The Death of Uyinene Mrwetyana and Sexual and Gender Based Violence in South Africa

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Some of the placards Picture: Se-Anne Rall

At IJR, we condemn the gruesome rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana as a deplorable act. As an organisation that employs and regularly works with marginalised gender identities, we are hyper-cognizant of the deep trauma and pain that so often marks these identities in South Africa. In accordance with our values and vision, we hope that the judicial process will be marked by justice and accountability.

South Africa’s levels of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) are considered to be amongst the highest globally – we have 5 times the global average when it comes to femicide – yet the political will to address it is weak and state-backed funding remains inadequate.  The constant threat of rape and other forms of violence that permeate women’s lives is an obvious degradation of South Africa’s fledgeling democracy. Sexual violence enforces patriarchal control, infringes upon the dignity of human beings, and severely limits the freedoms of a significant portion of the country’s population- all violations that are contrary to the democratic values South Africa is built on. And yet these gross atrocities are not treated with the sense of urgency it deserves. Sexual violence has been a continuum throughout our country’s history and into our post-apartheid democracy. Unless we begin intentionally to address the alarmingly high levels of SGBV, our country cannot enter a state of post-conflict, and we will be trapped in a vicious loop of sexual brutalities.

If we are serious about combatting femicide and SGBV in South Africa and creating safe(r) spaces for all genders, then we must articulate this specific violence as a national crisis. We must be intentional about how it is we address and combat SGBV, and society must collaborate in creating cultures and norms that are intolerant of gendered violence. We cannot continue to prioritise overtly political injustices over the lives and safety of women and other marginalised gender identities (who are specifically femme presenting). Unless we commit to holistically tackling violence and discrimination against women at all spheres of society, the democratisation process will be incomplete, and South Africa will be vulnerable to a regress marked by impunity, extreme violence and non-actualized human rights.

Many women across this country recoiled in horror at the recent news of Uyinene Mrwetyana’s gruesome murder. Collectively, we cried out and raged against an unsympathetic state that relegated our existence to the periphery in favour of more ‘important’ political concerns. We railed against South African men who continued to exact violence on us while they simultaneously performed to the old, sad tune of “Gents, we need to do better”.

We anxiously checked in with friends and family, and our stomachs twisted like double constrictor knots if they took longer than five minutes to respond. We formed WhatsApp groups and shared tips and software desperate for any preventative measure that may keep us safe. We flooded stores anxious to get our hands on bottles of pepper spray or weapons for our purses, our cars, and our pockets.

South African women know how to form a weapon with their fist and keys; in fact, we know that it is more effective to add a little lock to the keychain and swing it around as a sign that we are ready and able to fight back. We know that it is wise to switch our routes to work every few days because a man might be tracking us and readying himself to strike. We know not to venture out at night or where the street lights do not shine. Or when the streets are quiet. We know not to leave our drinks unattended. We know not to go the lavatory alone. And acutely we know that none of the above has ever helped or saved us. To do all the “right things” may make us feel safer, but it does not make us safe. It does not matter what preventative or avoidance strategies we put into place and adhere to we are still vulnerable to violence because the society that we inhabit is founded and sustained through hetero-patriarchal violence.

Sexual and gender-based violence is a grim reality South African women are all too familiar with, and there is a frightening vulnerability that is intimately linked to being a woman in South Africa. Every woman knows another who has had a distressing experience of a sexual nature at least once in her lifetime. It can take the form of a sexually lewd comment; being groped or otherwise touched without consent; being followed or threatened with violence when not adhering to strict gender norms; or being threatened when we are not palatable or generally pleasing to the patriarchal society that hates us.

Since the creation of our nation-state, women’s bodies have been sites of political and cultural capital; a human terrain of struggle for men in their battle for power, and in their self-centered quest for emancipation from apartheid. However, men’s role as perpetrators of SGBV is still minimised, and the responsibility of safety is shifted onto the victims. Still today women are burdened with the responsibility of combatting sexual violence as though we perform these heinous acts on ourselves. The silence- the indifference- of men today is deafening.

 

Danielle Hoffmeester is a project officer within the Sustained Dialogue Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town.