Opinionista Venitha Pillay 20 September 2019

Dear Mr President: Show your outrage, move beyond words

The emergency action plan presented by the joint parliamentary meeting bears strong similarity to the declaration that emerged from the gender-based violence and femicide summit in 2018. So, Mr President, what will be different this time? You need to show us you mean it, Mr President, don’t just say it.

Mr President, I gave much thought to whether I should vote for the ANC in the recent election. I did not vote for the ANC in the 2009 elections. I had been an active member of the organisation since my early teens and the decision not to vote for the party was extremely painful, and one I made after much discussion with comrades, but most of all my own conscience.

I did not vote for the ANC in 2009 because I could not give my hard-won vote to a man accused of rape and someone who admitted to a sexual relationship with a young woman under his protection. It was immoral. To me, a person who has no respect for women, especially those under his care, will have the same approach to the country. I was right: he screwed the country. And the ANC let him because it chose to protect him.

After many heated discussions with friends and comrades, I eventually did vote for the ANC in 2019, though with trepidation. It wasn’t because I had faith in its leadership. While you are the new president, most of those in power under the previous president still hold power. We know many of them were responsible for the wholesale looting of the country. I don’t expect them to suddenly become honest citizens. Voting for the ANC was a strategic decision: I, as did others, wanted to give the ANC an opportunity to find its footing again. I did this for only one reason: I believe in the National Development Plan as a way forward. However, in the turmoil of recent times, the NDP has sadly had little public attention.

When I heard your address to the nation after the women’s march, I regretted my decision. The recent statements from the joint parliamentary meetings, while offering a little more substance, are also disappointing. Let me tell you why.

Let’s take a step back to Kwezi, Mr President, and Redi Tlhabi’s book The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. Have you read it? I understand that reading is a luxury for you now, but Mr President, if you are serious about fighting gender-based violence, read it. If you want to understand even remotely what the women of our country experience, how we are treated by the courts and anyone in power, read it. Read how the judge allowed the character and history of Kwezi to be interrogated to show that it was her fault she was raped. Read how the judge said that “only a foolish, overconfident rapist would have dared entering the room of his victim not knowing whether she is going to shout and scream or not”.

Clearly he understood nothing about the complexity of rape, the silence of victims, the very real possibility that Kwezi allowed into her room a man she has known since childhood, not a potential rapist. Read how the judge asked her to write a list of all her sexual partners in open court and then brazenly made jokes about officers in the court checking to see if she wrote their names in the list. But more important, Mr President, read how the ANC closed ranks and destroyed Kwezi. Read the orchestrated way in which they misled her and lied to her, how the ANC Women’s League turned against her, those who spoke on behalf of Kwezi were persecuted and Kwezi was made the villain.

For many in the ANC, the cauldron of conspiracy theories swirling around this case was truth, making it so much easier to simply destroy Kwezi. Read how Kwezi and her mother went into exile in the Netherlands. Sadly, the days of exile are not over for women who have been raped.

A clear message was sent to the men in this country: rape a woman and we will protect you. We will make her the villain and the boys’ club will come to your aid. Every single member of the ANC must take responsibility for this message. I have absolutely no doubt that other political parties in the country are no different: the boys’ club supersedes politics. But none of them held power for the last 20 years, so they don’t count for now. Another equally strong message was sent to the people of South Africa: we can act quickly and decisively when we really want to. The state machinery went into high gear as it came together to vilify Kwezi and protect our erstwhile president. So we can clearly act when we really want to and financial resources will be provided.

Mr President, it should not shock us that this recent spate of killings of women by men follows not long after the summit on gender-based violence and femicide that your office hosted. The summit released a declaration which was only formally adopted about five months later, but most disturbingly, nothing in the declaration has been implemented. The commitment to speed up legislative changes was put forward in the declaration arising out of the summit.

On Thursday, the Joint Committee of Parliament said the same thing. Why should we believe you now? We can make endless, wonderful proposals, but they are meaningless. The tragedy is that women are always optimistic, hopeful that something will happen this time. Do you think perhaps that government is exploiting by the patience of women?

