Gender inequality and violence against women continue to undermine our democracy
Last week was a difficult one for women around the world.
It started with a viral video. Shared briefly on singer Babes Wodumo’s Instagram feed, it showed what appeared to be the young singer being assaulted by her partner Mandla ‘Mampintsha’ Maphumulo. Despite being removed from Wodumo’s feed almost immediately, the video was shared widely on Twitter. Reactions ranged from outrage and calls for Mampintsha’s arrest to some criticising the singer for choosing to share the alleged abuse on social media.
As Sonke Gender Justice reminded the public, through a press release and numerous interviews on radio and television, rather than shaming a survivor for speaking out, we should create an environment which encourages and facilitates reporting of gender-based violence (GBV). Particularly when we know that the levels of under-reporting of GBV in South Africa are sky-high.
Soon, there was a warrant out for Mampintsha’s arrest. And on Tuesday 5 March he appeared in Pinetown Magistrate’s Court. He was granted R2,000 bail and will appear in court again on 15 May 2019. After his hearing Mampintsha held a press conference during which he alleged Wodumo had attacked him, saying: “I was provoked and I also beat her up.”
All accusations will be aired in court, of course, but the fact remains that violence is not an excuse for perpetrating more violence.
And yet that is precisely what Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane suggested in his hypermasculine response to the incident on Twitter, which was to challenge Mampintsha to a boxing match. If the fact that this response was a perpetuation of the very violence he was condemning was lost on Maimane when he hit send on his tweet, he was rapidly reminded of it by the ever-vigilant Twittersphere.
Then news reports surfaced that journalist and editor Karima Brown had been threatened with violence and rape by supporters of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Her crime? She had inadvertently posted a WhatsApp message meant for her radio show producer to an EFF WhatsApp group. A meeting had been planned between Julius Malema and a group of elders in Johannesburg and Brown urged her media colleagues who were attending to analyse the gender makeup of the group, writing:
“Keep an eye out for this. Who are the elders? Are they all male, and how are they chosen? Keep watching brief (sic).”
After Malema copied the legitimately probing message (together with Brown’s phone number) and posted it to Twitter, some of his over 2 million followers responded with threats to Brown directly to her phone. According to Daily Maverick, this is the second time Brown has been attacked via WhatsApp by EFF supporters. No immediate public condemnation of these viscerally violent threats was forthcoming from the EFF Commander-in-Chief. Quite the opposite in fact. Malema spoke on PowerFM, defending his decision, saying:
“Karima Brown is an operative. She sent a message deploying the foot soldiers to come and spy on the EFF meeting. She’s not a journalist. She’s not an editor and she’s not an assignment editor.”
In a statement, the South African National Editor’s Forum called on Malema to apologise to Brown.
“We call on the EFF leadership to stop with this vicious attack on the media and allow journalists to do their work without fear and intimidation. The attacks on women in media in particular and the abuse levelled against them are contrary to the spirit of wanting to protect women in a country where violence against women has reached pandemic levels.”
Indeed. South Africa is a country with some of the highest rates of GBV and femicide in the world – the femicide rate is almost five times the global average. In a 2009 study conducted by the Medical Research Council, nearly half of all men reported that they had assaulted an intimate partner and 27% of men said they had raped a woman. Furthermore, a widely published joint 2016 report by Sonke and the University of the Witwatersrand revealed that levels of violence are likely to be even higher in the informal settlements in which Sonke works.
Our leaders hold power over the public’s perceptions of violence as well as their actions. And allowing threats of this nature to spread unchecked shows a disregard for the realities of violence in this country. Malema is clearly aware of this, telling broadcast journalists:
“We’ve got a serious problem in South Africa of violence against women. We’ve got a serious problem of rape in South Africa. It’s not something that you can threaten a person with […] We are condemning it. We are saying either in our name or not it’s unacceptable.”
However, in the same interview he continued to defend his exposure of Brown’s number:
“Karima is not a journalist. She’s not an editor, she’s not a journalist […] She’s just an individual who hosts the show and therefore she will be treated as such.”
Brown, who has said she will lay complaints with the police and the Electoral Commission (IEC) against the EFF, disagrees.
“We need to ask the IEC how such a party can be on the ballot box. It threatens journalists. It encourages its supporters to make rape threats and sexual assault threats. It wants to dictate what I can do as a journalist.”
But if we were to think that this normalisation of violence and rape is South Africa-specific, we were reminded of its global reach by news reports which surfaced on Wednesday of a video game that was to be launched in a few weeks’ time, which allows players to simulate the rape and murder of women. The game has thankfully been pulled from its online hosting service after the swift and severe backlash it received. The mere fact that the game was conceptualised and that there was demand for it reveals how deeply entrenched misogyny and toxic masculinity are among some men who objectify women and fantasise about their subjugation.
And then there was R Kelly. The singer, who has faced allegations of sexual assault for decades, has been charged with 10 new counts of sexual abuse. He became enraged during a television interview with host Gayle King who calmly questioned him regarding the allegations of abuse levelled against him. Kelly proclaimed his innocence during the interview, saying, “I didn’t do this stuff, this is not me … all of them are lying.
“How stupid would it be for R Kelly, with all I’ve been through in my way, way past, to hold somebody – let alone, four, five, six, 50 you said – how stupid would I be to do that? Use your common sense.”
Common sense starts with supporting the survivors who have bravely come forward to accuse the powerful singer of sexual assault.
Sonke’s work shows that across much of the world, rigid gender norms and harmful perceptions of what it means to be a man or a woman encourage men to engage in high-risk behaviours, condone violence against women, grant men the power to initiate and dictate the terms of sex and make it difficult for women to protect themselves from violence. A growing body of research shows that these gender roles contribute to GBV. They lead to high levels of violence against women, but they also contribute to extremely high levels of men’s violence against other men.
Global, women-led movements such as #TimesUp and #MeToo, as well as the #TotalShutdown in South Africa, have pushed back, said “enough!”, and shown that inequality, sexual abuse, harassment and GBV will no longer be tolerated in our society. And yet, this week we were reminded – yet again – of the work that is still to be done to dismantle harmful patriarchal attitudes that lead to violence.
As South Africa heads into a general election, threats of violence, rape and murder such as those levelled against Brown – particularly against the backdrop of the epidemic levels of violence against women that we see in South Africa – cannot go unchecked. And it is vital that we hold our leaders to account for their obligation to promote gender equality, prevent GBV and uphold the human rights of all South Africans as is enshrined in our Constitution.