Stop the madness: no more toothless councils on gender-based violence
Dear Minister Lulu Xingwane,
I am writing because in the Sunday Times of 12 August, when you were asked what you were doing to support NGOs working with rape survivors, you said you were launching a national council on gender-based violence. But that you couldn’t fund these NGOs, because the government wasn’t “made of money”.
Maybe not, but it sure knows how to waste money. And this council will waste more. You might as well burn the money it will cost right now, and I can tell you why.
South Africa has many women (and some men) who have been studying gender-based violence for decades. They are academics, health-care professionals, activists, practitioners, and for a long time, they have been (1) warning that South Africa’s men are waging a civil war on women and children; (2) asking what fuels this gender civil war.
I know this because I’m one of these scholars. Have you ever read anything I’ve published on this topic, Minister? I’ve researched why South Africa’s men rape. I ask what the connection is between this scourge and the social structures of apartheid. I ask why we are so violent as a society, and why this violence so often has a sexual component. My colleagues and I could present this information to you in a single day. There is absolutely no need to reinvent the wheel by sitting a whole lot of expensive talking heads around a table for months on end. We already know why the problem is so intractable.
Historically, the liberation movements supported the idea of gender equality while refusing to criticize or dismantle patriarchy. The latter was always sheltered behind the skirts of “culture”. This is the dinosaur in the room. Claiming that women are equal citizens while maintaining and protecting patriarchal principles and social practices is similar to insisting that all races are equal while refusing to dismantle slavery on the grounds that it’s a “cultural” practice.
And so we have the schizophrenic situation in which women are present in our government in far greater numbers than in most Western countries – and a President who thinks that having unprotected sex with a HIV-positive woman (thereby putting all his other wives, fiancées and girlfriends at risk) is perfectly normal male behaviour, that fathering two soccer teams worth of children he couldn’t support is just one of those “guy” things.
I’m not even having a go at Mr Zuma in particular; his predecessor’s insistence that AIDS was some sort of Western con was a hugely patriarchal delusion, given the disproportionate harm it did to women and children. And we’re all equally guilty, because we didn’t think the attitude of these men to women mattered when we chose them to lead.
We tell ourselves that women are equal under the Constitution at the same time that we buy the myth of the “benign” patriarch. Meanwhile women and children (and even men) are paying a hideous price for our refusal to recognize that patriarchy is as evil a social system as racial apartheid, for our insistence that dangerous and dehumanizing practices are “cultural” and therefore untouchable. Our heads are so deep in the sand that only the soles of our feet show.
This is clear as we reel in horror at the events of Marikana. In all the words that have been spilling almost as fast as the blood of those awful days, in all the discussion of race and class and capitalism and poverty, no-one has pointed out that all the protagonists – miners, police, mine management, union members – were men. No-one is commenting on the obvious: that we are a nation that enables and encourages men to be violent. We refuse to recognize that if our President prances around singing “Umshini Wam” every time he feels threatened, real machine-guns are eventually going to come into play.
We were a violent patriarchal society under apartheid, and we are a violent patriarchal society now, and that is why these events are so nightmarishly familiar.
And this is what any council worth its salt will conclude about gender-based violence. And government will pretend it didn’t hear that to tackle the problem of the war South African men are waging on women and children will mean a social revolution. We’d rather tiptoe away from the rape survivors of this country than connect the dots. We don’t want to see the link between the fact that the Zuma rape accuser was a black lesbian and the ongoing murderous rapes of black lesbians. We’d rather not think about the link between his assumption that if a woman wears a kanga, she’s asking for a good shagging, and the belief held by some of our men that if a woman wears trousers, she’s asking for a good hiding.
So all this money, time and expertise will be swept under the carpet. And that is why – as the Times Live poll on 13 August showed – the majority of taxpayers want you to take the money (their money) you’re going to waste on a toothless council, and use it to fund the organizations on the ground.
Tell me, Minister, when a fourteen-year-old girl in Lavender Hill is raped on her way home from the shops, is her distraught family going to be able to ring your council? Is it going to send someone to hold her hand as she goes through the awful process of the medical examination, the collection of forensic evidence, laying a charge with the police? Is it going to give her a safe place for the night, a comfort pack of clean panties, soap, cotton wool and a soft toy? Are you going to counsel her when she has screaming nightmares, encourage her when the PEP drugs have her retching? Will your council accompany her to court two years later, sit with her through the six times the case is postponed, support her when she finally has to relive the entire nightmare in front of a room full of strange men?
Which do you think she needs more, a skilled NGO on the ground (which has the confidence and participation of local communities), or your national council? Yet these NGOs are either closing or under threat because your Department (which isn’t “made of money”) would rather blow billions on pointless ceremonies, holidays, conferences that reinvent the gender wheel, monuments, statues and other empty gestures.
And so I ask, on my knees: please PLEASE ditch this council. Please pledge its budget towards supporting those NGOs that do the REAL work of supporting the casualties of our gender civil war.