Opinionista Lebo Keswa 26 November 2014

16 Days of Complicity and Lies

The 16 Days of Activism campaign is running again, but it’s no use in our current political climate. Let’s stop the pretence and take action.

Here we go again. Pardon me while I roll my eyes – I can’t help it. It’s “16 days of activism this” and “women and child abuse that” – blah, blah, blah.

Still, let me abandon my cynicism for a moment and do this, as the subject matter is actually close to my heart.

Truly, though, did I just hear President Jacob Zuma on the radio saying, “Government is sending a strong message to men in the country to isolate those who give them a bad name”? Did I just hear him saying, “Let us also use our human values of Ubuntu as our weapon, and also our common resolve to build a caring society based on a strong human rights culture”?

Is this the same leader of the party that I voted for? Is it really? I am just wondering aloud.

Insincerities aside, let me focus for now on the things that happened in this country when President Zuma was busy drafting his speech – at least the ones that I know of.

For starters, a top Cabinet minister and a CEO of a JSE-listed company are amongst those living in a sickly silence regarding abuse. But it is possible that both would be seated in the VIP section of the launch of the “16 Days” campaign.

Another top politician, an office bearer of a political party and a member of the ANC’s NEC, who recently beat his wife to a pulp, and an owner of a media empire who is also known for beating up his businesswoman wife – these scenarios exist among us and they constitute a culture of complicity that is happening in our communities regarding abuse. High-profile individuals who are meant to be role models are themselves perpetuating the very cycle of abuse that the institutions they belong to are meant to be combating. It’s a vicious circle of keeping up appearances – but the abusers always win.

Recently, when the General Secretary of Cosatu was caught with his pants down, he painted a horrible picture, saying, “This is what is going on in the leadership.” The very same leader posted “RIP South Africa” online, on the day he should have been commemorating the 16 Days of Activism Against Woman and Child Abuse. I could not have agreed with him more. Yes, Mr Vavi, indeed South Africa must RIP, because its women and children are at the mercy of abusers who get away with murder and do not own up and take responsibility for their actions. That these leaders who are supposed to protect women and children actually are busy with sexual harassment cases – a heinous form of abuse – is shocking.

Mr Vavi should not be mourning the country; he should be mourning the damage he caused to his victim; the shame he brought her. The pain he caused her in a society when the first stone is always thrown at the woman.

So yes, South Africa, RIP, as per the condolences from one of the offenders himself, who is not using the available platforms to repent and educate, but rather to throw soil into the country’s grave.

Spouses at home are at risk when men behave badly – at least according to Vavi, who clearly did not want to go down alone. This also means there are many who, unlike Vavi’s accuser, are still silent against many of their fellow leaders (but who may still one day burst out, and name and shame the culprits).

Surely there is something that can be done. Signs of this debilitating culture of silence continue to be apparent in a society trumped by reverence to status. Another example is the Bill Cosby saga, which is still unfolding. Decades later, women who have been abused by someone they held in high regard are finally finding the courage to come out now, because one of them first broke her silence.

One hopes that these women who know themselves to be abused by powerful husbands can come out, as part of their contribution to society. Because when they do, many others may also find the same courage. I am not naïve about what it takes – been there, done that. When I myself suffered abuse in my marriage, I withdrew cases at the local police station more than ten times, which remains one of my few regrets in life. I could not stand the public stigma which went along with people knowing my marriage was not as happy as it appeared.

My husband was a top executive at one of the listed companies at the stock exchange, so you can imagine the implications of outing him as an abuser to his family and friends. It became my problem, every time I opened a case – I was the destructive one: I wanted to destroy his career and everything he had built for himself. I was in the wrong; the excuses were endless. You made me jealous, you came home late, etc., etc. Eventually I got an unopposed divorce; in other words, I divorced him without him knowing, as he did not want to divorce.

It took years to build up the courage to break out of the marriage and bring an end to that vicious cycle. I must applaud the SAPS on how effectively they handled the domestic violence cases, even trying to reinstate a case two years after the fact. Unfortunately, it was too late.

Now, when a ministry of women set up to deal with issues of empowerment is demoted to a desk in the presidency, one wonders whether this issue of such great importance is even on the national agenda. When at least one of the three women who held this post was fired and the other made headlines for building expensive furniture or insulting white males in the wake of the Oscar Pistorius trial.

One wonders what on earth we are going to achieve with yet another 16 days of song, dance and ritual – when it is clear that with this lethargy of government action, we cannot resign the safety of our women to the state.

What should society do?

It is clear that our society believes in show and tell: until something is exposed we will simply continue to pretend it does not exist. Maybe someone like Vavi, who has been exposed already, must out his errant colleagues and pledge to stop the abuse by challenging them to stop their misdemeanours and change their behaviour. But, alas, that is unlikely to happen in the current political environment.

So then it remains up to those who have been victimised to step up and say “Enough”. They must break their silence, considering less the power and status of their abusers and thinking instead of the dignity of those still being abused and oppressed. Those who still suffer under all-powerful leaders who say one thing in public but wield gross physical and emotional abuse at home with their women. If this does not happen, the 16 days of activism will merely remain a shameful reminder of our propensity to lie to ourselves as a society.

You, business mogul – your money won’t protect you for much longer. And you, Politico – we are watching you. Your days of pretence are numbered. DM

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