South Africa : National Women’s Day

PSI joins South Africa in celebrating the 9th of August as the National Women’s Day to commemorate the great women’s march on 9th August 1956 to the Union Buildings to protest the carrying of women’s pass books. The pass laws were meant to tighten control on the movement of black women as a way of managing migrant labour and maintaining racial segregation.

The celebration of this day is not only a way of paying tribute to the bravery of the 20,000 women who took part in the march but is also a recognition of the resilience of South African women in their struggle for women’s total emancipation and equal rights.

For South African women and the continent at large, it is a luta continua (the struggle continues); because indeed the struggle continues for equal access to land, capital, employment opportunities and freedom in general. The struggle continues against poverty, oppression, discrimination, inequality, stereotyping, rape, assaults and femicides.

The sad irony is that 66 years ago the marchers were marching against an evil and oppressive political system and yet 66 years later, the struggle is now against violence and oppression by a gender that is supposed to partners in creating a cohesive social order. It is a great betrayal that some of crimes are committed by people with whom the victims have close and intimate relations.

These heinous crimes are also happening in a nation that defines itself as subscribing to the philosophy of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a belief in the essential human virtues, a belief in the universal bond of all humanity through humaneness and compassion. The callousness and perversion of the rapes and murders demonstrate how certain elements of the South African society have completely lost their conscience and their Ubuntu.

South African women do not feel safe. Women’s month in the recent past years have been commemorated more like memorial services for victims of some of the most gruesome femicides and violence against women.  And yet this is a month when the country should be celebrating the South African women’s many triumphs; as demonstrated by triumph over fear in confronting the fearsome Apartheid Government by the 1956 marchers, as demonstrated by Zozibini Tunzi who conquered in the Miss Universe contests or the South African Women’s soccer team who were recently crowned the African Champions.  

Unfortunately, horrific cases of GBV, like the 2019 rape and murder by bludgeoning of a Cape Town University student, Uyinene Mrwetyana, which left the nation transfixed, overshadow some of the women’s notable achievements. This was followed by equally horrifying other cases of violence against women and femicides. To demonstrate how pervasive the fear of being raped and killed was, women launched the AmINext campaign to draw the Government’s attention on the seriousness of the threat of violence.

This year’s Women’s Month was preceded by the outrageous gang rape and robbery of 8 young women who were shooting a music video near a disused mine in a town called Krugersdorp, bringing into focus again this festering pandemic. According to a SAPS report, close to 11,000 rapes were committed in the first 3 months of 2022. The report can be found here. While these statistics are shocking, they do not tell us the sickening details and stories about the psychological scars, emotional damage and trauma that each of the women have to carry for the rest of their lives.

These cases of GBV occur in the context of generalized violence whose root causes need to be understood. Serious research needs to go into the factors that cause generalized violence and violence against women and children. Simplistic and false solutions should be avoided, like those that would like to suggest that all sorts of social ills are caused by illegal immigrants. While some of the illegal immigrants are certainly criminals, it may not be entirely accurate that the crime situation in SA is what it is as a result of illegal immigrants, to the extent that rounding up these illegal immigrants will solve the crime problem.      

It was enlightening how GBV cases sharply rose during the COVID pandemic. Because of the lockdown restrictions, most people could not leave their homes to go to work or places of entertainment and so were obliged to spend more time with each other. The resultant spike in cases of domestic violence should shed some light into this behavioral pattern.

Another important insight is that the economic status which is skewed against women exposes them and makes them vulnerable to abuse. Some researchers point out that in a number of cases, victims of GBV would be financially dependent on the perpetrator, which leads them to feel incapable of breaking free from the abusive relationship. Because of their financial dependence, they continue in the relationship until the worst happens.

Together with the very progressive legislations that have been enacted, policies towards the economic empowerment of women should continue to be prioritized. This is why in PSI we advocate for gender sensitive public services. As the just transition gets under way, PSI recognizes that a lot of work needs to be done on the climate issue to make sure the gendered effects of the climate crisis are prevented from hitting women at full blast.

This assertion by Nivashni Nair in article in the Sunday Times that ‘The sexual abuse of women, children is written into the DNA of our country’ is something that should be rejected. No country should be at peace with itself if part of its DNA involves assaulting and violating the rights of its women and children. There has to be some serious introspection so that healing can begin to take place.

For our part as PSI, we believe that for any society to realise its full potential in its social and developmental aspirations, it is imperative that all of its citizens should develop their full potential, while they enjoy their full rights and freedoms.