​Murder is SA’s hidden civil war, even more silent is the violent fight against women

In their recent book, A Manifesto for Social Change: How to Save South Africa, Moeletsi Mbeki and his niece Nobantu Mbeki argue that, with a murder rate five times the global average, there is an ongoing, albeit hidden, civil war in South Africa.

According to the Mbekis, the causes can be traced to centuries-old unjust economic practices. These have produced and of necessity maintain a permanent underclass consisting of folk so poor that they are “empty as a pocket with nothing to lose”, as Ladysmith Black Mambazo sing in the song Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.

The same alarming murder statistic is endorsed by researchers Anene Kriegler and Mark Shaw, who nevertheless argue that, when considering the period from 1911 to 2015, the South African murder rate has been falling at an average 4% a year since 1994 — from 79 murders a day in 1994 to 49 a day in 2015. For the families whose loved ones have been snatched from them by knife- or gunwielding attackers, these statistics provide cold comfort.

Neither the Mbekis nor Kriegler and Shaw shed much light on the other, hidden and even more vicious South African war — the “unacknowledged gender civil war”, so named by Helen Moffet.

This war defies economic, criminological and geographical logic. It is being waged in New York, Cologne, New Delhi, Ouagadougou and Modimolle in Limpopo. South Africans have no monopoly over the deadly weapons used to wage this cowardly war against women and children. It is a global phenomenon. And yet I dare say that, if violence against women and children were to become an Olympic sport, the South African medal count would rise sharply. In the violence-against women stakes, we are down there with the very worst in the world.

The perpetrators of the ghastly deeds against women and children ply their trade as efficiently in the makeshift squatter homes of Plastic View and Sonskyn Hoekie in Pretoria as they do in wealthy suburban homes. The victims are black and white women — think Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp and Reeva Steenkamp in Silver Woods Estate.

The infant victims are black and white — such as baby Tshepang and the child victims of William Martin Tindle Knoetze and his female accomplice.

In our country, the victims of verbal abuse, rape and killings include lesbians, subjected to horrific socalled corrective rape and wantonly murdered simply because of their sexual orientation. Sharing the entrenched bonds of patriarchy and destructive notions of masculinity, those who persecute, maim and kill women are black, white, brown and yellow, and come in pinstriped suits, tattered clothes and working overalls. Some are celebrities, others are arme skepsels (poor creatures), and yet they have more in common than meets the eye. All of them are beneficiaries of and labourers in the nation’s oldest and largest factory — “the female fear factory”, so aptly named by feminist scholar Pumla Gqola.

Graduates are trained to come out with qualifications that will ensure society retains, from generation to generation, a critical mass of people with the skills necessary for the needs of society. The female fear factory enrols women, young and old, to systematically skill them in a permanent state of nervous breakdown, fear, self-loathing, subservience to patriarchal authority figures and complicit silence in the face of violence and abuse. One of the training tools is the threat of rape and violence. The message is clear: obey, or else. 

The woman’s body, socially constructed as the legitimate possession of men, is to be used for his business and pleasure, and is an important site for the performance of male power.

Crime statistics constitute a spectacularly ineffectual source for an antidote to the raging war against women and children. They are especially useless as a measure of police performance and as an indicator of a country’s crime health.

To look good, the police have either to work very hard at stopping crime or at under-reporting it. The latter is far less demanding. No wonder many crime dockets frequently disappear from police stations.

To look good, many governments have a powerful incentive to be less than truthful about reporting crime statistics.

Even if the crime statistics were 100% accurate and reliable, they are hamstrung by the fact that women and children seldom trust the police enough to consider laying charges. Many victims of violence, especially rape survivors, recognise that laying charges may expose them to secondary trauma as they are likely not to be believed. These crime statistics probably speak more eloquently to the state of reporting, or the lack of it, than they speak to the actual state of the war against women.

Men have a special role to play in stemming this murderous tide, if only because the majority of perpetrators are men. Even when men are not the perpetrators, most of them are employed in the female fear factory. All men are beneficiaries — willing or unwilling, conscious or unconscious — of the proceeds of this factory.  

Men must become conscious of the rewards that patriarchy bestows on them. Men must not only repudiate the female fear factory dividend allocated to them but also begin the systematic dismantling of the factory. Such work requires the undermining of all forms of chauvinism, including the kind hidden behind male roles, elevated titles and patriarchal notions of merit. Above all, men must collaborate with women in the construction of just and inclusive institutions.

The state has a role to play too. Police officers must be trained to be gender aware. The interactions and overlaps between the training and functioning of the police, psychologists and social workers must be seamless.

The police force must be demilitarised and freed from the skop-skiet-en-donner (kick-shootand- hit) mentality. The government must move away from its obsession with crime statistics as a measure of police performance. Statistics could be released quarterly, in a format that is more qualitative than quantitative and are decentralised. 

More focus should be put on the quality and effect of interventions locally than on crime numbers. The designs and protocols of police stations and courts must be overhauled so that they are hospitable and helpful to women and children.

Our laws concerning the definitions of rape and sexual harassment must also be brought up to date. 

Every year in August, in seminars and at gala dinners, well-rehearsed platitudes about rights, constitutionality, democracy and women empowerment are mouthed. But, just below the surface, the war against women and children rages on.

Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko. Follow him on Twitter: @ProfTinyiko


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