/ 4 October 2019

Behind SA’s brutality

Enough: Women at a protest against gender-based violence at the JSE last month. Xenophobic sentiment and gender violence have become cemented in social consciousness
Enough: Women at a protest against gender-based violence at the JSE last month. Xenophobic sentiment and gender violence have become cemented in social consciousness, say the authors. (Guillem Sartorio/ AFP)




Contemporary South African society has been constructed on the idea of difference. Race and gender differences are intrinsically tied to our history of slavery, colonialism and apartheid. During apartheid, these differences were cast into national laws designed to maintain a structure of division and control.

Differences between South Africans and other Africans are rooted in this history and institutionalised and naturalised through borders, policies and laws. Gender and sexual differences are cemented in and regulated by customary, legal and religious principles that determine who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. Access to citizenship and political rights is thus volatile and leads to various forms of racial, xenophobic and gender violence.

It would seem that xenophobic sentiment and gender violence have become deep-rooted and cemented in social consciousness. How do we explain the recent assault of a grade 10 learner from the Democratic Republic of the Congo at Salt River High School who collapsed from beatings and suffered multiple injuries to her abdomen? She had been receiving threats for months after she was appointed as a class monitor, and her mother had been concerned for her safety after her daughter repeatedly reported bullying incidents associated with her being from another country. Yet, accounts of the events tell different stories. The Western Cape education department says there is no clear evidence that it was a xenophobic attack.

Similarly, the government’s and civil society’s responses to the latest xenophobic attacks have neither been decisive nor conclusive. Government was quick to frame the events as criminal attacks. On international platforms and in communications to embassies, delegates affirmed that South Africa is not a xenophobic country, and that the majority of South Africans do not have prejudices against people from other African countries.

On the other hand, some civil society groups pointed to the particular socioeconomic conditions that characterise black people’s lives in South Africa, showing a picture coloured by poverty in a country with one of the highest inequality rates in the world.

The contradictory relationship of solidarity in some instances and hostility at other times between poor and working-class locals and migrants points to the limitation of the poverty hypothesis.

It is estimated that one in five womxn experience violence in their lifetime and one in nine have been raped. Last year, more than 20 300 womxn were murdered, a rate that is five times higher than the global average. Womxn and children are violated and killed in their homes, in offices, churches, schools and on the streets. This is against a backdrop of womxn having organised in their neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces, and in local and national structures to prevent gender violence — and the establishment of 92 dedicated sexual offences courts since 2013.

These numbers reflect the local picture of sexual and gender-based violence, which is a global epidemic. Recently, the #TotalShutDown movement, the #SandtonShutdown, and globally the #MeToo movement, among many, have again directed public attention to systemic sexual and gender-based violence. These movements and campaigns have sought to foreground the ubiquity of violence against womxn and children and critique male violence or violent masculinities.

How are we to understand the steady rise of this violence and what interventions might be taken to reverse or mitigate the spread of xenophobic and gendered violence?

Between October 8 and 11, the faculty of humanities at the University of Cape Town will host a series of performances, workshops and panel discussions to explore different strands of the issue and have nuanced, honest dialogue.

A key thread in these conversations will be an interrogation of citizenship and the governance of difference. In spite of attempts to undo the legacy of colonial statecraft, the exclusive model of belonging continues to inform dominant ideas about society. Statehood and sovereignty are conceived of as the governance of an assemblage of historically distinct, often antagonistic male-headed “tribes” and races.

In this formulation, womxn’s roles are confined to biological and cultural reproduction while men are the “real” citizens who are there to protect their nation and “their” womxn.

Accordingly, the control of womxn and their bodies becomes the basis for maintaining sovereignty with laws and policies overly preoccupied with sexual relationships, sexual orientation and constraints on reproductive rights. Indeed, violence against womxn and violence against individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles are commonplace. Those who are seen to challenge historical models of imperial racist heteropatriarchy are considered irresponsible citizens and subject to discipline and punishment.

Violence against womxn and violence against people perceived to be foreign has once again brought questions of inequality and belonging to the fore. Reactions and analysis often decouple the embodied forms of violence from practices and sentiments that undergird, precede and mediate them. The question of who belongs and to whom the polity belongs lingers across post-colonial Africa.

While racialised inequality remains a primary contradiction in South Africa, the national question anchored on citizenship and its accompanying rights have assumed prominence in the public sphere.

Dr Shose Kessi is acting dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Cape Town. Simon Rakei, Dr Asanda Benya and Dr Faisal Garba are in the university’s sociology department