bill focuses on addressing some key challenges, our concern is that it does not start with an analysis of the deep-seated reasons for gender inequality and as a result does not respond to this. The previous version of the Bill provided for Offences and Penalties. This has now been removed, which begs the question of how compliance with the legislation will be ensured. If there are no consequences for non-compliance or sexist/misogynist practices, what is the value of this legislation?”

On the Bill, despite the many challenges outlined by women’s organisations that have been at the forefront of the struggle for gender equity, Mofokeng made it clear that the League was not in opposition to the Bill, and I am yet to understand what the League will do to fix the Bill’s many shortcomings.

So please, I pray, do tell, apart from using the free press coverage at the Pistorius trial, that highlights how much the ANCWL – and by extension the ANC – cares and suffers with parents of victims of gender violence, i.e. cheap electioneering; what has the ANCWL done for women’s rights lately? DM

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