The Republic of South Africa is a melting pot of multiple identities of people. In a country that is defined by its propensity for violence, someone’s overlapping identities expose them to different levels of discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. There is a general hatred and disrespect of women that transcends race lines. Gender-based violence is a broad-scale system of domination that affects women as a class. Oppression and violence against women interact with where they exist on the privilege scale. The privilege scale is defined by race, class, and gender all of which are informed by a system that was created to give an advantage to some people at the expense of others. The engineering of inequality in South Africa was characterized by socializing people in a way that the lives of women and girls were undervalued. They could only exist in relation to men. Their ability to participate in society was defined by men thus they never had complete autonomy over their bodies and minds. This article seeks to show how intersecting identities affect access to help after violation and how these same identities affect the intensity of the violence.
A central part of apartheid crimes was sexual violence. It was only after 1994 that black women felt safe enough to come out and report the crimes. Asserting masculinity is something that transcended the color lines the only difference was only the rape of white women was prosecuted. There was a social acceptance that the rape of black women was part of life. This has contributed to the hypersexualization of black women and the cruel manner in which their experiences of degradation are minimized. There was a fallacy that black women do not feel pain and even if they do they will always be able to rise above it. The same system characterized black men as being incapable of restraining their sexual urges. This fallacy still holds some weight in the manner in which the responsibility of avoiding violence is a girl child’s burden versus the criminal who is not meant to be inflicting some harm on them in the first place.
On the other hand, black men were portrayed as a danger to white women. The common factor among perpetrators of gender-based violence is that all of them were men committing the crime regardless of a system that associated violence with black men. The truth is it goes beyond a mere portrayal as reflected in the manner that men of all races still do harmful things within their own race and communities. During apartheid, sexual violence was inflicted upon black women amongst the cadres thus black-on-black violence. It came from political activists, classmates, and people whom they interacted with in their daily life. These victimized women are mothers and mother figures today attempting to navigate their own trauma while engaging with new trauma as experienced by their children. Furthermore, black women occupy the center of economic vulnerability as they occupy the largest number of unemployed people. The effect of this is that the violence they experience becomes cyclic as they do not have enough resources to emancipate themselves and go to safer environments when they experience abuse.
One factor is clear, gender-based violence comes from a culture of not valuing women. It is about the assertion of power and intentional degradation of the other person. In a 2016 study in Diepsloot, 56 % of men surveyed admitted to raping and beating women. The construction of Diepsloot was an attempt by the South African government to cope with rapid urbanization. It consists of narrow roads and informal settlements which make it very difficult for the police to be efficient. Even if we engage with the lack of adequate police presence argument at its best, in the sense that in a well-lit neighborhood, in a neighborhood with private security how do we justify intimate partner violence? In these cases, it is not a stranger. It is someone, one lives with and probably respected and admired. It would be irresponsible to say that violence only occurs when you walk in unsafe places. It is disrespectful to those who have no choice but to be outside because they could only walk through their neighborhood as they had no car. They could only walk because that is how they could access a toilet. It centers the crime on the oppressed rather than the oppressor and is reflective of a social system that is perpetrator orientated. If we take the argument about covering up so no one violates us, we should be able to say that do not eat meat so we can protect ourselves from choking on a bone. Do we then expect young girls to leave their body parts at home? It is absurd how these arguments have made themselves comfortable in our discourse about the experience of violence.
According to Stats SA, the prevalence of sexual and physical violence decreased with the wealth quintile. Engaging with these stats means acknowledging that one’s ability to participate in the economy is the step between them and justice. However, it does not mean that it fully protects them from violence, it just means that they will be in a better position to be heard and to restore their lives. One of the reasons why violence against women is a culture in South Africa is that there are reactionary measures against GBV and not preventative ones. Reactionary is taken to mean that it is only when someone is violated and pushes for justice that they are heard. What should be dealt with is the manner in which violence is seen as a part of life. If we engage with the argument about how apartheid legislation and treatment of women had a trickle-down effect. There are still some undertones of enabling the behavior when men’s behavior is simplified to a consequence of apartheid and not a character flaw within themselves and a system that will not hold them accountable to women.
An example of this system of casual practice of minimizing women is how casual sexual innuendos occurred on live television during the Judicial Commission interviews for the recently appointed Justice Maya. She continuously had to redirect the commission to move away from sexual references so she could respond to questions that directly spoke to the vacancy she wanted to occupy. Furthermore, the manner in which a minister of police casually says that one of the Krugersdorp rape victims was lucky to be raped by one man when others were raped by eight is reflective of how those who undermine women’s dignity are the ones holding the reins of power. They are the ones who are placed in positions that are supposed to react decisively to such acts but their reflex is to say insensitive statements. This is also a reflection of the system that does not destroy a perpetrator’s reputation after they are publicly alleged to have engaged in acts of violence. The key to solving gender-based violence is to sensitize our people to think in the right way through a proactive stance. There is a need to constantly check the conversations that we partake in explicitly and implicitly and how they contribute to the culture of normalization of abuse. The easiest place is through education by weaving gender-sensitive information into their curriculum. It is easier to teach children to name things as they see them and to ask why rather than try to react to actions of wrongdoing at a later stage. It reduces the burden on the victim of consistently having to validate their humanity. When violence is frowned upon in formal spaces it will eventually become difficult to see it as a part of life.
Lastly, violence manifests itself through how it affects one’s right to choose. It affects their right to choose what to say, lest they offend abusers. It affects how they participate in the economy and even how they can escape intimate partner violence. Beyond that, it affects those around them from having a trauma-free life. It affects how they can help other people. The trauma is something they carry for the rest of their lives and that is a direct violation of their dignity.
What South Africa needs is a decisive and intentional implementation strategy of the national plan of action for women, peace, and security. The implementation strategy should be prioritized at all levels of state, national, provincial, and government. There should be an appropriate budget that is directed towards this cause and should be publicized.
Rorisang Moyo is a Bachelor of Arts in Law graduate currently studying towards her Postgraduate law degree at the department of Law University of Pretoria. She writes in her personal capacity.