This article was originally written for the Mail & Guardian
By Rebecca Davis
I think it’s an exciting moment,” says Sonke Gender Justice’s Dean Peacock of the state of gender activism in South Africa.
The silent protest staged by four young female activists during President Jacob Zuma’s speech at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) headquarters in Pretoria on Saturday put antirape messaging firmly in the spotlight. Peacock believes it’s a reflection of an increasing vitality among young South Africans who are no longer prepared to stay silent about gender inequality.
“Along with #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall has come #PatriarchyMustFall,” he says. “Activism is shifting out of the traditional NGO [nongovernmental organisation] sector. The last year and a bit has seen a resurgence of quite militant, fierce, unapologetic activism.”
The time could not be any riper for such a development. NGOs working on gender have played a vital role in filling the gaps left by the government’s approach, but many of these organisations are battling to stay afloat. “Gender NGOs have struggled over the past five years with funding difficulties and, frankly, fatigue,” says Peacock.
As the protesters at the IEC made clear, South Africa’s sexual violence problem remains intractable.
Rape has been sewn into the fabric of South African society for centuries; inseparable from the country’s tortured legacy of conflict and dispossession. In her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, University of the Witwatersrand professor Pumla Dineo Gqola writes of the use of rape as a tool of slavery and colonial dominance, as well as the presence of rape among those fighting against apartheid.
Post-apartheid, women have repeatedly been let down by the treatment of gender-based violence in the criminal justice system. Criminal justice tends to work inefficiently but there is something particularly amiss with a process that allows a young woman – such as Khwezi, who accused Jacob Zuma of rape – to have her sexual history pored over by a court to establish the “plausibility” of her rape.
The protesters sent a powerful message that some South Africans are increasingly fed up with the fraught state of gender relations.
“Those brave young protesters were able to achieve much more, in a few minutes, than what we as MPs have been able to achieve in Parliament,” says Inkatha Freedom Party MP Liezl Linda van der Merwe, one of the most vocal figures in Parliament for women’s rights.
“They have been much more successful in driving home a powerful message on the ongoing rape culture plaguing our country – and our government’s wholly ineffective way of dealing with it. Their activism has been more effective than any national Women’s Day event.
“So not only was their protest extremely brave, but extremely touching. Their approach cannot be faulted. It made national and international headlines, highlighting a cause that does not receive the necessary attention it deserves.”
Although those who protested at the IEC were women, Peacock says things are changing in this regard too. “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.”
Democratic Alliance Women’s Network leader Denise Robinson says it’s about time. ‘We talk about glass ceilings and so on, but male entitlement is something we really need to work on, and it needs to involve men and not just women.”
Two million more women than men were registered to vote in the local government elections, though it was hard to deduce this from the campaigns of any of the major parties.
The eradication of gender-based violence is no party’s key policy position, even though there may be a significant economic motivation to make it one.
KPMG estimated in 2014 that its cost to the economy could be as high as R42.2 billion annually. It is telling in itself that the effects of violence against women should have to be quantified financially to rouse public concern.
The ANC Women’s League has repeatedly been criticised for its lethargy in tackling these matters. In the wake of the IEC protest, it was the women’s league head, Bathabile Dlamini, who issued the strongest condemnation of the young women, accusing them of being pawns of the male leadership of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
“Dlamini’s response was consistent with how woefully inadequate the women’s league has been of late,” Peacock says. He adds that the ministry of women, ostensibly established to further the cause of gender equality, has been “actively antagonistic towards civil society”.
Van der Merwe says: “There is a general reluctance within the machinery of government to recognise that discrimination on gender grounds, however subtle, is still very much alive. I also believe that government’s approach to tackling gender-based violence in our country has been an absolute failure.”
Robinson also expressed disappointment with the Women’s Day ceremony at which statues of the leaders of the 1956 Women’s March to Pretoria were unveiled by Zuma. To have him speak at such an event in the wake of the IEC protest reminding the country of his rape trial was, Robinson said, “atrocious … They could easily have had the deputy president instead.”
Responses to the IEC protesters largely reduced their message to an anti-Zuma statement. Even media commentators sympathetic to the protest have chosen to concentrate on its significance for the political future of the president rather than its simple, inconvenient reminder: the tectonic plates of politics may be shifting, but sexual violence stays put.