Islands adrift

On 2 February 2013, Anene Booysen, a seventeen-year-old from a small, forgotten farming community, died from injuries sustained during a brutal rape. Only a few days later, on Valentine’s Day, celebrated athlete Oscar Pistorius fatally shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The shock was complete: what was this dark heart beating at South Africa’s centre?

The question is an old one. Its genealogy can be traced back to 1999 and the rape of journalist Charlene Smith, who published an account of her assault and began campaigning on behalf of survivors. The question is revisited frequently on talk shows and in newspaper columns, tweets, blogs and Facebook posts in disjointed, episodic ways that mingle the moralistic with the punitive and traditionalist, along with the odd snatch of feminism ultralight. Because no public consensus can be shaped from such discordance, no basis for collective action is ever identified. Instead the air is thick with calls for prayer and exorcism, hanging and castration. Others convene SlutWalks, wear black on Fridays, ring bells or dance with One Billion Rising. And the foreign media descends, fascinated by the spectacle of a strange and exotic country where nine-month-old babies are raped, where lesbians are ‘cured’ of their desires through rape and where a cognitively impaired girl is filmed being gang-raped, the disturbing footage later circulated via cell phone.

Women’s organisations largely stood on the sidelines during this most recent outbreak of moral panic. But their marginalisation was also symptomatic of a decline that has been in progress for some time now, a diminishment made all the more troubling when viewed against the backdrop of women’s mobilisation during South Africa’s negotiated transition to democracy.


In the beginning: 1994–2003

The South African women’s movement was the undeniable success story of the wave of democratic transitions that swept Latin America, Southern Africa and Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. Taking full advantage of this unique political opportunity, feminists fought for and won remarkable gains: the entrenchment of gender equality within the new constitution; the adoption of quotas by the majority party, such that by 2013 South Africa had the fourth-highest number of women in parliament; the establishment of an innovative set of state institutions to promote women’s policy interests; and the promulgation of laws that not only introduced greater equality and rights within the family (including within customary law) but also recognised women’s bodily autonomy and provided for positive measures to support women’s employment. These significant achievements led to South Africa being ranked sixteenth out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2012.

This is the glossy fairy story – but its shadow is dark.

In 1999, South Africa’s female homicide rate was six times that of the global average, with half of the deaths caused by intimate male partners. Rewritten in more eye-catching terms, this translated into four women killed every day by the men in their lives. By 2011, intimate femicide was the leading cause of female homicide in South Africa. The estimated figures for rape are as disquieting, with a wide agreement that South Africa has one of the highest rates in the world. A two-province study interviewing men about their perpetration of rape found 28 per cent willing to admit to such violence. This rose to 37 per cent in a third province where the same interview schedule was administered. While the numbers may fluctuate annually, they show no signs of declining in any statistically significant way over the medium term.

For other crimes that receive prominent media coverage, there is no reliable data. These include ukuthwala (the abduction and forced marriage of underage girls) and the rape of lesbian and gender-nonconforming women, a practice often accompanied by very brutal murders. Not only are statistics not being recorded for such crimes, attempts to do so are rendered almost meaningless by high levels of secondary victimisation by police and, as a result, low levels of official reporting.

Violence against women was recognised as a problem by the ANC relatively early in its tenure, at a time when women in the state still claimed feminism as a badge of pride. The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme singled out violence against women for attention, while the 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy cemented it as a priority area. In the same year, key feminist attorneys, as well as representatives of women’s organisations, were appointed to a project committee established by the South African Law Commission to reform the Prevention of Family Violence Act. Both the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act and the Domestic Violence Act were promulgated in 1998, and a raft of policies, protocols, programs and special measures introduced. Much of this reform was undertaken in collaboration with women’s organisations, coordinated by the National Network on Violence against Women.

Undeniable as these achievements were, they also contained contradictions.

To begin with, the wholesale incursion of women into the state after the first democratic elections not only significantly weakened women’s civil society organisations, it also transformed the state into the locus of change. And while many women in the public sector initially understood the importance of creating mechanisms of communication, support and accountability between themselves and civil society, these were neither entrenched nor maintained to significant effect. At the same time, the altered political environment allowed for a proliferation of new women’s organisations, hastening the fragmentation of the movement into a host of discrete issue-based organisations and sectors. Still further divisions emerged – almost always mapping onto race and class – around access to funding and other opportunities, encouraging competitiveness and militating against collaboration. Feminism, long viewed with suspicion as a white, Western and middle-class irrelevance, became even more deeply contested.

Nonetheless, these parts more or less held together until 2003, when the National Network on Violence against Women dissolved.


Erosion and reconfiguration: 2004–today

One striking feature of the last decade has been the disappearance of domestic violence from the public agenda. Currently, any discussions or interventions around gendered violence are almost always dominated by rape. Although a National Shelter Movement was constituted in 2008, it struggles for want of financial support. By contrast, a number of coalitions, campaigns and events have formed around sexual violence.

