A family friend of ours died last month, killed allegedly by her live-in abusive boyfriend in a domestic dispute. She was a mother of two young girls, also a daughter and a friend. The tale of her life ended violently because of one man’s uncontainable rage and ingrained misogyny. And worse still, a killer is roaming around free because the justice system doesn’t have the capacity or will to bring him to book. The tragedy is that in modern day South Africa, this story isn’t a one-off.
That our family friend was murdered by her intimate partner during Women’s Month is the cruelest of ironies. The month of August is commemorative of the historic 1956 women’s march to the Union Buildings, a moment in history when more than 20,000 South African women of all colours and creeds came together to protest against discriminatory apartheid laws. The phrase “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” from a resistance song was popularised during that victorious and powerful moment in history.
But today, the strength of a woman isn’t enough to shield wives, partners or girlfriends from intimate partner rape and assault. The fortitude of lesbian and transgender women isn’t a protection against “corrective” rape. The innocence of babies and girls isn’t a panacea to sexual abuse and exploitation.
The 2019 theme of Women’s Month was #HearMeToo and put gender-based violence on the top of the agenda. Minister for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities in the Presidency, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said: “Our focus remains gender-based violence and femicide. I don’t know what happened to society, but it is a statistic that has to be changed by law enforcement.”
Femicide levels in South Africa are five times higher than the global average. Every day, three women are killed by their intimate partners.
In the aftermath of the recent brutal rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana by a postal worker and the killing of boxing champion Leighandre “Baby” Jegels by her estranged lover, South African women are asking #AmINext. The hashtag that has been trending on social media this week is a chilling portent and palpable fear.
Those calling for a state of emergency against gender-based violence are right to be shouting from the rooftops. Female bodies are sacred, but our men use, abuse and break them. What world are we living in that a young woman can’t walk into a post office and never emerge because she is raped and bludgeoned to death by a postal worker? What world are we living in when a protection order renders a woman more vulnerable to violent attack and death?
South African women are rightly terrified, exhausted and frustrated that men weaponise their strength and genitalia against us. The feminine divine within us is under constant threat. Our anatomy and being is a persistent red rag to raging bulls who we have to co-exist with at work, at home and in all spaces between.
In a statement on Tuesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally broke his silence to say that the murders of Jegels and Mrwetyaba are “a stark reminder that the women of South Africa are not safe, either in their homes or in the streets.”
At the same time, Ramaphosa is leading a delegation to the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town this week. The central theme is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the continent’s position and role in a fast-moving technological world, and the president will also punt the country as an investment destination. While technological innovation and economic growth is important, I’d suggest that South Africa has much more critical priorities to shine a global spotlight on right now. It’s time for the government and the president to stop talking about gender-based violence and femicide and take action.
Enough is enough! Ho lekane! Kwanele! Our government must stop paying lip service to the scourge of murder, rape and sexual assault and upend the status quo to ensure that South African women stay safe and alive.
Poppie Mphuthing is a news and social media professional. She has worked for The Times, eNCA and The Huffington Post.
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