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Opinionista

What’s needed to still the urgent cry of South African women

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Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is Professor and Research Chair in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University. She is the winner of the 2020 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

In a country where countless women and girls have been victims of rape and murder and at this historical moment of crisis where women living under the threat of abuse are locked down in their homes, this is an excellent opportunity to think about how women can be protected from the silent bombs of male power in their homes and communities.

Women friends and colleagues across the globe who watched the entire horrific incident unfold say they can still hear the anguished cry long after they exited the online platform on which they watched the wailing screams of a man whose last breath was snuffed out of him on the streets of the American city of Minneapolis.

For some of these women, myself included, it was the moment George Floyd cried out “Mama…!” that evoked a deep indescribable visceral pain that made the cry of a man stripped of his dignity and dehumanised in his dying moments audible long after the video of the scene of the crime had stopped running.

But Floyd’s final lament to his mother was not the first time that many South African women have been stirred by violence against black bodies. We have witnessed scenes of violence in our country that left us with the kind of grief that seems to sink into the marrow.

Countless examples include the bestiality of the racist violence of the “coffin case” of Mpumalanga and the “lion’s den case” of Limpopo; the brutality of the police in their enforcement of Covid-19 lockdown regulations in black communities, including the murder of Collins Khosa; the gang violence that has often led to the killing of little children. The utter disregard of the value of black life, now epitomised in the global imagination by the murder of George Floyd, inscribed indelibly our role to bear witness and to bear the pain of women who live in fear anywhere in an act of solidarity with the call that their lives, the lives of their children — black lives — matter.

In the days following the murder of Floyd, just thinking about the incident was enough to conjure up images of American lynching of black men — the cycle of the violence of racism continues. But the reality of the hanging body of Tshegofatso Pule under a tree in Roodepoort with stab wounds 10 days after the Floyd incident returns our focus to the crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa.

Dozens of cases of violence against women have been reported during this Covid-19 lockdown period, including the rape of three teenagers at Impendle in KwaZulu-Natal in front of their 71-year-old grandmother who later died of shock, a grandmother’s own lament that ends with her death. The cycle of the terror wielded against women’s bodies continues relentlessly no matter how many marches, protests and campaigns to fight it are held.

It is commonplace for scholars and practitioners to acknowledge that the concept of patriarchy, which describes a system of social structures and cultures of domination that allow men to oppress and subjugate women, is vital for understanding gender-based violence. In order better to understand how patriarchy plays out and the magnitude of the problem in South Africa, other factors that intersect and that are intimately intertwined with patriarchy should be considered.

The violence against women should be read as part of the continuum of the treatment by the state of black people who live under conditions of poverty. The gender-based violence is an extension of the broader system of the violence of corruption, police violence, and a state that pays little attention to the needs of the people who voted for them. Betrayed by a government that makes its own people feel discarded as if they do not count in the larger scheme of things, the rage evoked in men by this dehumanisation can be unleashed with devastating consequences for women, because patriarchy thrives under such conditions.

In my work that explores what it means to be human in the aftermath of historical trauma, I consider solidarity with the suffering other an ethical form of empathy — a response that not only touches the suffering other, but takes action to be in solidarity with the other in their quest for social justice.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said South Africa is one of “the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman”. He has promised harsher sentences against perpetrators and swift response to crimes of violence against women:

“I will propose to Cabinet that all crimes against women and children should attract harsher minimum sentences,” he said. He decried the acts of violence, which he said, “have made us doubt the very foundation of our democratic society”.

He is right, of course. Violence is deeply embedded in our society and this has an impact on how patriarchal violence is performed in homes and at the broader social level. In a country where countless women and girls have been victims of rape and murder and at this historical moment of crisis where women living under the threat of abuse are locked down in their homes, this is an excellent opportunity to think about how women can be protected from the silent bombs of male power in their homes and communities.

I have been thinking about the trauma lens and how the convergence of the pandemic, the loss of jobs and the fear and uncertainty of the lockdown will create unprecedented risks of psychosocial well-being for many women on multiple levels. For women facing violence daily, these intersectional dynamics may strain their capacity to cope.

But I also wonder whether one should consider a different way of thinking about the everyday lives of people faced with impossible challenges in the face of the trauma of Covid-19, and how, confronted with such impossibility they can still wake up and somehow — continue life, living. I do not mean “resilience”, but rather the everyday necessity to reclaim one’s sense of agency in spite of overwhelming traumatic life experiences, and sometimes in the face of the violence of men who want to stifle this agency. I have seen women drawing strength from one another during this time, even as they depend on the support of others to survive. This is when solidarity matters.

In my work that explores what it means to be human in the aftermath of historical trauma, I consider solidarity with the suffering other an ethical form of empathy — a response that not only touches the suffering other, but takes action to be in solidarity with the other in their quest for social justice.

What struck me the most about the global awakening of awareness about the deadly effects of racism after George Floyd’s murder is how people joined bodies, making their bodies sites of ethical empathic witness. This kind of identification with the other’s suffering is the human face of solidarity and what’s needed to still the urgent cry of women in our country. DM

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