South Africa will mark Women’s Day on the day after the Vote of No Confidence in President Zuma next week. Officials from that nondescript section in the Presidency and the political apparatus will crawl out so that platitudes, talking points and speeches can be toiled out. This will only be matched by the perfunctory effort that is initiated for the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign. It is a time for pledges and speeches but not a time for a real response against abuse or the patriarchal and misogynist society that so many South African womxn and children have to contend with.
High levels of violence, rape and abuse continue, are pervasive, and lurk behind every corner. It lurks below the surface, behind our walls but also festers like an open wound. The truth imitated by Women’s Day or the 16 days’ pact does not halt the injustice (the abuse, patriarchy, pain and suffering) that so many womxn and children must endure each day. It cannot be spoken away but instead a younger generation of South Africans will have to take on this issue if we are ever truly going to confront this issue.
Tracy Chapman’s lyrics in Behind the Wall captured this tragedy so eloquently – abuse of this nature is not simply about physical violence but also about the helplessness and desperation that women and children must endure alone. They have no place to turn. There is no shelter from the relentless attack on their humanity. This helplessness is perpetuated in the stigma and shaming that so many women and children feel when they try to report abuse. This is also the same type of shaming that peddles the idea that men cannot be abused or raped. The system that should protect and shield them fails them instead. A system riddled with indifference and inefficiency.
It is easy to get lost in the statistics and to look at the issue of abuse or patriarchy as simply a symptom of a broken society. It is easy to reduce the tens of thousands, who are abused or victimised or overlooked, into victims or to remove their humanity and agency. Those who are abused are often treated as nameless and faceless numbers. Our patriarchal society constantly overlooks or treats womxn differently – it treats them as less – simply because of their gender. If we question this system then we are told that we are problematic. We must do a lot more than making pledges against patriarchy or talking out against violence during the upcoming 16 days if we are ever going to stop the swelling of tears and abuse in our country.
Abuse is a deeply personal trauma, which is not easily reduced by the law alone. We will continue to fail those who have been forced to endure this type of abuse for as long as we continue treating abuse as an isolated issue or by pretending that it is somehow confined to a particular set of circumstances. This is not just heartbreaking. The destruction ripples across our communities. Sadly, the abusers often go on to hold positions of authority and despite us remembering Khwezi some of those abusers go on to become President.
We must not forget that the story of abuse is a human one and so I want to share the story of a young boy. A young boy, not old enough to vote, waits at the Elsies River Day Hospital, in Cape Town, to be examined by a nurse. Our young boy requires an examination because he has been reduced to a number. He has become a number because of the violence that he experienced the night before. His breathing is strained and his emotions swirl around in his head. He continues to wait until someone sees him.
That young boy’s grandmother sits with him as he waits for the nurse to return with her instruments to document the crime. The grandmother sits quietly, awash with her own anger and grief, trying to provide our young boy with comfort and support. But that young boy cannot be consoled. That young boy is angry – angry that this could happen to him, angry that this was allowed to happen but most of all angry that the system, a system that should treat people with dignity and care, has failed him. The nurse eventually arrives and so the indignity continues.
This is also a story about the violence that he witnessed over the years and heard through the walls. This is about the violence that stole not only his sleep but also his innocence. This is not the story of a police docket. This is his story. A story riddled with years of pain, of tears welling up and of despair.
This is also the story of a mother, who then ended up trapped in an abusive and destructive relationship that would one day cause her young son’s ribs and sternum to be fractured and bruised.
The story of abuse should never be another statistic or people should never be reduced to a number. And perhaps, if we all did more, this could be a story of redemption and about how we all actually did something to stop abuse and confront patriarchy and misogyny.
But let us get back to our young boy. The examination ends as quickly as it started and our young boy is just left with his completed paperwork for the police and a few painkillers. And then the nurse leaves him mechanically. After all, she has seen this before.
The system treats abuse as if it is shameful and that blame is to be assigned on those who are abused, which is the very thing that abusers often use to trap those they harm. Our system ignores the voices of womxn yet we act with surprise when the role of womxn is often reduced to an anecdote. Our laws will never be enough as long as the stigma is allowed to flourish. We must confront the stigma that forces abused women, men and children into a state of victimhood, which proceeds to blame them for the abuse. We must confront the narrative that allows far too many to treat womxn in a manner that reduces their dignity. As a society we have to start interfering, as Tracy Chapman sang, if we are ever going to stop this horrible cycle.
That young boy had a name and face. He was never just a number. He was not another victim of violence and abuse. We cannot continue to intellectualise or package patriarchy, misogyny or abuse in this bizarre way. I am that young boy and this is my story and I most certainly have a name. DM
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