Equally, I am baffled by the repeated reiteration of the need for educating young people on how patriarchy destroys our lives. We have known this for generations now. The alarming data on gender-based violence is nothing new. You have known this, the Ministry of Basic Education knows this and the Ministry in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities knows this. Mr President, do you have any idea why we have not given focused attention to the education programme we have all known is critically important? If you can’t answer that question, then the statement from the joint meeting is meaningless.

The emergency action plan presented by the joint parliamentary meeting bears strong similarity to the declaration that emerged from the gender-based violence and femicide summit in 2018. So, Mr President, what will be different this time? You need to show us you mean it, Mr President, don’t just say it. I have some thoughts on how you can start the ball rolling.

But, before I get there, Mr President, I want to take a small mathematical detour. If, as our stats say, at least six out of every 10 women in South Africa have been the victims of gender-based violence, usually at the hands of family members, often a spouse or boyfriend, then it stands to mathematical reason that in a gathering of 20 men, there is a strong chance that some of them have been the perpetrators of gender-based violence?

I am sure statisticians will be able to give you an accurate statistical possibility. Put differently, Mr President, whenever Parliament convenes, there is an excellent chance of many Parliamentarians sitting in front of you being the perpetrators of gender-based violence and equally of them being the victims of it. So it is very likely that among the people sitting in the joint parliamentary meeting deciding on how to deal with gender-based violence were a number of perpetrators of it. We know too that in that meeting were a number of women have been the victims of gender-based violence and also those who were complicit in the violence against women.

The ANC Women’s League made no secret of their contempt for Kwezi. Their decision to support Reeva Steenkamp but not Kwezi on the grounds that we should not politicise gender-based violence was mindboggling. As a long-time gender activist in the women’s movement of the 1980s, at that moment I was ashamed of my historical association with them. It’s bizarre that a person who reports a burglary is never doubted: nobody asks “Were you really burgled or did you secretly want someone to steal your stuff?”. But when a woman says she was raped all kinds of questions about the truth of her claim take centre stage.

So here is the first thing you can do, Mr President. Clean your house. No member of the ANC who has been convicted of violence against women should hold office, at national, provincial or local level. At the moment you have at least one convicted person sitting in Parliament. The men who abuse women say they were “provoked” she “asked for it”, she hit him first etc. Men who hit women will find any justification/ explanation. There are none. At the very least, you can show them there are consequences. Break out of the boys’ club, Mr President. For too long the ANC, both men and women, have protected people who have abused women. The ANC is very careful not to air its dirty linen in public.

The way to deal with that, Mr President, is to make sure all your linen is clean. And let the women know, immediately, that they have someone to turn if they have been abused.

Advertise phone numbers for this safe space on massive public sign boards, on TV, facebook… any form of media. Give a different public message from the one that has been given to the men and the women in our country. Let the men know, those in your party and the whole country, that you will not protect them if they have even been accused of rape. Let the women know you will offer them protection without doubting them. Let’s protect them from potential harm before we investigate.

Given the stats in our country, she is in all likelihood telling the truth. And you may not know this, Mr President, but there is no evidence globally that women, even on a statistically minuscule level, opt to lie about being abused. A hot line that comes to your office immediately will tell women that this time, you mean it. Everywhere we turn, there must be a message for women to know they have somewhere to turn. And we know money can be found if you really want to do something.

Finally, Mr President, I don’t know how I will vote in the next election or if at all. It will be a really sad day when the women of this country choose to not vote because our political leaders failed them. DM


Tlhabi. R. 2017. The remarkable story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Cape Town.

Venitha Pillay is a gender, education and development consultant. She served as an Associate Professor at the University of Pretoria for almost two decades and is a dedicated feminist and gender activist. Her, Academic Mothers (2007), was the first of its kind in South Africa. She continues to research and publish on gender and education and is currently as a researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pretoria.


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