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Violence on Women: Police action will speak louder than words


Marianne Merten has written on Parliament since 2016 for Daily Maverick. The intersection of governance, policy and politics unfolds at many levels, from tiny nuggets of information hidden in the voluminous stacks of papers tabled at the national legislature to the odd temper tantrum by a politician. Sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling, even after 26 years as a hack, there are few dull days in the parliamentary corridors.

Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana is missing in action, and apparently police can’t find him, while the prosecuting authority has publicly said it has yet to receive a docket. Or is it just the SAPS getting all its ducks in a row before arresting a high-profile ANC politician? And if that’s the case, what about police action with regards to the tens of thousands of other women beaten, assaulted, raped and murdered in South Africa?

It’s easy to tick the boxes of outrage. Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana allegedly assaulted at least one woman at a Johannesburg nightclub during Women’s Month. Manana’s alleged assault of a woman happened as the government he is part of has again declared that ending violence against women is a top priority – and on Friday launches what is dubbed the “action indaba on gender based violence and protection of vulnerable groups”.

But in many ways Manana is nothing special. He did what men, regardless of race or class, do every day across South Africa in a society pervaded by chauvinistic patriarchy. It wasn’t that long ago that a man physically threatened a woman in public in a Johannesburg fast food restaurant as an episode involving their children escalated. That the man was white, and the woman black, exposed another deep social fault line, racism, as has this week’s assault by six white men of a black couple at a fast food branch in Pretoria. And by all accounts, the bouncers and others stood by as the woman’s beating at the hands of the deputy minister unfolded.

In a widely broadcast sound clip, Manana refers to one of the women he beat up as ntombazana, or “girl”. This infantilisation of a grown adult woman is standard practice in the imbalance of gender power relations. Some may cite cultural practice to argue a woman is ntombazana until she is married and becomes nkosikazi (woman). Questions remain as to whether that is where it should end or whether such views are up for changing. Culture is living and changing.

That being called gay, or acting gay – this was the trigger for the gender violence, it emerged this week – should be “extreme provocation”, as Manana said in his official apology released by the Higher Education Department, is another layer in the often fraught and troubled state of social and gender relations.

But again, Manana is not alone. In 2006 then ANC Deputy President Jacob Zuma told KwaZulu-Natal Heritage Day celebrations that same-sex marriage was a disgrace and that, “When I was growing up, ungqingili (a gay man) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.” In December 2005, South Africa had legalised same-sex marriage, while equality regardless of sexual orientation – or gender – has been constitutionally enshrined since 1996.

At the official Women’s Day event on Wednesday, Zuma in a clear reference to Manana said “nobody is above the law when it comes to crimes against women”. But, of course, there are difficulties even as government says it is committed to ending gender violence.

The police indicate that the biggest problem with the policing of these crimes is that they usually happen behind closed doors and in secluded areas where it is very difficult to police,” said Zuma. “Another challenge is that victims have been known to withdraw cases in domestic violence and sexual offences where the offender is known to the victim.”

That was not the case of working student, Karabo Mokoena, who went to the police for a domestic violence interdict, but was later found murdered. The ex-boyfriend, who is currently on trial for her murder, believed he had the right to take her life, as Manana believed he was entitled to hit a woman for what he regarded as an insult.

In both instances the women, or their families, had access to resources, including social media, knew their rights and stood courageously firm. Tens of thousands of women who do not have such resources find themselves dissed by the SAPS and the system. Just ask the Soweto women who, it emerged earlier this year, went to the police to report their rapes after catching a taxi, but found themselves instead turned away.

Also courageously firm stood Khwezi despite being hounded during Zuma’s 2006 rape trial. In this campaign that ultimately led to her departure from South Africa to seek shelter, the ANC Women’s League played a shameful role. And in the toxic mix of politics and gender issues, expediency was again on display a year ago at the #RememberKhwezi silent protest as Zuma spoke at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) national results centre. “We are not going to allow reactionaries and tyranists, who are supported by clandestine forces, who pay them for any action to embarrass our growing democracy and the ruling party,” ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini was quoted by EyeWitnessNews as saying at the time.

At the official Women’s Day event on Wednesday, with four months to go to the ANC December national elective conference, Dlamini promised those looking to the ANC Women’s League to support them for high political office “must show their track record when it comes to women”.

Police Minister Fikile Mbalula earlier this year made a skop, skiet en donner promise to end gender violence, which he described it as “psychotic”, in the wake of what was dubbed the Soweto taxi raids. But his tone chilled considerably regarding Manana as personal connections – according to the grapevine, they party together – politics and the law collide.

Expressing its dismay at Manana’s assault as yet another instance of gender violence, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in a statement this week said 182,933 women suffered grievous bodily harm and 164, 958 suffered common assault, according to police.

And that’s just the 347,891 women who were successful in having police actually open a case. We simply don’t know how many others were turned away – or did not bother to do so for whatever reason, be it lack of resources to get to a police station, fear of intimidation by their community and families, concern at not being taken seriously by authorities, or fear of repercussions from the men who beat them.

The thread of sexism, chauvinism, machismo, patriarchy and violence, regardless of race and class runs deep in the fabric of South African society. DM


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