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Women in South Africa: Ten years later, not much has changed


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

Any form of violence against women (physical, sexual, psychological) represents a violation of their human rights and dignity.

In October 2016, the Sonke Gender Justice group asked: “How many more people need to be violated, assaulted and murdered before our government takes the scourge of gender-based violence seriously?”

In theory, South Africa has excellent regulations to support the empowerment of women, promote gender equality and oppose oppression and all forms of violence against females. The South African Constitution forbids any form of discrimination. The Commission for Gender Equality, a Chapter 9 institution, “must promote respect for gender equality and the protection, development and attainment of gender equality”. Moreover, there is also a Ministry of Women.

Women and their achievements are celebrated, and strategies to overcome the hurdles they encounter are highlighted, during the month of August. There is also the UN-driven initiative, “from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign is a time to galvanise action to end violence against women and girls around the world”.

However, these have been largely ceremonial, mechanical, technical, tick-box exercises with little impact. According to the latest data from StatsSA, 21% (one in five) women have been victims of violence in South Africa. According to police records, between April and December 2016 “14,333 people were murdered in South Africa and there were 37,630 sexual offences”. At least 40% of women were victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), according to studies conducted by the SA Medical Council.

Furthermore, the MRC estimates that, on average, three women are killed daily by their partners. According to KPMG (no longer sure about the reliability of data from this company), “gender-based violence cost between 0.9% and 1.3% of South Africa’s GDP in 2012-13”.There was concern that the Minister of Women, Susan Shabangu, “has not shown either courage or solidarity with the victims of rape, physical abuse and murder”.

Perhaps stung by such criticism, Minister Shabangu argued: “We need to be a community, we need to care. The scourge we are facing is getting worse, South Africa is under siege. There is evil. There is a devil who is here in South Africa. We are in a crisis and no one is safe.”

Who is the devil? The Government appears to be reluctant or unable to enforce laws so that offenders can be punished. This may well be because some of the perpetrators are high-profile politicians and government bureaucrats. This will be illustrated with reference to two examples. There has been an understandable public outrage about the alleged assault of a woman by Deputy Higher Education Minister Mduduzi Manana on 7 August 2017 at the Cubana restaurant at Fourways. The Deputy Minister admitted: “… my actions and those of the people in my company have disappointed and hurt many people in the country. As a leader, I should have known better and acted better. I will subject myself fully to the process of the law and give it my full co-operation.” Manana has not taken the next ethical step, of resigning from his post, and President Zuma has not suspended or dismissed him,

The Women’s League of the ANC initially condemned Manana’s actions: “Such behaviour is unacceptable and should be roundly condemned by all in our society. Regardless of the circumstances or the identity of the perpetrator or victim, violence against women is the shame of our times and inimical to the call the ANC has consistently made that we seek a South Africa where ‘a young woman in the middle of the night, can walk alone without the fear of assault, attack or rape, going back home from wherever she comes from’. Achieving this vision requires 365 days of action against violence against women and amongst others, societal leaders that lead by example”. The Sunday Times subsequently listed a series of incidents in which Manana had abused, exploited and humiliated his staff, especially women.

Astonishingly, the ANC Women’s League’s President Bathabile Dlamini subsequently maintained that they would not be part of “games” demanding that Manana must resign or be dismissed. She stated that senior members in the party had engaged in more vile actions than Manana, but she refused to identify them: “The time has come for them to know that if they want to be our leaders they should be clean when it comes to the issues of women.” Perhaps in response to the social media outrage, Dlamini subsequently stated that the ANC should develop a policy on abuse of women, and “instant action” must be taken against perpetrators in the organisation.

The second example is the extraordinary case of Ambassador to Indonesia, Norman Mashabane (who passed away on 10 October 2007 in an accident), and harks back to the early 2000s, during the Thabo Mbeki era. In 2001, Mashabane was found guilty of 21 counts of workplace sexual harassment, “including stroking an employee’s buttocks, molesting a staff member in a lift, and making suggestive motions with his tongue to another”. The disciplinary committee recommended his dismissal, but he retained his post, pending an appeal.

In June 2003, a senior Embassy official, Lara Swart, instituted sexual harassment charges against Mashabane. He was found guilty, and once again, the disciplinary committee recommended his dismissal, and he appealed yet again. The complainant was subsequently transferred to Korea.

On 27 April 2004, the “appeal authorities within the department of foreign affairs, having considered all evidence relevant to ambassador Norman Mashabane’s appeal, decided on Monday to uphold the appeal by the ambassador on all counts”. On 3 June 2004, the Minister of Foreign Affairs “told Parliament she believed that some of the women in the harassment case had colluded to frame Mashabane because he had uncovered a car scam involving staff at the embassy”. However, Mxolisi Nkosi, who presided in one of Mashabane’s disciplinary hearings, described him as an unreliable witness, and “found no link between the complainant and the car conspiracy”.

The Public Servants’ Association and Lara Swart appealed to the courts to reverse the decision of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to uphold Mashabane’s appeals. On 1 December 2006, Deputy Judge President Jerry Shongwe ruled: “The finding of guilt on three charges of sexual harassment and the sanction of dismissal is confirmed.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nkosanana Dlamini-Zuma, was “ordered to apologise to Mashabane’s victim and pay her legal costs”.

Unfortunately, this sad, sorry saga did not end here. Notwithstanding his conviction, Mashabane subsequently served as an adviser to Limpopo premier Sello Moloto, and on 13 March 2007, he became a member of the Limpopo provincial legislature. Connie Zikalala, IFP spokesperson on gender issues, said: “The appointment of Norman Mashabane to the Limpopo provincial legislature flies in the face of everything that is decent … The ANC is sending out the message that even though you are convicted of sexual harassment, you will still be rewarded with a high-profile appointment as a public servant.”

Ten years later, not much has changed. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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