Opinionista Merle Favis 24 September 2019

The nation has woken up, but what’s next?

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the joint parliamentary sitting, along with his reframing of gender-based violence as a brutal war against women and children, has important symbolic value.

There is nothing new about the horrors faced by the vulnerable in our society. For as long as they can remember, untold numbers of girl children have feared their daily walk to and from school. Tomorrow will be no different for them.

What’s changed is that following the surge of street demonstrations, media messaging and the President’s address, public recognition of the issue, now named as a crisis, has been brought about. The war has landed in our national consciousness and has started troubling our minds and occupying the dinner conversations of even those at lesser risk in society.

This is not insignificant.

The importance of our current moment of national awareness, as ungrounded as this currently is in any real systemic or concrete change, should not be overlooked. Here is an issue that has united the nation, where very little else – Eskom, economic reforms or how to treat foreign nationals – has seemed able to. Even in the deepest patriarchal corners of this country there is dismay. This is no small thing. Indeed, this present climate pleads with us to “seize the moment” to kick-start a process where significant, widespread systemic and institutionally-based changes can begin to take root.

Institutional belonging is core to human life. We belong to faith-based institutions, community, sports, stokvels and cultural groupings; we learn through schools, universities and colleges; we work in factories and offices; we draw on the services of clinics, police stations and post offices. Each of these spaces has its own accepted norms, often formal rules and policies.

Now imagine this for a moment: that all these collective spaces that define and shape the fabric of our lives have – in their own specific ways and in accordance with their own means – introduced small, but significant changes:

  • a grouping of GBV prevention champions has been formed;
  • a GBV policy or “what to do when…” document is in place;
  • a GBV education or awareness programme is introduced;
  • a support group for those who wish to come forward to talk confidentially has been formed, even trained and guided by professionals;
  • a space for those who have themselves perpetrated abuse (a kind of Abusers Anonymous) is created, as those who perpetrate are themselves likely to be victims of abuse, who need healing opportunities.

These are all little steps, but they take enormous commitment and drive to be brought about. Money would help, but this is not the essential ingredient. More important is the passion, vision and dogged, unyielding determination over time to bring these elements to life in our ordinary institutions.

Now imagine further if government in partnership with the sector addressing GBV in civil society came together to structure a programme comprising a whole sequence of “little steps”, welded into a national campaign and implemented gradually, month by month over a year. Each month characterised by a different “call to action”. With government’s communication machinery through public broadcasting facilities being used to highlight the “Challenge-of-the-Month” – Have you got your GBV policy in place yet? And so on…

I do not have direct experience in the sector addressing GBV and would not want to presume to know what the best content or sequencing of these “little steps” should be. What is important is:

One: that we put to work the existing passion, public awareness and dogged determination that we see around us. We may just have a critical mass of these ingredients at this unique moment in time to take us to a new level. And,

Two: that we work together on an incremental basis over a defined period of time to achieve cumulative change in the institutions that give structure and meaning to our lives. An incremental approach is important given that the complexity of the changes needed is huge and, as such, potentially debilitating if we just focus on the bigger picture. Moreover, most sustainable social change happens slowly and deliberately: introducing new ideas and gradually figuring out and persuading ourselves and those around us how best to proceed along a particular path.

This is what they call deep democracy. Government, guided by and in consultation with civil society, helps provide structure and a general framework for something to happen in the nooks and crannies of our society, backed up with time frames and careful monitoring. The people do the rest through internal dialogue in our own spaces and with the help of a few pickets and marches where there is resistance and tardiness. Even if there were to be full uptake in only 30% of social institutions and formations, this would provide a solid foundation and a bulwark for building a respectful culture of gender relations in this country.

Next steps

Acknowledged, there is a process of consultation presently taking place between government and civil society with a view to formulating a national strategic plan. Granted, R1.1-billion has been promised. All this is good. But, let us remember that most state agencies bear deeply dysfunctional scars.

We cannot just hand over the car keys to government even when a plan is in place and budget has been allocated. New court and SAPS facilities designed to address gender crimes are not just going to materialise. Especially in out-of-sight rural towns and in poor communities, where most needed. Rather, consistent mobilisation of citizenry in local areas will be needed to ‘concentrate the mind’ of government to see through its paper-based implementation plans.

Moreover, we need to broaden our focus beyond government agencies. The psychosocial roots of gender and child violence in South Africa are hugely complex. Without deep systemic changes within the belly of the multitude of institutions that make up our environment and our everyday lives, very little will have shifted. These changes may well be in our hands as ordinary people, led by civil society organisations that are able to seize the moment.

Most worryingly, without anything to show for our street efforts or the symbolic public gains that have been made, the crisis will go nowhere. Except that we might see greater frustration during mass demonstrations and ever shriller voices demanding seemingly radical, but useless changes such as “Bring Back the Death Sentence”. We will have lost the moment and created yet another platform for authoritarian populism. MC

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