‘The pain that our women are feeling is an immediate pain — it cannot be postponed.” So said President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday morning, addressing protesters outside Parliament. We couldn’t agree more (the paternalism of that sneaky “our” aside).
Yet, truly acknowledging that pain — staring at it long and hard, and confronting some unpalatable truths about our broken society — is an action we’ve postponed for far too long already. And this is before we even talk about taking any practical steps to address the plague of violence against women.
Until Ramaphosa’s impromptu speech to the protesters — significantly, he cut short a World Economic Forum meeting to deliver it — he, himself, appeared to have postponed addressing the situation, unable to recognise either the magnitude of the problem or the national mood.
Since last weekend, South Africans have been crying out for leadership, longing for an official, authoritative condemnation of the scourges of gender-based violence and xenophobia, not to mention a practical action plan to back up such words.
But that doesn’t mean we’re looking to Ramaphosa, or even the government as a whole, to magic away all the ills of our society.
We can’t expect the state to fix everything, not least because doing so would be dismissing our own agency, which is a powerful force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by the numerous marches that have taken place and informal support networks that have sprung up in the past week.
But what we can expect — what we, in fact, demand — is that the government sets the tone. It is the place of all of our leaders, Ramaphosa in particular, to speak out against the pandemic of violence against women; to ensure that every single politician, civil servant and state employee — from government ministers to post office workers — understands that violence against women will not be tolerated, and to reinforce this in their daily practice; and to use the not-inconsiderable resources at the state’s disposal to bring an end to the war on women.
So, back to leadership. “Where is Cyril?” has been the question on everyone’s lips — and in their tweets — ever since last weekend. It took Ramaphosa until Tuesday afternoon to respond — finally — when he said that “the assaults, rapes and murders of South African women are a stain on our national conscience” and referenced the work of the summit against gender-based violence and femicide that took place in November last year.
But what of that summit? That it took place at all was because of pressure applied by the #TotalShutdown movement, including a march to the Union Buildings, in August last year.
The declaration that was made, and signed by survivors, civil-society representatives and the president himself, contains some fine ideas. Such documents always do.
But what of their implementation? An interim gender-based violence and femicide committee was formed in January. The first draft of the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan was released for public comment in August.
This was nine whole months after the initial summit, which in its declaration included a pledge by the president to commit to respond “with the urgency required”.
That was the significance of Ramaphosa’s speaking to the protesters on Thursday morning — at long last, he is recognising the need for urgency; acknowledging that dealing with such a pressing issue can no longer be postponed. This is the first step of the statesmanship we require (the prospect of Ramaphosa lending his newfound voice to other issues is a welcome one, but that is for another day).
For the first time, our president has outlined some concrete measures that the government will implement to turn the tide in the war against women.
“Men who violate women, who rape women and who kill women must stay in jail for life,” he said, adding that neither bail nor parole should be granted to men who have committed such crimes.
This is a positive step, although it must be noted that broader societal norms also need to be challenged and changed.
This week has felt like a defining one for post-apartheid South Africa. But let us remember that we have experienced this national mood before, only for the outrage and the will to effect change to fizzle out, leaving women’s trauma to fester in silence.
That it feels as if things could be different this time is, at least in part, because we now feel as if people at the very top are paying attention.
Mr President, please don’t keep us waiting too long to hear from you again — the success of your plans will be in whether they are implemented with the mandated urgency. The time for postponing is over.