I have come to dread Women’s Day (9 August), and also the annual 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women campaign (25 November-10 December).
As political commentators we are expected to say something useful, even inspiring. But for years those of us who are feminists have been saying the same thing – no progress is being made with the creation of gender equality and that gender-based violence (GBV) is out of control. The recent brutal gang rape of eight young women in West Village close to Krugersdorp is a stark reminder of that.
I recently pondered the insights of the novel Lord of the Flies for South Africa. A synopsis of this book reads as follows:
“The major conflict in Lord of the Flies is the struggle between Jack and Ralph. The fight for who will lead the island represents the clash between a peaceful democracy, as symbolised by Ralph, and a violent dictatorship, as symbolised by Jack. Both boys are potential leaders of the entire group, and though Jack grudgingly accepts Ralph’s leadership at first, as the plot develops their rivalry grows and intensifies until it is a struggle to the death. Ralph and Jack (and the boys who align themselves with each) represent different values and different aspects of human nature. Ralph represents respect for the law, duty, reason, and the protection of the weak, whereas Jack represents violence, cruelty, mob rule, government through fear, and tyranny.
“As we see Ralph’s hold over the other boys weaken and crumble until he is cast out and hunted, the story seems to be showing us that humanity’s violent and savage impulses are more powerful than civilisation, which is inherently fragile. And while Ralph is rescued at the last minute by a representative of civilisation in the person of the naval officer, the fact that a global war is taking place underlines the idea that civilisation itself is under serious threat from the forces of violence.”
How fitting is this for a country where the ruling party is so deeply divided that it seems that the fight to sustain democracy or to destroy it is a fight to the death. Savage impulses seem to be more powerful than fairness and justice that can be provided by a democratic regime. And all this takes place against the backdrop of global violence, such as Russia’s war in the Ukraine, large scale migration and a climate crisis.
Surely, what the eight rape victims must have experienced when they were helpless in the face of the savage impulses of their rapists is that we live in a state of nature where nobody is spared and only the fittest (most resilient) survive. This cannot possibly be a democracy.
This lawlessness is allowed by our government. For years the inhabitants of West Village have been terrorised by illegal miners or zama zamas. Women living in West Village are regularly raped and even when they report the rapes very little is done by the police. Many people made the allegations on radio that the police are in cahoots with the zama zamas. It is an illusion to think that the police are the protectors of women.
See how quickly the focus has shifted from the rape victims to illegal miners. The rape victims are now a footnote to this story. While the police had known about the problems with illegal miners for years, all of a sudden they could quickly round up 80 illegal miners, all allegedly foreigners.
Putting the focus on perpetrators as foreigners contributes to the discourse that foreigners rape. This type of discourse fuels the flames of xenophobia that just needs one spark to ignite, and so it did. In the last two days, vigilante justice was meted out to foreigners in the vicinity of Mogale City and other places where there are illegal miners.
But South African men also rape and kill their intimate partners. The SAPS statistics for 2019/2020 were 42,289 for rape and 7,749 for sexual assault.
While DNA samples have been taken to identify the perpetrators, the laboratory backlog for analysing DNA evidence is at least two years long, if not longer. The Minister of Police Bheki Cele says that the DNA analysis of this case will be prioritised.
Again, it takes a horrific incident like this to spark the authorities into action and then it all dies down again, until the next horrific incident. Where is the holistic view, the strategy, the priorities to help ALL rape survivors?
The National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide is one such effort to provide a holistic policy. This plan rests on six pillars: (1) accountability and leadership; (2) prevention and rebuilding social cohesion; (3) justice, safety and protection; (4) care, support and healing; (5) economic empowerment; and (6) research and information management.
This is a commendable long-term strategy that will take time to implement and will be heavy on resources that may not be forthcoming. But what happens in the short term?
In the absence of progress with rape, the ANC Women’s League developed a very misplaced policy to deal with perpetrators – that of chemical castration. What this shows is the lack of understanding that rape is systemic and normalised and that policies that individualise rapists as “bad apples” or “monsters” cannot deal with rape as a social problem. (It is so normalised that Bheki Cele says that one victim was lucky because she was only raped once!).
Furthermore, research has shown that chemical castration does not reduce levels of rape, but rather acts as a punishment. It only works when it is monitored and coupled with psychotherapy because it does not deal with underlying tendencies of violence. It has very serious side effects and therefore violates perpetrators’ rights to bodily integrity and privacy. It is therefore unconstitutional.
What is also misunderstood is that rape is not about sexual desire but about power and the entitlement to women’s bodies. Even when rapists are chemically castrated, they can still violate women with objects such as sticks and bottles – a clear indication that it is not about sexual desire.
The president acknowledged at the ANC’s recent policy conference that we have a crisis with gender-based violence, but we have been in this crisis for years.
After Uyinene Mrwetyana’s brutal rape and death in a post office the protests in front of Parliament demanded that the president speak to the protesters. He did and made promises. That was in 2019.
The government keeps talking about the scourge of violence as though the violence is visited upon us by unknown forces like the plague. But sexual violence has agents and those agents are men with toxic masculinities. We should stop talking about GBV as a scourge and start to deal with the agents who inflict the violence through savage impulses that take us back to the state of nature.
On Women’s Day we should think back to those women who marched to the Union Buildings in 1956 with a clear focus on women’s rights. They were actors and activists who represented women’s interests to have a better future, not bogged down by party factionalism, own interests and cultivated loyalties toward men. DM