Protesters outside Parliament demand action on femicide, not just words

UCT students mourn the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana on Tuesday. (Gallo/Sowetan/Esa Alexander)

UCT students mourn the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana on Tuesday. (Gallo/Sowetan/Esa Alexander)

Ongoing protests against femicide and gender-based violence have forced President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to relook laws on how convicted abusers, rapists, and murderers should be punished.

Earlier this week, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said the matter of reinstating the death penalty would be discussed in cabinet if the it was brought up in public discourse.

This is unlikely to be a lingering conversation at cabinet-level as the Constitutional Court has already ruled that capital punishment is cruel and violates South Africa’s Bill of Rights.

But South African women, particularly young women, say not enough is being done to keep half the population safe from the hands of men.

Outside Parliament, in Cape Town, where hundreds of protesters gathered to demand action against gender-based violence, the call for harsher punishments for perpetrators and more action from the government reached a crescendo.

This comes after a week of protest, pickets, and social media campaigns following the arrest of a 42-year-old man for the rape and murder of University of Cape Town (UCT) first-year student Uyinene Mrwetyana.

Mbalenhle Hlungwane, a learner at a high school in Cape Town, told the Mail & Guardian that she attended Wednesday’s picket because she doesn’t believe police and government are doing enough to keep her and other women safe.

“We are being killed day in and day out. And what do they do? They keep quiet.
We’ve been waiting so long for the government to respond.”

“I never thought walking from the bus stop to school could be so dangerous until I heard what happened to Uyinene. She was doing an everyday thing, like going to the post office. So now I have to look three times behind my shoulder. I have to make sure my skirt is tugged lower down my legs so that no man can perv on me.”

At the picket outside the gates of Parliament, the crowd of mostly women heckled politicians who attempted to address them.

Police Minister Bheki Cele tried to convey his sympathy for the death of Mwretyana, saying his daughter is also a student at UCT. “I’m sure my daughter is here [in the crowd] today. And yesterday she told me [about Uyinene].”

“We need to work on how we prevent young women from being abused and murdered in our houses and at school. This is what we are saying, and we want to work with you,” Cele told the booing crowd.

From the crowd, women shouted; “We don’t want stories, we want action.”

It wasn’t long before Cele was forced to give up the microphone.

National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise told the crowd that government leaders are taking note of the calls for action. She said that there are also new laws in the pipeline for harsher prison sentences for criminals.

“As Parliament, we are going to stand and move and work as women to make sure that that tiny voice is heard and protected … We have two acts we are amending. One of them is to ensure that the minimum sentence is a life sentence,” she said.

University student Zinhle Gluk told M&G that she is tired of political platitudes. And that government assurances and promises have so far been empty.

“The minister didn’t fully address what we came here for. We want solutions and a way forward. This is just like the normal speeches that they make. He’s not giving practical steps, like the death penalty, harsher sentence,’ Gluk said.

President Ramaphosa in the meantime said his government is looking at legal reform to ensure justice for victims of gender-based violence.

Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Africa meeting, he said women are justified in their anger.

“As a government, we are doing everything we can, through our agencies and the criminal justice system to make sure that those who are accused of perpetrating this violence against women are brought to book and are dealt with in the most severe manner,” he said. 

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