Defend Truth

Opinionista

As long as we men turn a blind eye to the hyenas in our midst, the GBV plague will continue

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

What are we men and boys doing to combat gender-based violence? Come on, rise up. Stop talking, singing and marching. Do something tangible. Call perpetrators out – at home, at work, church, school, and your social circle.

A protest action led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) early in October highlighted once more the problem of gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa. Narratives of the suffering of women in South Africa and the yearly escalation of GBV can make even a stone weep. In 2018, for example, the Crime Against Women in South Africa report by Statistics SA (Report No 03-40-05 of June 2018), showed that femicide in South Africa is five times higher than the global average.

In August 2019, the Constitutional Court in the case of Tshabalala versus the State heard of a group of heartless men who went on a late-night reign of terror in Umthambeka in Tembisa, which included the gang-raping of a visibly pregnant woman and a 14-year-old girl. Justice Rammaka Mathopo noted in this case that women in South Africa have been relegated to second-class citizens through acts of GBV, by men who think they are entitled to have control over women and who suffer from “the social construction of masculinity in South Africa”.

As a man, husband, father, brother and uncle of dandelions, I am lost for words in writing about GBV. Luckily I have found a solution by trouble-shooting my writer’s block through musical lyrics to write this opinion dedicated to women and children in South Africa suffering from GBV.

Normally, the perception – and rightly so – is that men just stand by as attacks on human rights, life and limb, and bodily integrity take place.  Murders, abusers, rapists, paedophiles and other perpetrators of GBV thrive in contexts of complacency, disregard for the rule of law, continuing discriminatory practices, other occupational segregation practices, and the use of women’s suffering for political expediency. Those close to women have been their deadliest predators. Every protest in South Africa is marked by people singing their lungs out and followed by little or no action at all.

Why not express my continuing contribution to the movement against GBV with reference to musical tapestry? As eloquently said by the late Busi Mhlongo in her song ukuThula, “Bantu bakith’ kumnand’ uk’hlala ngok’thul’ ezweni”. (My people, “people of our land”, it’s nice to live in peace in our nation.) However, living in peace will never be nice if made the preserve of men only. Women deserve peace too. “Nom’ ungang’bulala ngek’ uwathol’ amandl’ ami. …Kumnandi ukuhlala ngokuthula.” (…It’s nice to live in peace.) Women have the right to live in peace and harmony too. As the legendary Caiphus Semenya said: “Woman got a right to be.”

The strength of our sisters, mothers and grandmothers who are gruesomely killed at the hands of men does not have to be gone with the wind. It is for us as a society to take it into our hearts and continue the fight against GBV. The lyrics of Mhlongo’s song further say: “Noma ungangibulala ngeke uwathole amandle ami.” (Though you may kill me, you will never gain my strength.) This truth is explicated by Siphokazi in her song Ubuntu Bam (meaning, My Humanity), which should be shared with every man and boy, particularly the lyrics that: “My humanity is in my rhythm, my view of life and nature can’t be taken away. It’s engraved in my soul.”

Another lyrical masterpiece by Mhlongo, “We Baba Omncane” (meaning, father’s younger brother [“small father” or uncle]) illustrates what women and children have to go through for the rest of their lives. They are chased from their homes, with no good reason. “We bab’omncane, Wang’xosha kabuhlung” (You chased me away so sorely.) “Kodwa yini na?” (What’s the matter?/But what is it?) The behaviour of men, particularly those whom girl children call uncles or “small fathers” is far from exemplary of what being a father means.

We are a society with the hyena-like behaviour of men steeped in the culture of patriarchal behaviour. A society where girl children are subjected almost daily to every imaginable form of GBV, including rape, femicide, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. A non-profit organisation called Matla A Bana – A Voice Against Child Abuse once estimated that 50% of South Africa’s children will be abused before the age of 18 and that 85% of them will be by perpetrators known to them. Matla A Bana reports that every three minutes a child is raped in South Africa, most being girls between three and 12 years of age, and by men known to them. 

Nobody can deny the truth in Siphokazi’s 2007 song Amacala, that women always have to explain themselves nonstop (“Seng’ thetha amacala ekuze kuse”), so much so that her home has turned into a courtroom (“Usephenduk’ inkantolo umuzi wam”), and she has no way but to go back home (“Ndibuyel’ ekhaya”). Unfortunately, a society that is ready to always excuse GBV will mock and shun a woman as a “returnee” when in fact her parents’ house should be her fortress.

