“A Second Pandemic”: South Africa’s Struggle with Gender-Based Violence
By Laura da Silva
Almost exactly a year ago on the 26th of August 2019, South Africa mourned again as the body of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a nineteen-year-old University of Cape Town student, was found after she had been beaten, raped and murdered in her local post office whilst trying to collect a parcel. Although August marks Women’s month in South Africa, people took to the streets in protest as another vicious case of rape and murder highlights the how South African society and institutions continue to fail its victims.
In August 2019 alone, thirty women had lost their lives at the hands of men, including Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels a twenty-five-year-old boxer who was killed by her boyfriend. South African women could not help asking, “Am I next?”.
On the 18th of September 2019 President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation in response to the nation-wide protests and to highlight the “very violent and brutal war underway against the women of South Africa”. Noting the horrific statistics of femicide and rape in South Africa, he emphasised that “[gender-based violence] is a problem of men” and that “[women] have the right to feel safe”. He detailed a plan calling for legislative and regulatory reform as well as a stronger judiciary role in ending gender-based violence, affirming the state’s position to oppose both bail and parole for suspects charged with the rape and murder of women. Moreover, Ramaphosa commended the community-based efforts to support victims but proposed greater economic empowerment schemes for women, as he acknowledged that high unemployment and poverty rates among women in South African exacerbated their vulnerability to be taken advantage of and abused by men.
South Africa’s statistics on gender-based violence paint a very clear picture of the brutal treatment of women, and the gross negligence and corruption rampant in the South African police force. According to Statistics South Africa, the police receive over 100 cases of reported rape every single day, not to mention the countless more cases that go unreported often because women are afraid of being blamed and ostracization or are trapped in abusive relationships. In fact, one in five women over the age of eighteen has reported to have experienced violence at the hands of a partner, and in 2009 more than half (56%) of all women murdered in South Africa were killed by an intimate male partner.Additionally, 41,583 rapes were reported to the police in the financial year 2018/19, which is unsurprising considering that up to 37% of men who responded to a survey conducted in 2011 admitted to having raped a women. In President Ramaphosa’s own words, “South Africa is one of the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman, with levels of violence that are comparable to countries that are at war.”
Although South Africa has had a long and traumatic history with gender-based violence, the rape and murder of Uyinene became a watershed moment in the fight to end this war on women. Here a young, educated and strong woman who had gone to collect a parcel from her suburban post office, located next-door to a police station, had been brutalised in the middle of the day. There was absolutely no room for cowardly victim-blaming or attempts to dismiss the brutal killing as a symptom of a bad neighbourhood, or poor judgment.
But a year on and the number of women being raped and murdered remains consistent. In his State of the Nation address in February of this year President Ramaphosa announced that there would be amendments to the Domestic Violence Act, as well as the introduction of laws to tighten bail and sentencing conditions in cases involving gender-based violence, following up on his promises made the previous September. Despite this, as well as Ramaphosa’s attempts to draw attention to and denounce the “second pandemic” that is gender-based violence in South Africa during his many lockdown speeches, the femicide and sexual abuse rates show no signs of slowing down. Indeed, the South African Police Service revealed that during the reporting period April 2019 to March 2020 there were 53,293 sexual offences. Moreover, the average number of reported rape cases increased by around 2% from the 2018/2019 financial year to the 2019/2020 financial year.
The nationwide lockdown, which started on the 26th of March and is still in some effect, had the potential to aggravate cases of domestic violence with the country forced indoors and victims separated from many passages of help and refuge. In the first five days alone, the South African Police Service (SAPS) recorded 2,300 gender-based violence related calls, and in the first three weeks of lockdown The National Abuse Helpline had recorded 120,000 calls. However, a complete ban on alcohol enacted by the South African government on the 27th of March, which spanned 10 weeks in total, visually helped to curb instances of gender-based violence. In the first half of the ban there was an overall 60% decrease in contact crimes such as murder, assault and rape, whilst domestic violence incidences were decreased by 70%. These decreases are understandable as 65% of women experiencing spousal abuse within the last year reported that their partners always or sometimes drank alcohol before the assault. Regrettably, due to public grumblings and a flurry of lawsuits against the state, the alcohol ban was lifted on Monday the 17th of August.
Many South African women, frustrated with the very real and constant threat of rape and murder, have called for more decisive and radical changes at both a legislative and judicial level. Whilst admittedly the calls for government action have, for the most part, been vague and unorganised with many petitions simply calling for government “to address gender-based violence”, it is clear that harsher action needs to be taken to protect the women of South Africa. In a 2017 report by the South African Medical Research Council, it was found that only 18.5% of all reported cases of rape were actually taken to trial, and of those trialled only 8.6% ended in a guilty verdict. This means that 98.4% of reported cases of rape see the accused walk free. Clearly, the system is failing victims.
Although it is true that harsher sentences, a more thorough justice system, and better policing would indeed create a greater deterrent for gender-based crimes and offer retribution to victims, the core issue lies in South Africans’ tolerance and normalisation of rape-culture. There is no hope for eradicating violence against women when South Africans continue to objectify and disrespect women, whilst tolerating aggressive and abusive men. Moreover, how can a country expect to increase their conviction rate when they shame, blame, and interrogate women who come forward with cases of assault. Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix to the problem of gender-based violence in South Africa, and the societal and psychological changes needed to eradicate rape-culture will take time and work on the part of all South Africans. Some have proposed reforming the education system to include lessons on respect, consent and sexism to break the cycle of normalized rape-culture. Whilst this is an admirable strategy, the imperative lies on South African men’s willingness to change their behaviour and perceptions, and the ability of all South Africans to call out rape-culture and harmful behaviour when and where they see it. There is no space for quiet by-standers and cowardly enablers in a country with a femicide rate five times the global average.
When a society has normalized a harmful culture of disrespect and violence towards women, no matter how much the justice systems evolves, women will continue to be brutalised in their homes, in their local bars, and even in broad daylight at a post office.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.
Image Source: Ali Lusengo (@ali_lusengo)