The Shukumisa Campaign
Shukumisa (a Nguni word meaning to shake or stir things up) is an outgrowth of the National Working Group on Sexual Offences, which was formed in 2004 to advocate around the draft sexual offences legislation then being debated. The campaign is a coalition made up of some thirty-odd service organisations, as well as research and advocacy organisations, and has been most successful in the parliamentary arena. On the bill becoming law in 2007, organisations shifted their focus to the implementation of the legislation and its supporting policy framework. This included developing a system of monitoring visits to courts, police stations and hospitals to assess their compliance with policy prescripts.

The campaign is also illustrative of some of the challenges currently dogging the sector. While the organisations that formed its membership remain, for the most part, in existence, their staffing is volatile due to funding uncertainty, as well as the movement of staff into the bureaucracy, which pays more and offers benefits. Staff turnover is such that by the end of the first five years of the campaign’s formation, only three individuals remained who had been part of the initial law reform process. Were a similar process to be instituted now, few organisations would possess the experience, institutional memory or knowledge to participate.

It is also the service organisations that have been hardest hit by funding cuts. Organisations have retrenched staff and/or reduced their working hours, with the result that many employees are doing the work of two people. This not only diminishes their effectiveness but also contributes to high levels of stress across the sector. It has almost completely extinguished such organisations’ ability to engage actively in activism – there is simply no time. The situation is further complicated by many organisations being reliant on the Department of Social Development for their funding, effectively merging them into the regulatory apparatus of the state but not in ways that position them as the department’s equal. Rather, they occupy the position of contractors acting at the state’s behest, which is not dissimilar to the subordination of employee to employer. The difficulties this poses for robust political engagement are obvious.

The political environment has also altered, and is now perceived as hostile to feminist thinking. Indeed, there is a sense that openly defining oneself as feminist guarantees disregard and means one’s message goes unheard. The frequent solution to this dilemma both of discourse and of strategy has been to advocate in a very issue-based manner and on positions that take the moral high ground – improved health services for rape survivors or legal protections for abused women. Demands are modest and emphasise pragmatic changes to existing programmes, increasing the likelihood of piecemeal tinkering rather than wholesale re-evaluation and change.

The 1in9 Campaign
A proudly and overtly feminist collective, the 1in9 Campaign was formed in 2006 to support Fezeka Kuzwayo, the woman who brought charges of rape against South African President Jacob Zuma. The campaign’s name is a reference to research findings that only one in nine women raped in South Africa report the matter to the police. It describes its medium- to long-term goal as the creation of a social movement of women that both responds to the violence directed against them and resists capitalist patriarchy. 1in9 protesters are distinguished by their purple T-shirts emblazoned with the slogans ‘Feminist’, ‘Lesbian’ or ‘Solidarity with Women Who Speak Out’.

The collective largely consists of black lesbian feminist activists, and draws on the radical feminist tradition of confrontational and, often, performance-based protest. This has included its members chaining themselves to court buildings, occupying and hanging large banners from public buildings, and personifying the silencing of Lady Justice. In 2012, the campaign staged two dramatic ‘die-ins’: the first, in August, at a Women’s Day celebration and the second, in September, at Johannesburg Pride. On both occasions this included laying a row of dummies across the road, effectively preventing the marches from continuing, with protesters holding a banner reading ‘No Cause for Celebration’. The Women’s Day die-in was successful in forcing the provincial premier to call for a minute’s silence to observe the murders of lesbians. The Johannesburg Pride intervention was less successful: although intended as critique of the increasing depoliticisation of the march (in the context of the violence facing the LGBTI sector), the 1in9 demonstration was viewed by some as an ambush and resulted in a scuffle between organisers, parade participants and protesters.

Like the NGO sector broadly, South Africa’s LGBTI sector (of which the 1in9 Campaign is part) has also been weakened by the funding crisis, substantially diminishing its ability to mobilise effectively.

Silent Protests
First staged in 2006 at Rhodes University, the Silent Protests are closely associated with the 1in9 Campaign (although less so in recent years). These actions serve two purposes: highlighting the symbolic silencing of rape survivors and the state’s silence around sexual violence, as well as its inability to provide effective and meaningful support.

Conducted once a year, Silent Protests take place over a twelve-hour period and require protesters to be silenced with black gaffer tape. Participants do not eat, drink, speak or smoke during this time, and wear a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Sexual Violence = Silence’. Rape survivors, by contrast, wear a T-shirt saying ‘Rape Survivor’ and are not gagged, encouraged instead to speak freely. Rhodes is a small university numbering under 8000 students and, with some 1700 people participating on each occasion over the last two years, the effect has become powerful. Much of the university is hushed on the day.

In 2013, Silent Protests were staged for the first time at the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and are now the largest student protests of their kind in South Africa. The Rhodes protests have resulted in rapes now being reported to the university and an increase in the provision of support services.

