On paper, women in South Africa ought to enjoy the highest status globally. But this has not translated into fundamental freedoms of dignity, safety and security in practice.
Judged against global gender benchmarks, South African women have solid representation and leadership in state decision-making structures, extensive legal and constitutional mechanisms protecting their rights, ground-breaking laws safeguarding their interests, and numerous civil society lobby groups.
This impressive national gender machinery belies the realities of most women, especially black women, who face degradation, grinding poverty and extreme violence.
South Africa’s gender-based violence statistics are among the worst in the world: up to 50% of women have suffered intimate partner violence and can’t pay for justice. The Medical Research Council estimates that three women are killed by an intimate partner every day. It says only one in nine rapes is reported to the police, and one in four men has admitted to raping a woman.
South Africa’s most recent gender statistics report revealed that women are less likely to be able to read or have a tertiary education, and far more likely to be unemployed. As sexism and racism intersect, black women bear the brunt. This speaks to a deep disconnect between the political elites, women who have risen to power in government, and ordinary South African women.
The ANC Women’s League, despite its impeccable struggle credentials, has not been able to tackle controversial gender issues. It gives credence to the view that women perpetuate and sustain male dominance in exchange for power in patriarchal power structures.
Gender equality is up against a powerful enemy in societies with strong patriarchal traditions, where women of all races and cultures have been oppressed, exploited and kept subservient. Patriarchy is resilient and adapts to changing social and political contexts, aided and abetted by complicity and silence.
Violence does not arise in a vacuum. It is influenced by interrelated factors such as poverty, patriarchy, inequality, stagnant economic growth, high rates of unemployment and low levels of education. These factors also exist in other post-war and post-colonial African countries. They cannot fully account for the extraordinary savagery of South African rapes and femicide.
The violence against women and girls is often sexual, involving debasement and even torture. This cannot easily be explained by patriarchal dominance or socioeconomic conditions. When rape becomes an act of sexual savagery, it is a weapon of war – in this case, the “war” on South African women.
Research points to a neopatriarchal backlash globally because progress in gender equality usually provokes resistance. A study into sexism in 18 countries showed South African men and women endorse “ambivalent sexism”. This means the women they feel the most positive about are those in roles that serve men’s needs, such as those of “cherished” wives and sexual partners. They felt the empowerment of women has gone too far and showed ambivalence about moves towards gender equity.
Men are threatened by women’s empowerment and the allocation of state resources to address gender imbalances that they perceive comes at their expense. This often involves a backlash against women in an attempt to re-establish their masculinity and dominance.
Rape in South Africa reflects a savage global trend that points to the act of rape itself not being enough for the perpetrator. Victims also have to be cruelly and publicly tortured – in other words, humiliated – before they die, as seen in the gang rape and dehumanising death of teenager Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp, Western Cape, in 2013.
Deep humiliation is part of the South African DNA and is historically fuelled by the symbiotic ideologies of apartheid (racism) and patriarchy (sexism), involving systemic, institutionalised violence to render whole groups of people inferior.
This may provide insight into the extreme levels of gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, currently being experienced. Black men, emasculated and humiliated under apartheid, resisted race oppression, which also involved defending their masculinity. Violence and masculinity are linked. In a country like South Africa, much of the violence is perpetrated by black men.
Gender-based violence globally has nothing to do with race per se. Violence is not caused by skin colour, but in South Africa is the effect of deep-rooted historical, social and psychological factors.
Displaced anger and aggression towards women emanates from a deep need to reassert masculinity, status and power. Further humiliation in the current climate at the ac loss of power posed by the advancement of women’s rights is fuelling the neopatriarchal backlash.
Lyn Snodgrass is an associate professor of politics and conflict studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. This article was first published on theconversation.com