/ 17 August 2018

​A gender violence robot, seriously?

Total Shutdown earlier
Total Shutdown earlier (David Harrison)

On August 1, thousands of women took part in #TheTotalShutdown march to the Union Buildings. Despite having announced it weeks in advance, the ANC Women’s League decided to hijack the event and hold a parallel march for the same purpose.

It was another case of elements in the governing party marching against each other.

Fortunately though, the women’s league event served only as a footnote to August 1 and it was the original march, which took place in many towns, that mattered. That march resulted in women presenting #TheTotalShutdown memorandum of demands to President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The police brought charges related to getting permission to protest but these were ultimately dropped.

A man I know in the governing party was sure that the march was funded by some outside elements trying to disrupt the state.

“The state is already in disruption, sir,” I answered. “Women are raped and killed on a daily basis.”

I was quick to give him a small history lesson. I reminded him that there were many apartheid leaders who believed the natives were happy with their lot and that those who fought against the system pre-1990 were influenced by the Soviet Union and other communist states.

“Are you really going down the route where you infantilise 52% of South Africa’s population not to know when they are not getting justice from the system? Do you really believe we need someone coming from outside to tell us our mothers, sisters, daughters, heck, we are dying at the hands of men?”

The #TotalShutdown demands have deadlines. The first demand? A strong message from the president that gender violence against women is pervasive and that it cannot be tolerated. This includes a commitment never to appoint anyone who has been implicated in or minimises the causes and consequences of gender violence to the Cabinet or to lead a state institution.

Furthermore, the president must make a commitment to establish and drive a multi-stakeholder and comprehensive process to address and reduce gender violence, and a commitment to announce the date of a national gender summit before August 30. The deadline for this was set for August 9, Women’s Day, a national holiday.

And then August 9 happened. This year, the rally took place in Mbekweni in Paarl. Sophia de Bruyn, an elder sister in South African feminism and one of the 20 000 women who took part in the 1956 march, hit out at the government for its handling of gender violence.

The stage seemed set for some strong message from the state. What we got instead was a mixed bag. It was admirable that the president agreed to a national gender summit on August 31 to deal with gender violence, discrimination against women and gender disparities. But it will only be meaningful depending on who takes part.

It was equally admirable that he acknowledged the government’s failure in promoting a just and secure society for women.

What he did not do was to tell us how there would be redress. Equally worrying was that he did not talk about the request not to appoint to Cabinet or a state institution individuals who have been implicated or minimised gender violence.

In the wake of the behaviour of the previous president, Jacob Zuma, and former deputy education minister Mduduzi Manana, I failed to understand why Ramaphosa did not commit to this particular request, particularly given how many qualified women and men of integrity there are willing to serve our country.

But perhaps the most cringe-worthy moment was when he and the minister of women in the presidency, Bathabile Dlamini, launched a gender violence robot.

For those who missed it, the robot has the green, amber and red colours of a traffic light. Under green, the subtitle is “No Violence: Healthy Relationship”, and lists the sort of behaviour a person in a healthy relationship gets from their partner.

It gets shaky with amber. Purportedly a message for victims of violence, the subtitle reads “React! Let No One Destroy You.”

For when someone destroys you then, assuming you are the victim of gender violence, you are in effect being asked why you didn’t get out after having been told to react and not allow anyone to “destroy you”.

In code red the subtitle is “You Need Professional Help!” In this section, topics such as forced sexual relations (which oddly is put as a separate point from rape) and murder are outlined. It’s not clear whether the person who needs professional help is the abuser or the abused.

I am not sure who gave the president and the minister the idea for this robot but I really wish they had thought this through before doing so.

As part of his speech, the president asked for a minute of silence for those who have been victims of femicide or rape. If the robot is the best the government could give women on Women’s Day then I am afraid the president will be asking for many more minutes of silence and have many fewer voters next year.

Hopefully those who are part of the gender summit at the end of the month will set the government straight so that they can come up with some concrete ways to address gender violence.

Why can’t they be more like Sophia de Bruyn and just get it, vele?