The scourge of GBV in South Africa has been highlighted over many years, but it is not abating. Although we recognise the need to do something to safeguard the rights of women and children and eradicate the harms and dangers they are faced with daily, our efforts are often meaningless. We are like empty tins making the loudest of noise and promises, but carrying nothing to show for it.

In Africa, the elephant in the room is the endless promises that things are about to change, and governments not delivering on their promises to end GBV. Can we trust what we are being told by governments across Africa to end or combat GBV? I do not have an answer to this question. However, I am inclined to borrow from the lyrical prowess of the late Brenda Fassie in her song Promises, when the Queen of Pop sang: “Standing back I can’t believe how you’ve led me on… Your promises have never been anything you made them seem.”

You will pardon me using the lyrics of musical greats to drive my point home. I love music that is lyrically meaningful, and listening to the likes of women such as Busi Mhlongo, Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba, Siphokazi, and other contemporary artists such as Kanyi Mavi is listening to artists who sang back at GBV.

… African Union must lead the continental fight against GBV. Already there are best practices continentally and globally that have paved the way for something to be done.

I also marvel at the artistic creations of women who depict in some way women suffering, including artists like Lungiswa Gqunta who has the audacity to tackle issues of the postcolonial cultural landscape regarding inequality and patriarchy; Zanele Muholi, whose portraits form an important part of the discourse on black lesbian, gay, transgender and intersex people; and the fabulous holder of The Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, Dr Esther Mahlangu, one of whose works adorns the walls of a New York boulevard.

In the same way, music and other artistic creations can plant the seeds of negative attitudes towards women and children, it is through music that we can start challenging the widely held attitudes and beliefs that provide fertile germination ground for GBV. Young artists like Líricas del Caos, a feminist rap group from Colombia, have succeeded in promoting a hip-hop scene free of sexist violence and profanities against women through the composition of anti-patriarchal lyrics. As did the musical offering of Andy Mkosi following the rape and murder of another dandelion, Uyinene Mrwetyana in 2019.

The Minister in the Presidency for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, officially launched the 365 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) on 10 December 2019 in partnership with UN Women and First for Women Insurance. At the time the minister uttered comforting words, giving a commitment that “enough is enough” and that “together, we need to play our part, not just for 16 days but for 365 days a year, every year”.

On a different perspective, I am reminded of a colleague who said to me that society is always willing to excuse the predatory behaviour of men. And further, that the plight of women and children has been worsened by having to work from home amid Covid-19 with the general workplace protections and basic conditions of work not equally extended to the “work-from-home” environment. What has the government done to ensure that working from home is not a GBV trap for many women?  

What I know is that governments have a much bigger role to play in the fight against GBV. In 2013 the World Health Organisation reported that about 35% of women worldwide had experienced GBV in their lifetimes, and that the highest proportion of GBV incidents happened in Africa.

This brings me to my next point: the African Union must lead the continental fight against GBV. Already there are best practices continentally and globally that have paved the way for something to be done. For instance, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on its 100th anniversary on 21 June 2019 adopted the first legally binding Violence and Harassment Convention. Notable is that article 4(2) of the convention states that, “Each Member shall adopt, in accordance with national law and circumstances and in consultation with representative employers’ and workers’ organisations, an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach for the prevention and elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.”

The ILO took this bold step to answer the call by millions of women around the world to be protected from the sharp claws of GBV in the workplace, and so should African governments and the AU take the lead.

What are we men and boys doing to combat GBV? In the words of Minister Nkoana-Mashabane:

“Men can do this by calling out other men who insult, denigrate, abuse, or treat women like objects.”

Having started and pitched this opinion against the backdrop of some lyrical foundations by some of the best musicians of all time, I should conclude with the call to men taken from the song My City of Ruins by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band – “My city of ruins. Dear men and boys, come on, rise up” against GBV. Stop talking, singing and marching. Do something tangible. Call perpetrators out. You know who they are – at home, at work, church, school, and your social circle.

To the African Union leadership: if the Council of Europe could establish a convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, why cannot you? What have you done since the ILO established a binding GBV convention? DM

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  • I suspect that fear for retribution (sometimes rational and sometimes not) drives human behaviour in this respect and that sadly, is probably not going to change anytime soon. Legislation, conventions, etc., etc., are meaningless if the populace does not buy into it.