Systemic Gender-Based Violence In South Africa

The gruesome murders of women witnessed by South Africa in the last few weeks has acted as a disturbing signal of the gender-based violence plaguing this country. South Africa has experienced a surge in rapes and killings of women with three high-profile cases sparking campaigns on Twitter. The first was Tshegofatso Pule. She was a 28-year-old pregnant woman who was found hanging from a tree. The second was Sanele Mfaba, who was discovered dumped by a tree in Soweto. Lastly, Naledi Phangindwo, who was stabbed. Accompanying these are disturbing recent local reports. These include one elderly woman being raped, two young women being shot dead in KwaZulu-Natal, and one woman (from the Eastern Cape) who is understood to have been killed at the hands of a mob. In total, at least 21 women and children have been murdered in South Africa during lockdown alone. Five of these occurred in the last month.

It is an issue that President Cyril Ramaphosa has linked with the lifting of a nine-week ban on alcohol sales. This view has also been purported by other senior members of government. The police minister Bheki Cele has claimed that the ban on alcohol sales had helped reduce the overall crime rate during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. However, women’s rights campaigners have emphasized that the police force’s gender-based violence hotline received an astonishing 2,300 calls in the first five days of lockdown. That is nearly triple the rate prior to lockdown conditions. Given Sigauqwe, spokesperson for the South African based women’s rights group Sonke Gender Justice, recently commented, “Alcohol may be one of the conditions for the spike but it is certainly not the only one… any worthwhile gender-based violence intervention should be a multi-faceted approach.”

This certainly rings true as evidence suggests that gender-based violence in South Africa is deep-rooted and systemic. Reports suggest that South Africa has one of the highest incidences of domestic violence in the world. According to the World Health Organization, the rate at which women in South Africa are murdered by intimate partners is five times higher than the global rate.

The South African government has at least addressed and acknowledged the severity of the situation. Ramaphosa has described the high level of gender-based violence as a “second pandemic” amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Early last week he said, “It is with the heaviest of hearts that I stand before the women and girls of South Africa this evening to talk about another pandemic that is raging in our country – the killing of women and children by the men of our country. As a man, as a husband and as a father, I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country.” This rhetoric has also been accompanied by meaningful attempts by the Department of Justice to involve men in a process that seeks to challenge this violence. They have organized workshops and discussion groups. These encourage male participants to think and reflect on the role of gender-based violence in the country.

But much more is needed from South Africa. It is a society that is fundamentally structured by the patriarchy and where education programmes on gender equality have been under-implemented. A report by Safer Spaces revealed, “In South Africa in particular, GBV [gender-based violence] ‘pervades the political, economic and social structures of society and is driven by strongly patriarchal social norms and complex and intersectional power inequalities’.” Education, therefore, is key. The government must implement transparent reform within its schooling system to ensure that South Africa’s next generation is taught to understand the importance of gender equality. Alongside this, the Department for Justice must ramp up their investment into existing sessions and workshops. They must also spend more money on awareness and advertisement campaigns. It is vitally important that the South African government emits the damaging consequences of this disturbing trend into the public consciousness. Lastly, greater infrastructural support must be provided to the victims of gender-based violence, as well as a support network for those at risk of violence.

At this stage, rhetoric can only go so far. Wholesale reform is required to stem the flow of what Ramaphosa rightly describes as a second pandemic.