When will South Africa address violence against women?


The level and kind of male violence against women in South Africa was shockingly highlighted in a recent article by Wendy Mothata headlined “Stop Killing Us! Let’s Talk about the Brutal Murders of Women in South Africa”. The piece published in May cited police figures that 1 713 women were murdered in the last nine months of 2016, while a recent study reported that half of the women killed in South Africa were slain by someone with whom they had had an intimate relationship.

With a woman being murdered every four hours on average, South Africa has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world.

The horrific statistics raise important issues about the nature and causes of such violence against women, including the kinds of societal and cultural norms that are shaping behaviour in intimate relationships. In considering the impacts of violence on women, American civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a leading scholar of critical race theory, introduced and promoted the concept of “intersectionality”.

According to Professor Crenshaw, women of colour face multiple forms of oppression, including sexism and racism. The idea of intersectionality may also be extended to South African men, who have been emasculated, oppressed and stripped of dignity and identity through historical and lived cycles of trauma and violence.

Analysis of male violence based on the intersectional forms of oppression that its perpetrators have experienced is not intended to excuse such behaviour or diminish the damage caused by it but rather to consider many of its roots, as well as the nature and impacts of the violence itself.

Every act of violence has consequences for everyone involved. Assaults in the home and on co-dependents and loved ones also traumatise and violate the human dignity of the perpetrators, although in a different way. Such violence further begets cycles of harm – vicious circles in which those who have been abused are highly likely to become abusers.

In South African society, many people, both men and women, experience multiple kinds of socio-cultural harm that can reinforce and amplify the trauma felt by the individual. Without help and an understanding of how the different forms of harm may feed into each other, the sufferers can live in denial of the emotional states caused by their oppression, spiralling down into depression which may often be expressed as anger and violence.

In South Africa, cycles of trauma and violence have been transmitted to successive generations. The ghosts of past violence continue to many men.

Perpetrators and victims of war crimes in European and other African countries have fled to South Africa, carrying the burdens of past trauma. Historically, white men, such as the French Huguenots fled oppression. More recently, European Jews came to South Africa to escape mass murder. Since the introduction of democracy in 1994, African migrants escaping bloody conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Somalia and other countries have arrived.

In South Africa, past inter-ethnic, tribalist violence has also left its living scars. The oppression of black men by white men – and that of Afrikaner men by English soldiers in the South African War – further shaped the responses of generations.

Meanwhile, the mass violence perpetrated against black South Africans under apartheid, which has been deemed a crime against humanity by the United Nations, wrought immense physical and psychological damage. Such violence took many organised forms, including that implemented under the migrant labour system when mine workers were effectively imprisoned in compounds and emasculated, being stripped naked at the end of their contracts and body-searched for contraband.

More generally, white men in South Africa commonly and ritually humiliated black men, calling them “boy”. Even after apartheid the damage continued. An inquiry into the killing of white fascist leader Eugène Terre’Blanche in 2010 led to a probe into claims that he had raped his own male staff.

The freight of such violence can be expressed in many distorted ways. The culture of predatory male sexuality, expressed in forms of promiscuity such as relationships with “blessers” or men attending Mavuso stokvels, may be viewed as one outcome.

Disempowered generations of men, stripped of their dignity, may also want to reclaim a sense of power and identity by humiliating women and, in extremis, killing them. In this analysis, South African women are bearing the brunt of the trauma enacted by colonial and apartheid masters – which may indicate the kinds of healing and restoration that are required to fix South African men and prevent the wave of violence against women from spreading further.

To date, the government’s response has largely been rhetorical. Former police minister Fikile Mbalula declared war on those who murdered women, appointing a special task team of detectives, but 63 women were killed in a period of only 30 days during his tenure. Recently, Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women, Bathabile Dlamini, called on women to speak out against violence.

Clearly, more needs to be done on the ground to prevent the slaughter of our sisters at its root, which is in the psyche of South African men. The country desperately needs to start a conversation about how to help these men, addressing their trauma and supporting and empowering them in their quest for dignity and identity.

After the number of women murdered in familiar environments by men known to them was recently revealed, Gauteng Social Development MEC Nandi Mayathula-Khoza said: “This means we must as a society pay more attention to addressing men and boy-children challenges in the same manner we are doing about women and girl-children.” She advocated the establishment of a Men’s Forum to address the issue because “men don’t talk, they suffer in silence… and their outbursts result in… tragedies”.

In a similar spirit, President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government should prioritise community peacebuilding and seek to expand the conflict-resolution capacity of community leaders to create truth-telling and healing that can go to the root of the traumas that continue to blight the lives of poor South Africans.

Oscar Siwali is the Director of SADRA Conflict Transformation in Cape Town