As 2019 draws to a close, observations of 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children have come and gone. At the start of each 16 Days of Activism campaign, I am reminded of Washiela, who grew up and faced the brunt of apartheid. Washiela and her family were forcefully removed from what is now a very sought-after area in Cape Town.
Due to the brutality of apartheid, Washiela was forced on to the Cape Flats, and compelled to exist in a particular way as a young person of colour. The only work suitable for Washiela was cleaning and caring for the young of the ruling class. Washiela encountered discrimination, violence and crime during apartheid. Violence that has not truly been accounted for, but a brutality endorsed by the apartheid regime, and violence enacted by the will of an illegitimate and criminal ruling class.
I am reminded particularly about Washiela – my late grandmother – at this time because of the violence that visited her at five one morning when she was standing at Netreg train station waiting for her train to Cape Town. A story not too dissimilar from that of many womxn and other passengers who brave public transport in South Africa. On that morning, Washiela, deep in her 50s, was attacked by an axe-wielding man who was hellbent on raping and attacking her. Washiela had to fend for herself and proceed through an almost three-year process to see that man prosecuted and sentenced for attempted rape.
The consequences of our inaction on this issue are dire. It affects the most vulnerable, the poor, the marginalised and those who have been silenced in our society. The World Health Organisation statistics suggest that 12 in every 100,000 South African womxn are victims of femicide each year, which far exceeds the global average of 2.6.
Yet, inaction continues to be a hallmark of both the response by society at large and government. Simply capturing the moment through a pledge is only a photo opportunity for self-appeasing, self-serving and ill-fitting individuals. This issue requires an actual policy position, a real intervention by government and a broader conversation of what is required in society. The interventions must start in our places of worship, at the points where ordinary citizens receive government services, schools, educational facilities and places where the vulnerable are often disregarded.
Early this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa was seized with the task of addressing the nation in the wake of another spate of violent attacks against womxn and children. A moment that Ramaphosa described as a “very dark period for us as a country”, yet young womxn like Madonnah James from Bloemfontein continue to be killed in our communities.
Regardless of 16 Days of Activism, Madonnah was brutally murdered during this campaign period. Madonnah, like many other young womxn in South Africa, was targeted because of her gender and her sexuality. Madonnah was a victim of the femicide being meted out against womxn. She, like far too many others, was a victim of inaction by our government, apathy by society at large and by the violent perpetrators of these crimes. Her death will continue to plague her family and is a sad reminder of how difficult it is to live in South Africa.
There is not just senseless brutality that targets womxn and children but also despair about our inability to tackle this issue with the resolve required to truly reverse the “dark period” and begin to introduce a sense of certainty for womxn who continue to be haunted by this violence and inaction.
Marginalised communities in South Africa are particularly targeted by femicide and other violent crimes and forms of discrimination that often go unchecked. Violence that steals their hopes, their dreams, their opportunities and their livelihoods.
According to a report by OUT and Love Not Hate in 2016, 41% of LGBTIQ+ people in South Africa know people who have been murdered because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. What is more alarming is the prevalence of this targeted violence, where 7% of LGBTIQ+ people experienced violence from a family member or loved one, a further 7% have been beaten, kicked, hit or punched and 6% have been raped or sexually abused.
For the womxn affected in our society, the nature of this violence is not surprising. For those living in the LGBTIQ+ community, they too would not be surprised by the sheer enormity of this relentless violence. Often during the period of 16 Days of Activism, much focus is on the extent of the physical and emotional violence, and the process of healing and recovery. A crucial element of this scourge is the cost on the mental well-being of those affected. This must be addressed broadly by the healthcare, community safety, policing and social development sectors in order to provide wholesome and holistic interventions. The inability to access healthcare services has dire consequences for those most vulnerable and has ripple effects across society.
However, the responsibilities around womxn, children and those most vulnerable in our community do not simply rest with government or some external party, but there is important work that we must do as individuals with agency and commitment to constitutional values that have enabled South Africa to exist.
We have the capacity to affect change in our own families, the streets we live on, the communities in which we live, the workplaces we form part of, the schools and educational facilities we access, places of worship and government service points. We must not discount this agency, because in the wake of femicide and targeted violence against vulnerable communities, we must not simply make a pledge but commit to action and resolve that it is unacceptable, with the accompanying interventions. DM
George Washington's "wooden" teeth were actually human teeth taken from slaves.