South Africa, 18 February 13: This year's State of the Nation address occurred amid a national outcry and introspection on gender-based violence (GBV). Public debate around the murder of Anene Booysen had not yet abated, when South Africa awoke to news of the murder of another woman, Reeva Steenkamp, allegedly shot dead by her sports celebrity boyfriend Oscar Pistorious. Amid the raging public debate about rape and GBV Jacob Zuma stepped up to give his State of the Nation address last Thursday.
His speech also occurred against the backdrop of the pink fluffiness that characterises Valentine's Day with all its messages of romantic love and harmony which sound hollow when viewed alongside the news stories of the violence and bloodshed that characterise many "romantic" relationships.
What should a president say about GBV in such a context?
What the president did say amounted to very little. The President touched on several themes: infrastructure, education, youth unemployment, tourism, land reform, and so on. As he moved through this "shopping list" of themes, two focused particularly on women: improving the status of women generally, and GBV. The latter received far greater attention, perhaps in the light of the Anene Booysen case, which Zuma mentioned.
In this short section of his speech, Zuma focused on the need for new laws and better law enforcement. Amid talk of legalistic and institutional responses to GBV, Zuma made a small, but important comment - he spoke about the violence against women campaign being "an everyday campaign". What does this mean?
We know that violence against women is an everyday phenomenon. While a handful of incidents attract significant media attention, GBV is mundane in South Africa. Women are raped, beaten, threatened and belittled all the time, often without the knowledge of those around them and often without the condemnation of those who do know of the abuse.
Because violence is an everyday phenomenon, we do indeed need an everyday campaign against it. But what is the nature of the necessary everyday campaign? It is not at all clear that the new laws and stricter law enforcement Zuma highlights in his speech will actually reduce violence against women.
Many call for harsher sentences for rapists and murderers, but there is little evidence that such sentences actually act as a deterrent for such crimes. Others respond to GBV by renaming Valentine's Day "V-day" and dancing in protest against rape, but many feel that such trendy forms of protest are nothing more than "slacktivism" - actions, which make us feel better, but have little actual influence.
Some look to the establishment of new institutions, such as the National Council on Gender-Based Violence which Zuma mentions will change things, but the creation of such institutions may do nothing more than make government appear to be doing something.
All of the above - stronger laws, stricter sentences, protest events and new institutions - may well form a part of such an "everyday campaign", but for such a campaign to be effective, we also need to think carefully about the everyday actions and attitudes that form the foundation upon which GBV is built.
As many commentators have pointed out, the men who rape and kill are not strange monsters with a different constitutional make up to other people. There is no murder or rape gene which drives some to kill or rape while the rest of us look on in horror. Rather, the attitudes that help make such behaviours possible are present in many.
The belief that a woman is a passive creature, to be seduced, pampered and looked after may result in high sales of furry pink teddy bears on Valentine's Day, but may also conceivably play a part in some men's inability to believe that a woman's "NO" ought to be heeded.
If a woman is passive, weak and infantile, can she really know her own mind? The belief that a woman's unfaithfulness is to be blamed upon the man who "stole" her implies a view of women as both unable to take action independently and as being possessions that can be destroyed should their owners no longer need or want them.
The belief that a woman ought to be looked after by a male "breadwinner" can make a man think that if he cannot provide for his family he is entitled to take not only his own life, but those of his family members as well. The belief that a woman is primarily a wife and a mother may make us treasure "good" women on mothers' day, but may also play a role in making some men think it appropriate to discipline or despise women who refuse to define themselves in this way.
Of course, my point here is not to suggest that buying women infantile toys for Valentine's Day or thinking a man must be the "breadwinner" is akin to raping or murdering. However, it is to suggest that many actions and attitudes we find acceptable, even commendable, are attitudes also used to justify the abuse and murder of women.
Thus, if we are to take seriously this throwaway phrase in Zuma's speech - the idea of an "everyday campaign" - we need to think seriously about everyday ideas and practices that fan the flames of gender-based violence.
Written by: Sally Matthews
- Sally Matthews is a senior lecturer at the Rhodes University Politics Department, with research and teaching interests in comparative politics, African studies and development studies. She writes in her personal capacity. This article was published on www.genderlinks.org.za.