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Until the culture of impunity ends, we will make no progress on women or children’s rights


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

If the ANC were serious about its commitment to women and children it would walk the talk and its MPs would exercise better oversight within Parliament.

It might be hard to fathom but we are in the midst of the annual “16 days of activism for no violence against women and children”. The 16 days started on 25 November. Parliament’s website has an entire page dedicated to this campaign which we are reminded is a worldwide one. It states, “It aims to raise awareness of the NEGATIVE impact that VIOLENCE and ABUSE have on WOMEN and CHILDREN and to RID society of ABUSE PERMANENTLY’ (the website’s capitals).

Parliament also reminds us that it has passed several laws to deal with women and child abuse, including the Children’s Act, the Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, The Maintenance Act and a slew of others.

While codification is always important, these laws really mean very little to the woman repeatedly seeking maintenance payments in a country where a culture of impunity permeates every aspect of life. This is but one example. Any cursory interaction in Maintenance courts in South Africa is generally to be avoided and often specifically humiliating for women. We also know that the levels of violence against women and children are unacceptably high. Yet every year government trots out a series of bureaucrats to remind us of this.

It’s like those summer one-hit wonders. When 25 November rolls in, government starts noticing women and children. The Ministry for Women in the Presidency now headed by Susan Shabangu is generally acknowledged as a portfolio for those with waning political fortunes. This year’s 16 days will focus on women, Shabangu has said. As if to rise from its slumber, the ministry announced the theme as “Count me in – Together Moving a Non-Violent South Africa forward”. Her department will unveil “dialogue sessions” across the country.

Unfortunately, governments are judged by their actions, not their words.

Former Deputy Minister of Higher Education Mduduzi Manana was recently found guilty of assaulting three women in August this year. Manana, in his plea explanation, said he was asked by one of the women who joined their table: “Who do you think you are? You isitabane [gay].” He then admitted to intentionally assaulting the women and a brawl ensued. Manana was subsequently sentenced but not before we heard that he had two previous charges of theft against him. One charge related to stealing a can of Coke. Let that sink in for a moment. Someone manages to rise to the position of deputy minister despite two charges of theft, one being for stealing a can of Coke. Is this the best that we can muster?

But then, this is Zuma’s world. His Cabinet has far more space for the compromised and corrupt than for those who have an ethical compass. Manana resigned from his position as deputy minister but remains an ANC MP.  He sits in the very Parliament calling us to observe 16 days of activism. That this is gravely contradictory is an understatement. Manana should be disciplined by the ANC and removed as an MP. He should also be hauled before Parliament’s Joint Ethics Committee. If the ANC were serious about its commitment to women, it would walk the talk and its MPs would exercise better oversight within Parliament. But this is the same party that elected Zuma as president immediately after his rape trial. That trial told us everything we needed to know about Zuma’s attitude towards women and the patriarchal lens through which he views the world.

And while Parliament is supposedly applying its mind to women’s rights, they would do well to remember the name Michael Komape. Komape died choking in faeces in a pit latrine at his school. Finally, SECTION27 has managed to bring the matter to court given the Department of Basic Education’s complete failure to acknowledge wrongdoing or to display even a modicum of empathy. In fact, the Department of Basic Education’s initial response was along the lines that this was normal and happened in state schools.  It was a callous and cruel response from the state, waiting to be sued instead of simply doing the right thing.

Why is the state defending this case at our expense? If it had a modicum of decency or care for children (especially the poorest of the poor) it would admit its failings. Instead we are told that it offered young Michael’s parents the option of a pauper’s burial. A pauper’s burial! But the trauma for Michael’s parents has not ended there. It continues in court as counsel for the state questioned the family’s motives in bringing the litigation. Were they seeking to get rich was the actual question asked. Can this story get any worse?

A cursory glance at the Life Esidimeni hearings and a pattern of state conduct against the vulnerable emerges. If this government had any degree of shame, it ought to have instituted an inquiry into Michael’s death, ascertained why pit latrine toilets are still the norm and why sub-standard materials were allegedly used, and then done the right thing. The minimum standard for doing the right thing would have been to apologise and offer the family compensation and then ensure that such a tragedy never, ever occurs again. But that has not happened. 

So this is our South African reality.

No number of dialogue sessions can sugarcoat this cruel reality, because justice for women and children starts with those elected. It starts with the culture of accountability they create when one of their own is found guilty of abuse and it starts with the state caring enough to implement policy which does not harm young children.

Until the culture of impunity ends, we will make not progress on women or children’s rights.

The 16 days of activism should be scrapped along with its pointless, platitudinous slogans. It should be replaced with meaningful change which will make the most vulnerable among us feel safe and protected by the state. DM


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