Miniskirt marches and SlutWalks
What women may wear in public spaces started being contested in the mid-2000s. In 2007, Zandile Mpanza was stripped of her clothing and her shack set alight after she wore trousers in Umlazi, a township in KwaZulu-Natal. While there had been a long-standing ban in that particular area on women wearing trousers, the incident briefly led to the ban being applied to the whole of Umlaz; a warning was issued to women that not only would they be stripped to their underwear and their clothing set alight, but they would also be barred from living in the area. The resultant outcry led to the arrest and prosecution of the men involved, as well as intervention by the Commission for Gender Equality.

But it was an incident the following year at Noord street, the largest minibus rank in Johannesburg, that sparked organised protests. These were the miniskirt marches that sprang up spontaneously after the stripping and sexual assault of Nwabisa Ngcukana by minibus drivers. The justification was Ngcukana’s wearing of a miniskirt. Remmoho Women’s Forum, of the now defunct Anti-Privatisation Forum, led the first march, followed by a second organised by Redi Tlhabi, a well-known talkback radio presenter. A third march was subsequently organised by the influential ANC Women’s League.

The miniskirt marches are the indigenous forerunners of SlutWalk – yet were utterly forgotten in the later marches inspired by the 2011 Canadian example. Held in the country’s three biggest cities – Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban – the SlutWalks were controversial, as has been the case internationally. There were those who did not think ‘slut’ a word usefully reclaimed and wondered what it was that SlutWalks actually accomplished, particularly because they did not appear to make any real effort to work with existing women’s organisations. As a result, they remain isolated events detached from more sustained mobilisation.

The Johannesburg arm of SlutWalk, now in its third year, chiefly positions itself as an awareness-raising endeavour challenging common discourses around rape. The organisers write: ‘If you want to change the world, the philosopher Foucault suggests, you need to change the way things are known, how this knowledge circulates through society, and the disciplining measures it induces.’ The particular discourses SlutWalk seeks to change include that men are unable to control their desires when confronted by women provocatively dressed; that women who dress provocatively degrade themselves or are welcoming of any sexual advance; and that rape survivors contribute to their victimisation due to their ‘poor discipline and deviant sexuality’.

This is an analysis insufficiently attentive to context. Where the miniskirt marches represented a direct incursion onto territory that particular groups of men had claimed as their own, the Johannesburg SlutWalk takes place on Saturday mornings within a safe, middle-class suburb, rendering it more of a spectacle than a challenge to the public control of women’s sexuality.


A scattering of actions

This discussion is incomplete without considering the many other individual initiatives, both great and small and sometimes outside of the NGO sector, that occasionally find voice and expression. These include those individual rape survivors who have gone on to initiate their own organisations or campaigns, as well as individual feminist bloggers and tweeters. The international campaign One Billion Rising was also marked in South Africa this year, as was the local campaign Black Friday, commemorated by the wearing of black. Unusually, a march organised in April of this year in Mahikeng, North West Province, specifically mobilised dozens of elderly women protesting their own rapes, as well as those of their children.

Yet another layer of protest is nascent within South Africa’s social movements. At such moments the voices of poor and working-class women (who are almost always black) briefly enter the mainstream, as with the miniskirt march organised by Remmoho. Another such moment occurred in 2013 when the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), which has its roots in South Africa’s Black Consciousness movement, took up the issue after Thandiswa Qubuda, of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, was gang-raped and very brutally beaten. Community members spent more than two hours at her side waiting for both the police and an ambulance as she lay unconscious in the rain. (The police station is apparently located less than half a kilometre away from where her body was found.) Qubuda, who was left brain damaged by the assault, died of her injuries in hospital six weeks later. While the UPM issued press releases around the matter and sought to highlight the absence of poor women from the well of public indignation, as well as the mediocre services provided to poor communities, few took up Qubuda’s cause.

Each of these campaigns and actions reflects a difference in emphasis and strategy and, ideally, each should add up to a multi-layered, vibrant and diverse movement reflective of a range of women’s concerns. In practice, no nodes of engagement exist between parts, which resemble instead bounded spheres of disconnected organising and, with little ideological coherence evident, a very fuzzy – if not incompatible – politics. If a politics can be discerned, then it is one centred around notions of women’s speech as transgressive and revelatory. A second set of ideas premise change on the transformation of gendered discourses of sexuality. While both sets of politics are important, they are insufficiently attentive to the material conditions informing the experience of violence, as well as its manifestations.

While the public discourse around rape has shifted to some extent, this has not been accompanied by a change in the practices and conditions productive of violence. This disjuncture will only deepen with the ongoing fraying of a transformatory politics around the gendering of violence. On the other hand, the reconfiguration of civil society generally in South Africa may also open the way for new forms of mobilisation and connection to be imagined. Whether current conditions will produce fractured resignation or encourage connected mobilisation is the question.

Lisa Vetten

Lisa Vetten has worked in the area of violence against women since 1991 as a counsellor, paralegal, trainer and researcher. She has also played an advisory role in policy development for South Africa’s Department of Health and Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, as well as compiling numerous parliamentary submissions to prevent violence against women.

More by Lisa Vetten ›

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