State must show it cares

This week yet more cases of grotesque gender violence hit the headlines — the savage rapes of two girls aged three and six. The attack on one of the girls resulted in injuries that medical personnel described as among the worst they have ever seen. The child’s perineum was ripped, leaving her colon exposed and dangling between her legs.

These physical injuries will heal, but “I cannot say much about the emotional and psychological scars,” the surgeon who attended to the girl observed.

Media reports say the girls’ assailants are known to their families. We have heard this all too often before, and it points to one of the most devastating facts about gender violence in this country: women frequently have most to fear from the men closest to them.

These horrific assaults on two young girls should not obscure the more pervasive problem. Gender violence is widespread, deeply rooted and takes multiple forms, including sexual harassment and domestic abuse.

When half the country’s population has compelling reasons for living in fear, we ask with extreme urgency: what is the state doing to combat the problem?

The answer is: very little. We report this week on the first study in this country of the extent to which the state assists non-profit organisations (NPOs) that provide services to women experiencing gender violence.

Two dismaying statistics stand out in the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s (CSVR) research. Only 40% of the NPOs that supplied information to the CSVR received state funds in the 18-month period the study surveyed, and this funding amounted to a derisory R11-million nationally.

These are shameful figures — and all the more so when one reflects that these NPOs are frequently doing the state’s job: as the title of the CSVR study puts it, “We’re Doing Their Work for Them“.

The CSVR study points to an equally shameful fact: no comprehensive national strategy exists to address violence against women. And although a national rape prevention strategy is being developed, it has not yet been released.

The study also identifies a deeper malaise. Counselling services predominate in the NPO work with women who experience violence. Such services are clearly essential. But the CSVR study argues that the dominance of such services means that violence against women becomes, “first and foremost, a problem to be managed through appropriate therapeutic interventions rather than a problem requiring multi-dimensional change to society’s structures and values”.

Some of the government’s efforts to change social values that in effect sanction violence against girls and women are impressive. Education leads the way, with a new school curriculum that centralises values and attitudes.

But while the Constitution guarantees gender equality, rhetoric alone is achieving nothing. We demand now that the whole of government puts its concerted weight behind immediate and concrete measures aimed at protecting the vulnerable half of South Africa’s citizens. And it can start by pouring much more than R11-million into cash-strapped NPOs, which have for years been shouldering the burden of responsibilities that we have every right to expect our democratic state to assume.

Biko’s time is still with us

For those who knew Steve Biko, first reports 25 years ago of his death were unbelievable. It could not be true. His immense presence, intellectual brilliance, liberated spirit and his wicked sense of humour had all suggested a kind of indestructibility. When the sickening truth finally hit home, we knew: we had lost our very finest.

The words that have been spoken in his praise in the years since his murder have been no warmer nor more appreciative than those words were when he was alive. He was a most remarkable person. With simple truths simply spoken — therein lay his genius — he was able to move the mind of a generation. In millions of young, desperately disadvantaged blacks, he fostered an understanding of their own potentialities and power; it was an idea that produced much of the material force that ripped apartheid’s chains from the moorings over the next 20 years. Among those young whites who had been prone to imagine their sympathy with oppressed blacks entitled them to speak on behalf of the oppressed, it produced some long-overdue modesty. And those who remained behind to defend white minority rule had a fight on their hands which they eventually came to learn they lacked the will — though not the weapons — to win.

Biko’s message was, at once, both exclusive and inclusive. Achieving black unity — and that meant unity among all shades of the oppressed under apartheid — was first base in challenging white minority rule. At the same time he brought to his relations with unpretentious white opponents of apartheid a real comradeship and generosity of spirit. At the time of his death, he conducted his political life above the niggardly nationalism that has come to characterise the Pan-Africanist Congress. And Biko had no need for the affected flights into political theory that characterised so many of those associated with the African National Congress.

We have need of his simple truth-telling now. Biko has gone. But his time is still with us.

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