Gender violence undermines democracy
It was great to drive down KE Masinga Road, in Durban, this December. First I passed the old Alice Street Inanda taxi rank, where I used to be uscabha (a taxi conductor). Then I passed a McDonald’s, where I first tasted American burgers when the food outlet came to SA in 1995. Passing St John Ambulance and the Scout shop was even better, for I had learnt the basics of first aid at St John and spent all my years at primary school and some years at high school as a Boy Scout — until Inkatha hijacked and killed the movement.
I nearly forgot the budget hotel between McDonald’s and the Scout shop that reminds me of Simi, the most beautiful daughter of a rich Mr Pillay, who liked checking us in there until a mini racial incident resulted in our breakup.
But the joy suddenly ended when I passed KwaMuhle Museum and I was reminded that there was a time in segregated SA when bigoted measures like the Group Areas Act and the Native Administration Act were used to control the movement of Africans and all aspects of their being.
African men, for example, would be demeaned by being stripped naked so that white men could inspect their genitalia to check for venereal diseases. “Reception” places like KwaMuhle were notorious for this emasculation of African men who migrated to the cities in search of livelihoods.
They would present themselves at KwaMuhle for permits and health clearance to live and work in the city. They left these places without dignity, even if with passbooks in hand.
Unfortunately, in free SA today, there are men who have assumed the role of those KwaMuhle apparatchiks.
These are men who are turning our streets into no-go areas. The humiliation visited on our grandfathers under colonialism and apartheid is being experienced by their granddaughters, who are humiliated through rape and sexual harassment, often in the course of gruesome ordeals that end in murder.
As the police special branch brutalised people, there are men in a free society who do the same to women — men who believe they own women’s bodies.
Maybe one is stretching this.
Maybe the men who turn our streets into no-go areas for women are too young to have been humiliated by the white boys fondling their genitalia at KwaMuhle. Maybe the parallels aren’t obvious to them.
But the symbolism is the same: strip women of their dignity and reduce their beings into male-occupied territories patrolled by modern-day oqonda (apartheid-era street-level enforcers of order and “correct behaviour”).
The laws we have today symbolise the nation’s aspiration for full human freedoms, equality and equity. Yet in reality women are humiliated sexually, physically, economically and psychologically by those whose historical experience ought to construct a meta-consciousness of fellowship and protection of those who suffered the triple oppression.
In the same way that men couldn’t even walk the streets of SA without a permit, so do women today have their freedom of movement curtailed for fear of their lives.
Herein lies the challenge for the ruling party, to mobilise society and double the effort to end gender-based violence. The great strides we have made to send over 90% of girls to school, provide grants that particularly mitigate poverty among young and elderly women, promote employment equity and provide housing are well documented. But the scourge of gender-based violence undermines all that.
Political analyst Dumisani Hlophe was right when he said it requires a mobilisation similar to the fight against apartheid and more recently against the Aids epidemic. It requires firm leadership, as we have seen with President Cyril Ramaphosa directly getting involved. It also requires mass mobilisation and solidarity across society.
And so, as the ANC launches its manifesto this weekend, those concerned about gender-based violence will be watching the extent to which the issue finds a place there — and what measures will be applied to accelerate the fight against it.
As the police brutalised people, there are men in a free society who do this to women
Ngcaweni is head of policy and research services in the presidency. He writes in his personal capacity