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Toxic culture of gender violence in South Africa must fall

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Picture: Khaya Ngwenya / Independent Newspapers / February 24, 2024 – ANC Mayihlome Rally at Moses Mabhida stadium. Women supporters attend the ANC manifesto launch rally on Saturday. In response to ‘foul’ comments the chairperson of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe, made last year the writer says, the ANCWL has reiterated its commitment to a society free from all forms of violence and discrimination, saying ‘we condemn any language or action that undermines the dignity, safety, and well-being of women’.

By Kim Heller

Speaking at a Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture in 2021, the former first lady of South Africa, Graça Machel implored, “how can we break the vicious cycle of untold and unspeakable pain that visits women and children on a daily basis?” Machel said, “Violence is the breast milk we are feeding our young.”

Three years later and violence against women and children continues to plague the democratic nation. Patriarchal and prejudicial talk and conduct has yet to be rooted out. It is incumbent upon leaders in society, especially those in political office to speak and act in a manner which will see the toxic culture of gender violence and discrimination in South Africa fall. Sadly, there are leaders who do not subscribe to this good conduct.

Late last year the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL), issued a statement expressing its dismay about a highly inflammatory utterance made by the ANC’s national chairperson, Gwede Mantashe. During the ANC’s manifesto review rally, in October 2023, Mantashe had suggested that women should not be physically harmed “with a physical stick” but rather by “that of a man provided by God”.

Mantashe’s vocabulary was foul, and this his utterance could justifiably be construed as promoting violence and rape against women. This is a vile comment for any man to make, but almost unforgivable for a senior leader of the governing party. The ANCWL condemned Mantashe’s remark as both troubling and unacceptable. The ANCWL said, “These remarks are not only offensive but also perpetuate a harmful and perilous narrative that plays a role in normalizing violence against women.”

The ANCWL reiterated its commitment to a society free from all forms of violence and discrimination and stated that “we condemn any language or action that undermines the dignity, safety, and well-being of women”. “It is essential for leaders and public figures to be mindful of the power their words hold, and to exercise responsible and respectful discourse.”

The ANCWL stated that Mantashe’s utterance “perpetuates a culture where women’s bodies are objectified and violated, reinforcing harmful stereotypes that normalise and trivialise sexual violence, including marital rape”. “It is our collective duty to challenge and dismantle the attitudes and behaviours that enable such a culture to persist.”

At the very same manifesto review rally, Deputy President Paul Mashatile, spoke of the fight against GBV as a number one priority of the ANC. Mashatile said, “We are making sure that the laws are tightened. We want the police to do their work, so we are not going to tire in the fight against gender-based violence.” This worthy commitment is severely compromised by the toxic tongue of Mantashe.

Despite the harsh rebuke from the ANCWL, there has been no punitive action or sanction against Mantashe. This was not the first time that Mantashe has uttered such foul words. During a television interview on eNCA in 2019 he said to the show’s host, Xoli Mngambi, that, “there’s a natural way to punish a woman in the bedroom, I don’t understand why men use physical violence”.

The deafening silence of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC on Mantashe’s utterance distracts from the party’s general eloquence on GBV and its considerable investment in legislation and programmes aimed to root out GBV. Billions of rands have been directed to GBV programmes, comprehensive legislation has been tabled and implemented.

Solid measures including stricter bail conditions, the resourcing of courts, and survivor empowerment centres, are all in play. Recently six pieces of legislation were recently passed on gender-based violence and femicide in Parliament. But until these measures are based on a truly economically and socially equitable societal framework and anchored on progressive rather than patriarchal attitudes, this gender pandemic will not end, and the scourge of GBV will continue to tear the lives of South African women apart.

The ANC’s 2021 election manifesto was clear on the need to defeat “the toxic culture of patriarchy” and fast-track gender-based violence legislation. But in the main, policies and programmes have failed to root out poisonous the patriarchal attitudes and gender prejudice that flood in society as a whole, including that of their very own Chairperson.

The toxic culture of gender violence and discrimination must fall if we are ever to be a truly democratic and equitable nation. South Africa is a country with one of the highest levels of GBV in the world. The country was described as “the rape capital” of the world by Interpol in 2020. A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that the rate at which women in South Africa are killed by their partners is five times higher than the global average.

Year after year, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), reports shockingly high GBV figures. During July to September 2023, 10,516 rapes, 1,514 cases of attempted murder, 14,401 assaults and 881 murders against women were reported. The latest report back from the minister of Police, Bheki Cele, for the last three months of 2023 recorded 12,211 rapes.

A recent survey by Afrobarometer found that across the Continent, GBV ranked as “the most important women’s-rights issue” that citizens want their government and society to address. In November 2023, Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma addressed the African Union 3rd Men’s Conference on Positive Masculinity in Leadership to End Violence Against Women and Girls. She said, “Every man across the Continent should make a personal commitment that I will not act violently against women and girls and take that commitment to his family and take that commitment to his community.” This should indeed be the pledge of each and every male politician who is busy rallying supporters for the upcoming election on 29 May 2024.

Speaking at the launch of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign for 2023, in December, Mashatile said, “We will not rest until our communities are safe for all, especially women and girls. We must report and condemn the perpetrators who reside within our communities.” These words from Mashatile are the antithesis of the toxic talk of Mantashe. The narrative spoken by Mashatile is what each and every politician should adopt and implement if they are truly committed to building a nation where gender rights are fully honoured.

The DA 2024 election manifesto puts a sharp spotlight on GBV. Under a DA government, police officers will be trained to treat GBV victims with dignity, ensure healthcare facilities are well-equipped with well-trained staff. Safe houses and easy access to healthcare and legal services are part of the DA mix to end GBV. The EFF government will allocate more funding to conduct research on GBV and will raise public awareness and education on GBV. Under a RISE Mzansi government police and courts will be better resourced to prosecute GBV. Change Starts Now makes no reference to gender or GBV. The ANC manifesto promises to intensify the war against GBV and femicide through a more integrated and streamlined anti-crime framework.

But a war against GBV is more than a slate of legislation and a raft of election promises. It is more than a war-chest comprising billions of rands. It is about reconfiguring societal attitudes towards GBV and snuffing out the toxic culture of patriarchy and disregard for women. For now, the dreams of women in South Africa remain horribly trapped under the brutal boot of gender-based violence.

As one enters the pre-election frenzy, one can only hope that all political formations and leaders are responsible in how they communicate their messages on gender issues. One hopes that neither their utterances nor behaviour demeans the dignity or status of women in our democracy. The same applies to other forms of discrimination based on race or xenophobia. In their 2024 election manifesto, the ANC pledges to “promote and defend the rights of all South Africans against racism, sexism, gender-based violence, homophobia, discrimination and other intolerances”.

Politicians, irrespective of their ideological leanings or personal belief system have a responsibility to ensure that the rights and wellbeing of all citizens are upheld. This last weekend, former President Jacob Zuma speaking at a rally of the uMkhonto WeSizwe party expressed abhorrence at same-sex relationships, describing such as a “disgrace” and said, “Who made these laws?” His statement received a large dose of outrage from gender rights groups. It was cited as ‘anti-democratic’ and out of synch with the country’s Constitution which guarantees protection of citizens irrespective of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

Politicians should never inflame the fire of GBV or breed prejudicial attitudinal intolerance against any vulnerable group. Political parties and political leaders should also never stray, in word and deed, from the rights and protections set out in the Constitution. There should be zero tolerance for this, and these politicians and political parties should be punished by the voters on election day.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.