Voices for gender justice in South Africa

According to a national study, in South Africa a woman is killed every six hours by her intimate partner.

To say that gender-based violence is a problem in South Africa is an egregious understatement. The roots of the problem are woven into the country’s historical struggle to end apartheid, its ongoing economic insecurity, and the global system of patriarchy. Men who commit gender-based violence, especially men of influence, are rarely held accountable. It is their stories, and voices that comply with their stories, that are most often prioritized. Two recent examples of this situation include the August 6th protest as President Jacob Zuma gave a speech and the ongoing femicide trial of former community leader Patrick Wisani since September. However, the voices of these two men of influence do not represent all men in South Africa on the issue of gender-based violence.

To recap what happened on August 6th during the release of the 2016 municipal election results, four young women staged a silent protest directly in front of Zuma, the political party head of the African National Congress (ANC). Their statement? A call of remembrance for the courage and injustice endured by a woman, referred to as Khwezi by the media, who opened charges of rape against Zuma in 2005. The charges were later dropped, in favor of his story which cited the sexual assault as a mutual encounter, despite her opposition and her identity as a lesbian. (Exiled to the Netherlands where she was granted asylum, Khwezi wrote and performed a powerful poem boldly and clearly demonstrating her side of the story.) During Zuma’s speech, the protesters presented placards that read “I am 1 in 3” (Statistically, 1 in 3 women globally will experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner), “10 years later,” “Khanga” (A khanga is a wrap-around dress, something that Zuma claims he interpreted as an invitation for sex at the time), and “Remember Khwezi.” After the forceful removal of the protestors, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) made a formal apology, not for the abuse of the student activists, but for the disturbance to the president and to the audience.

A second example demonstrating abuse of political and gender-based power structures is the murder case involving political leader Patrick Wisani. The former ANC Youth League official allegedly killed his girlfriend, 24-year-old Nosipho Mandleleni, by beating her to death last September. He was released on bail sixteen days after the murder. Earlier this year, the bail was revoked after he was charged with two counts of assault: he allegedly intimidated two witnesses, including Mandleleni’s twin sister. The judge appointed to the trial struggled to take the case seriously, confused about facts, witnesses, and the sequence of events; the trial will resume on September 8th with a newly appointed judge.

Where is power located in both of these stories?

It is powerful that reports about men’s abuse of women, especially high-profile men, come and go casually; these stories become something communities seem to resign themselves to, perhaps in hopeless frustration and in some cases in support. It might appear hopeless to challenge this system, especially when we note that South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world and, according to a national study on female homicide in South Africa, a woman is killed every six hours by her intimate partner.

However, research conducted by Sonke Gender Justice, an NGO headquartered in South Africa working toward the prevention of gender-based violence and HIV, shows that many men in South Africa are concerned about gender-based violence (GBV) in their communities; many want to be part of positive change. Sonke responded to these findings with programs such as the UN sponsored One Man Can (OMC), which supports men’s convictions that a more equitable world is possible, and the recent Safe Ride Campaign, which strives to prevent abuse of women and girls at the hands of taxi drivers and queue marshals.

Dean Peacock, Sonke’s founder spoke after the August 6th protest about men’s engagement: “It is exciting to see the number of young men who have stepped forward recently as active allies. They are making clear their dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles and their opposition to sexual violence.”

One Man Can

One Man Can was established in 2006, the same year that Zuma was acquitted for charges of rape. The program provides engagement outlets via workshops, videos, drama, song, sport, art, marches and other forms of activism. Denise Robinson, Democratic Alliance Women’s Network leader, advocates that while empowering women to move beyond barriers of sexism is crucial, “…male entitlement is something we really need to work on, and it needs to involve men and not just women.” OMC creates space not only for prioritizing the voices of those victimized or silenced by violence, but also for calling into question -and transforming- disastrous gender-based expectations and the men that sustain them.

With its One Man Can Tool Kit, OMC provides information and strategies on how to “support a survivor; use the law to demand justice; educate children; and challenge other men to take action,” just to name a few.

Research conducted in 2009 demonstrated that, in the weeks following participation in OMC, 25% of respondents sought voluntary counseling, 50% reported an act of GBV, and over 80% talked to friends or family members about gender issues.

Safe Ride Campaign

On August 17th Sonke and the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO) took a step toward gender justice together with support from the Danish embassy as they launched the Safe Ride program. A 12 month program, Safe Ride provides taxi personnel with training on sexual assault prevention and offers women and children information about reporting harassment and abuse.

Recognizing that the “[the taxi industry] is a male-dominated industry,” SANTACO president Phillip Taaibosch says “we believe the campaign is going to contribute immensely to the advocacy for the respect of women and children and for other citizens of the country.”

Danish ambassador to South Africa, Trine Rask Thygesen is optimistic about the program: “Fighting gender-based violence is a human right and the Safe Ride campaign gives hope that the scourge of gender-based violence in South Africa will be eradicated.”

Through the programs described here and myriad others, Sonke is reaching roughly 25,000 men and women a year.

For Sonke’s community mobilization man­ager Nonhlanhla Skosana the organization “is a platform where we can talk to men about these issues and also to say to those who aren’t perpetrators that they can’t turn a blind eye; their silence means they are taking part in violence against women.”

According to Global Health Action, South African health policies formulated in the last twenty years are addressing violence; however, such policies often fail to be effectively implemented. Reinforcing this problem are men of influence, such as Zuma and Wisani, whose prioritization of patriarchal entitlement comes at the expense of women’s right to their lives and freedom. Campaigns, like OMC and Safe Ride are crucial as they disrupt and transform masculine norms that so often lead to violence. What is needed now is development and marketing of these programs toward a critical mass of gender justice advocates. The effect? Voices of political leaders shouting male entitlement would be drowned out by a chorus of OMC campaigners, reformed taxi drivers, and peaceful anti-violence protesters raising their voices for gender justice.

Amanda Pickett

Amanda Pickett is an American gender specialist in Boston and administrator for Voice Male, a pro-feminist magazine chronicling masculinities today. Amanda promotes and advances spaces of men’s engagement in gender equality that set in motion men’s “aha” moment. By this she means the moment(s) it becomes clear that a) gender inequality is a pervasive and complex social problem, b) we are NOT ALONE in our discomfort with, and eagerness to change, gender inequality, and c) we CAN do something. She holds a master's in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College and has worked with Merge for Equality, Inc.
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