Malema: South Africa’s feminism champion?

Julius Malema has emerged as an unlikely feminist after making pro-women statements at a recent rally, but gender experts have slammed the political leader for being opportunistic.

Speaking at a rally outside the high court in Polokwane, where he appeared on Thursday in a failed attempt to get corruption charges against him dropped, the commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) used the occasion to address about 2 000 of his supporters on a range of social issues, particularly gender.

"Victims of rape and abuse, as long as you survive, keep strong," he said in a quiet moment. "Teach others to survive. Those of you in abusive relationships, those of you who have been raped and are not reporting it, your home is EFF. Come report to us – you will not be judged."

Malema, who has a knack for speaking to popular issues, made his comments the day after the arrest of a man for allegedly raping his six-week-old niece in Kimberly in the Northern Cape, which caused an outcry in the country. 

But Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence, was not impressed with the young leader's statements.

"'Teach others to survive', what does that mean? Once again, someone is putting the onus on the victims to do something about their problems: come and report it to the EFF," she said. "It does not in any way challenge the status quo."

Stats and under-reporting
Statistics vary – and under-reporting affects what we know – but most agree that South Africa is the rape capital of the world. One Medical Research Council study among men from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal showed a devastatingly casual familiarity with rape – more than 25% of the men questioned admitted to raping someone. A poll in 1999 among 1 500 schoolboys in Soweto showed most thought "jackrolling", or gang rape, was "fun".

But most politicians shy away from the topic. 

Kathleen Dey, director of Rape Crisis, has previously spoken about the gap to the M&G.

"My opinion is that there is no real political champion for issues of violence against women in South Africa; not with politicians."

The ANC's once impressive gender activism has died down in recent years and the party's women's league is seen as little more than lackeys to a president critics have accused of chauvinism.

Zuma's conservative views towards women are well established; his comment during a televised interview that women should be mothers caused a minor outcry, and in 2011 critics slammed his choice of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, whose disturbing decisions on cases involving allegations of rape emerged not long after his name was mooted for the position. Zuma was also accused of rape in 2006 and, though found not guilty, made numerous controversial statements about women and sex during the trial.

Political scoring
Activists say South Africa has one of the highest levels of rape in the world, but our politicians – those with the most power to make a difference – only seem to comment on the issue when they are able to score political points.

Malema tried his best to step into this gap on Thursday, saying: "[The EFF] is the only organisation that said it will fight for the rights of women. We don't see women as tools in the bedroom. We see them as equal partners in the struggle for the African revolution. Without women, the African revolution will never succeed."

But Malema himself, despite his comments on Thursday, was found guilty by the equality court for his offensive statements about the complainant in Zuma's 2006 rape trial, intimating that she must have had a "nice time" if she stayed for breakfast. At the time, he was a fierce Zuma supporter and modulated his comments accordingly. On Thursday he didn't acknowledge this blot on his gender rights record.

And two senior EFF leaders: a regional co-ordinator and a spokesperson, were expelled from a previous organisation after being accused of involvement in the rape of a sex worker – charges they deny, the Daily Maverick reported. The EFF said it would look into the matter. 

Now that Malema's political winds have altered, he has changed his tune accordingly, and has often used the deeply problematic statements Zuma made about women during the rape trial against the controversial president since the split between the two became apparent.

Filling the gap
But Thursday marked a new level of rhetoric from Malema on the issue, and he largely disregarded Zuma and stepped into a glaring gap among South African politicians: a champion for women's rights.

"These men who are abusing children, don't do it in our name," he said to a rapt audience. "All women must be protected and loved. You are the provider, you are the protector, that's how your wife and child must see you. They must feel safe around you."

But Vetten said there was "nothing terribly radical in his words … Every politician will say something similar during the 16 days."

Malema said on Thursday: "We will fight [for the rights of women] these 16 Days of Activism and beyond", referring to the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, an international campaign that runs from November 25 to December 10 and is strongly observed in South Africa.

Whether he will sustain this new tone, or whether it is merely political point scoring, is the big test.

Saying a lot 'when it suits them'
Gender activists have told the M&G that few politicians show a sustained and in-depth interest in the problem of rape and abuse. "I wouldn't want to say that all politicians use rape in an opportunist way, but certainly there are those who do: those who have no history of supporting it but will open their mouths and have a lot to say when it suits them," Vetten has previously said. 

A political champion for women's rights would need to do more than just talk, Dey and others have said: they must have the charisma, political will and perseverance to drive changes in policy and budget allocations, even when those items are not on the agenda.

"We need a genuine champion who will follow public opinion and drive a review of legislation, and through that drive resources and additional budget," said Dey. "The women of South Africa would be behind you 100% … it's a gift waiting to happen."

Whether or not Malema is that champion is doubtful, but he is making the most noise thus far on the issue.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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