Once one has read George Orwell, any numbered room can take on sinister significance. The numbered room in 1984 is, after all, the location of Winston Smith’s worst nightmare. In some senses, any room in post-millennial South Africa can become every woman’s worst nightmare. Sometimes, the record suggests, a room is not even required.
On Thursday, February 8, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his second State of the Nation address (Sona). It was, for the most part, a way for the president to outline the achievements of his government since he took over from Jacob Zuma in that untidy and drawn-out Valentine’s Day not-quite break-up in 2018.
Much can be and has been said about his focus on the change his government’s actions have wrought in the economic sphere. Most of that discussion, by Ramaphosa as well as his supporters and critics, focused on the way in which a different investment climate has been engendered. Improving the employment possibilities and improving the education of people in South Africa featured significantly in the speech.
But, for a country in the horrific throes of femicidal violence, the battering and killing of women received scant attention beyond the mention of the summit on gender-based violence, and the promise to commit some money to what the summit resolved on. For millions of women, that will be cold comfort. It constitutes a bureaucratic response to a lethal challenge in their everyday lives. It’s rather like holding a staff meeting and resolving to use more of the budget to deal with the sniper taking out pupils on the playground of the school.
Think of the number of women who were battered and killed during the time it took to deliver Sona. Think of the number who have suffered the horror since you’ve started reading this. Summits are not enough. Although there is value in such meetings with stakeholders to resolve the problem, much more urgent interventions are required in the immediate moment. And not just by government.
Some of us had travelled to Cape Town for Sona and the many events to the left and right of it. We were put up in hotels and guest houses for the event. Cape Town, a tourist hub, also became the centre of all the activities related to Sona and the Mining Indaba being held in the same week. Power brokers in the public and private sectors had gathered in their numbers and had attracted the usual fellow-travellers: media people, journalists, folks on the make. And some of us got another insight into the quotidian character of femicide.
In Room 80 of a lodge at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, barely seven hours after the president of the Republic of South Africa reminded us of his government’s commitment to combat women abuse, a woman was battered. Her screams at 4am woke several of us. Many of us immediately called the reception desk and asked for the hotel security to intervene, and for the police to be called. The screams continued, with long pauses which were more terrifying.
It took 10 minutes for a lone security guard to appear at the room door. He knocked, and when the man in the room opened the door, politely asked him to keep the noise levels down or the occupants of the room would be checked out, as several guests had complained. Things went quiet after that. The police were not called. No figure of authority — a night manager, perhaps — came to the room to check whether the woman was safe. The security guard did not ask after her. Hours later the reception staff could not confirm whether she was alright, but assumed she was.
This is not only a story of bystander apathy. This is about the failure of this society and its institutions and organisations to intervene when alerted to do so. Within hours of the president of the country telling us how his government was taking femicide seriously, how it was committing more resources to battle the problem, this society’s fundamental failure of the vulnerable majority, women, was once again proven.
The desk staff at the hotel did not call the police, despite being asked to do so; they may have had reasons. The managerial staff at the hotel sent a security guard to ask the guests to pipe down, making no inquiry about the well-being of one of the guests despite having been explicitly informed that an assault was in progress. Four hours after the incident, 12 hours after the president’s reassurances, they could not confirm whether the woman in Room 80 had been harmed or not.
It is time for all of us to respond better. The managers and staff of this hotel need better training in dealing with the assault of guests, especially of women being beaten in their rooms. It should be treated as more than a noise pollution or nuisance problem. It is a matter of life and death: the lives of the women, the battery which so often leads to their deaths revealing the lie of our political and public professions of finding such abuse abhorrent.
This is not about assigning blame, to the president and his government, or to the hotel staff, or to the hundreds of people in that hotel who heard the woman’s screams. This is a plea, yet another one, for us to do more, to go beyond summits and talk-shops, to educate everyone in South Africa how to deal with femicidal violence productively, even at 4am, and especially at 4am. We have heard researchers tell us about the shortcomings of the current system; some of us have heard it for decades now.
This is a crisis. We need urgent intervention. Meetings and commitments of funds are useful, but we need more. We all need to respond differently, and perhaps more creatively. Perhaps cowering behind the door of Room 77 and outsourcing the handling of the violence is no longer good enough. It may be past time to step into the hall with police officers appropriately trained in dealing with perpetrators and survivors of women abuse, along with the establishment’s manager and the other guests. Perhaps then we can begin to stop the femicide in progress behind South Africa’s numerous Room 80 doors.
Because behind the door of Room 80 lies our individual and political shame. We must act.
Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socioeconomic Research Institute