Violence against women: Can outrage translate into action?

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For the optimistic, there are signs that South Africa may be at a watershed moment when it comes to responses against violence against women. On Tuesday, when the two men accused of raping and murdering Anene Booysen appeared in the Bredasdorp Magistrate’s Court for their bail hearing, the National Assembly devoted its first post-Sona debate to the issue. But politicians scrambling to express outrage certainly won’t be enough on its own.

Media and public attention devoted to the bail hearing of Anene Booysen’s alleged killers on Tuesday was only a fraction given to that of Oscar Pistorius’s days in court last week. Nevertheless, many journalists did make the journey to the Western Cape town of Bredasdorp to witness the first day of the bail hearing.

It was reported that the two accused – Jonathan Davids and Johannes Kana – were permitted by the magistrate to appear with coverings concealing their heads to protect them from photographers. As with the Pistorius case, they stand accused of a Schedule 6 offence – a term now familiar to a newly legally-savvy South African audience – and the state is opposing bail.

On the first day of the hearing, Davids (22), reportedly cut a calm figure in court, admitting that he knew Booysen well and had even spent time living in her house in 2010. Davids also conceded that he saw Booysen on the evening of her attack, but maintains that he greeted her at a pub and then the two went their separate ways. Davids is thus pleading not guilty to her rape and murder, with his uncle Nico September telling reporters that the family was confident he would be granted bail.

It is the prosecution’s contention, however, that Davids was witnessed “making a nuisance of himself” to Booysen at the pub in question on the relevant night. The prosecution’s case also includes the fact that Booysen identified one of her attackers before her death as “Zwaai”, a nickname that Davids is known by. Davids claims that there is at least one other man in the community of Zwelitsha who also goes by the same nickname. The prosecution, however, will also likely be leaning hard on the fact that Davids also has previous criminal convictions stretching back to 2007, according to Eye Witness News.

The bail hearing for Davids was postponed from Tuesday to Wednesday. It is reported that Johannes Kana (21) has yet to enter a plea and that his bail hearing will be heard at a later stage.

The courtroom activity playing out in Bredasdorp was not the only violence-against-women related action in the South African public sphere on Tuesday. The same day saw Minister of Women, Children and the Disabled Lulu Xingwana address a media briefing shortly after the release of a damaging report in Beeld which suggested that Xingwana’s ministry is rife with problems.
The report claimed that among the goings-on in the women’s ministry, underqualified people were given jobs, Xingwana gave preference to her friends when awarding jobs, and excessive overtime payments were made. This comes on the back of the call by the Democratic Alliance (DA) earlier this month for Xingwana be investigated for allegedly spending R2,1 million on office decor.

In other words, there is a reasonable amount of suspicion that something is rotten in the Department of Women, Children and the Disabled, which presumably – however much you might question what message it sends to have one government ministry named for over half the population – should be channelling its time and resources into helping uplift women and keep them safe. But at Tuesday’s media briefing, while saying that disciplinary action was being taken within the ministry, Xingwana largely focused on safe topics, like Oscar Pistorius.

She was disappointed at the decision to grant Pistorius bail, she said, but urged that judicial process take its course in the Pistorius case unmolested, saying that she was confident in the prosecution’s efficiency after a shaky start. However, she expressed her belief that stricter gun control might have saved Reeva Steenkamp’s life. “We need to stand up and say we don’t want so many guns in our society,” Xingwana said. She also called for tough sentencing in cases dealing with gender-based violence.

Xingwana wasn’t the only South African politician to cite the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp as illustrative of the country’s violence against women problem on Tuesday. At the National Assembly debate on the matter on Tuesday afternoon, practically every politician who addressed Parliament did likewise. While it was surely an encouraging sign that Parliament had devoted its first post-State of the Nation Address debate of the year to this issue, it was baffling why Xingwana wasn’t present.

Earlier in the day, she had concluded her media briefing (which took place in Pretoria, with a video link to Parliament in Cape Town) with an assurance that she would be able to catch up to the debate. Unless she had teleported, this was never going to be possible – the debate in the House started a mere half-hour after her media briefing completed. Instead, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga appeared to have taken on Xingwana’s mantle for the afternoon, due to her position as ANC Women’s League head.

What followed was less of a “debate” than a series of politicians taking the lectern to assert their party’s horror and outrage at violence against women. While it’s nice to think that political parties truly feel this, perhaps it would have been more helpful to swap some of the handwringing for practical commitments – particularly as there was a sense that the jolt into awareness had come, for some, only after recent high-profile incidents.

We had Motshekga deplore the “defiling of the sacred body of Anene Booysen” and the “heartless killing of charming Reeva Steenkamp”, while returning repeatedly to references to Lavinia, the character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus who is raped and has her tongue cut out and hands chopped up to prevent her from identifying her attackers.

We had Congress of the People’s (Cope) Constance Mosimane reel off past incidents of horrific violence, like the 2001 crime which saw a 9-month-old baby raped by six men. We had the Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP) Liezel van der Merwe claim that a woman was raped every minute of every day (based on extrapolation from the most extreme estimates of underreporting). We had the Uunited Democratic Movement’s (UDM) Stanley Ntapane query how a young woman could be gunned down “on Valentine’s Day of all days”.

The Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Groenewald suggested the country needed a new breed of men and women to teach children the meaning of respect. The African Christian Democratic Party’s (ACDP) Kenneth Meshoe repeated his claim that the disintegration of the family is the cause of social rot, and had his time run out before he was able to complete expressing his view that the availability of abortion on demand was part of the problem. The DA’s Mike Waters spoke of “evil” within our society.

And so on. Of course, the opportunity for political point-scoring also didn’t go unchecked. Motshekga stressed that the ANC Women’s League had been at the forefront of the battle against violence against women all along. The DA’s Debbie Schafer listed steps taken by the Western Cape provincial government – like the doubling of the budget for the reduction of drug and alcohol-related crimes – and suggested the national government take a leaf out of its book.

But perhaps the Independent Democrats’ (ID) Lance Greyling summed things up best when he said: “Expressing outrage in this house will do nothing to help the women out there.” And Greyling went further, pointing out that sexist utterances and attitudes are the beginning of the spectrum of gender-based violence, and that too often they find voice in the National Assembly itself – as when male politicians use descriptions like “little girl” to “put women in their place”.

That’s not to say the afternoon was utterly devoid of practical suggestions about what can be done. Motshekga cited the fact that the Department of Education, in combination with Lead SA, is taking the fight to schools, kicking off with a special assembly this Friday. Schafer called for extended budgeting for measures like victim empowerment programmes, and the widespread reinstatement of dedicated sexual offences courts.

Greyling pointed out that a great piece of legislation in this country already exists in the form of the Domestic Violence Act, which is simply not properly implemented. Ntapane called for “zero tolerance” of offenders and harsher sentencing. Since Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa is still honeymooning, the SAPS was represented his deputy, Maggie Sotyu.

While stressing measures being taken by the SAPS – such as re-skilling detectives and discouraging victims from dropping cases – Sotyu also emphasised that other issues should be considered in order to keep women safe, such as attention paid to the environmental design of urban areas. The ANC’s Llewellyn Landers called for the speeded-up implementation of a proper sexual offenders registry and an improvement in the speed and quality of DNA processing.
But of course, all these measures – as worthy as they are – will come to naught if the available resources are not made available to make them a reality. That’s why Wednesday’s budget announcement will be so important. It’s a chance to see if national government is really willing to put its money where its mouth is in addressing the problem of violence against women.

Written by: Rebecca Davis

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick.