Over the past few weeks, following a spate of horrific killings, rapes and mutilations of women, the “hidden” war against women and children has been brought into sharp focus.
These recent incidents have brought back to the public consciousness what has long been a blight on our nation. For many South Africans, including myself, the shock becomes more painful when considering that this violence is daily reality for women.
The violence against women can be analysed within the context of a society in which violence is manifested in a variety of ways. South Africa is a violent society. Institutions that are supposed to help keep us safe are not immune from violence.
We have churches using Doom and other poisons on congregants, and bullying continues unabated in schools and in the home. For many South Africans, a life of poverty is one of continued structural violence.
Violence dehumanises us and strips away our dignity. As a son to an elderly woman, as a father to a teenage girl, as a brother, a husband and an uncle to many children, and girl children in particular, I am horrified at what is happening and terrified for them.
Violence breeds violence. Many victims become scarred for life and can become perpetrators themselves. Yet these cycles of violence also have a historical basis.
As a child I was exposed to state-sponsored violence; violence which was then normalised in my family and the wider community. Many people are surprised by the violence we see today but could it be a part of a cycle brought on by decades of witnessing or being victims of violence? How much has the violence with impunity of the apartheid state led to the continuation of these cycles of violence?
I recently had the pleasure of hosting Mme Marah Louw in my office on the eve of the launch of her autobiography It’s Me, Marah. In the book, she relates a story of the abuse of her sister who was burnt to death by her partner. The wound is still fresh for Mme Marah - even though the incident happened many years ago.
The recent attacks on women and Mme Marah’s visit reminded me of a call I received a few years ago. While sitting in my office at the South African Human Rights Commission, a relative called to inform me that their 10-year-old daughter, let’s call her Dikeledi (“Tears” in Setswana) had been raped by a neighbour. It was a cry for help as they had received no support from the police or social services. The words “discarded” and “the forgotten” came to mind as I realised that because they lived in the rural North-West province justice was out of reach to them.
As my relative related to me the horror of the attack on her little child, I felt her shame. A shame that stems from a culture of victim-blaming. As a result of such shame, many cases of rape do not get reported, or get withdrawn. A second shame was that both Dikeledi and her mother had been stripped of their dignity.
I immediately went to both the Chairperson and the CEO of the Human Rights Commission, Jodi Kollapen and Advocate Tseliso Thipanyane, informed them and told them how I was planning to deal with it. They both gave me advice, and through their networks I was able to contact the commissioner of police in North-West.
The matter was attended to swiftly. Within 24 hours the investigating officer was removed, the perpetrator had been arrested and social workers had come to the house to provide the necessary counselling. I kept on asking myself how many other people have access to such contacts, how many more Dikeledis do we have out there whose cases are never reported or investigated? We owe it to the people whose cases do not make headlines to fix the system. We owe it to the “discarded”, the “forgotten” to normalise their status in society and accord them the dignity they deserve.
In Setswana there is a saying, “Matlo go sha mabapi”, which means that when your neighbour’s house goes up in flames you should feel as though it’s your own house that’s going up in flames. To help build the country of Madiba’s dreams, we must move beyond bandaging the wounds of the past but make a concerted effort to build families that care, individuals that care and a nation ultimately that cares about each other’s pain.
We must recognise that there is a long walk ahead, but that we are armed with tools such as the Constitution and its values, and a determined number of men and women who want to deal with this “deep wound”.
We must also work hard to overcome the macho culture that we continue to breed in boys and men. Madiba himself struggled with this monster of chauvinism and patriarchy. In 1971 he reflected: “Some say that chauvinism is one of my weaknesses. They may be right. True enough, my blood and brain do not often synchronise.”
But Madiba worked hard on this during his years in prison and in his lifetime. In his later years he reflected on the role of men and stated, “We need a fundamental change of mindset with regards to the way we speak and behave about sex and sexuality. Boys and men have a particularly critical role in this regard, changing the chauvinist and demeaning ways sexuality and women were traditionally dealt with in both our actions and speaking.”
As men we must do the hard work of “unlearning”and “unculturing” ourselves from the bondage of patriarchy and we should try to emulate Madiba in working on the self and our conscious and unconscious biases.
It is only when men take responsibility for their actions, the actions of other men and the system of patriarchy that we can hope to deal with the nightmare that has engulfed us. May we never have another girl child, mother, sister or aunt shed tears, dikeledi, with all of us watching! May we never witness another family of a girl child suffer in silence because circumstances have forced them into the sidelines of society.