/ 29 September 2022

Why civil society has agreed to attend another presidential summit on gender-based violence

#TheTotalShutDown movement delivered 24 demands to the president on August 1 following several countrywide marches.
#TheTotalShutDown movement delivered 24 demands to the president on August 1 following several countrywide marches.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for another presidential summit on gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF). The previous presidential summit on GBVF was held in November 2018. That summit was in response to demand number one of the 24 demands that were developed by the #Totalshutdown movement, which took to the streets in August 2018, threatening to shut South Africa down if the government continued to fail to take GBVF seriously. 

There has been no demand for this summit. It comes at a time when there is mounting criticism against summits and commissions that have been convened by the president. Why another summit? And, why is civil society participating?  A considered response to the latter question is not only deserved, but required. 

The presidency stated four objectives for the summit: to demonstrate the government’s high-level commitment and accountability to the national response, to accelerate key actions and accountability by government departments and other stakeholders, to share progress, and, lastly, to provide a space for wider collaboration.

Publicly available evidence indicates that the government has not reasonably demonstrated high-level commitment and accountability. As co-implementers of the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (NSP GBVF), civil society knows what should have been done, which has not happened. Civil society is well-placed to refute this objective and decisively state that a glowing report is not even a remote possibility. We all know this. There are well-documented barriers to implementation that exist because of the government’s failure to coordinate, account for and lead the response. It’s inconceivable that the presidency has improved public relations as a desired outcome of this costly exercise. 

Civil society is not immune to the existing summit fatigue and condemnation of the related wasteful expenditure that has characterised these kinds of convenings. Many civil society actors were initially, understandably, uninterested in the idea of the summit. There is however emerging consensus that if the government sees it fit that it needs to account for what has happened, or not, at the very least, civil society should be present to set the agenda on consequence management and provide alternative solutions if we are to live free from violence. There is an underlying sense of responsibility that civil society cannot be absent or abandon a process that is largely framed as a space to jump-start the implementation of the NSP GBVF. 

Adopted in April 2020, the NSP GBVF is a 10-year roadmap that parties working to respond to GBVF have committed themselves to. It has a five- and ten-year monitoring and evaluation framework. At only two-and-a-half years since its adoption, an evaluation seems premature. 

The first pillar focuses on accountability, coordination and leadership to the response. According to the NSP GBVF, we’ll know that its objectives have been achieved when we have “bold leadership, strengthened accountability across government and society that responds to GBVF strategically with clear messaging and adequate technical and financial resources”. We’ll also see “strengthened multi-sectoral coordination and collaboration across different tiers of government and sections of society based on relationships of trust that give effect to the pillars of the NSP”. 

The NSP GBVF is not the first plan to have been adopted by the government in its response to gender-based violence. What they all have in common is that they failed due to lacklustre implementation. Except for a few additions, most of the pillars proposed are similar to the old plans. Civil society and government have known for a while what works to end GBVF and have committed to it on paper.  Pillar One is one of the new pillars. It was included to ensure that this NSP GBVF does not collapse like its predecessors because of fragmentation, unclear lines of accountability, passing the buck, and a lack of commitment at the highest level. 

In guiding the development of this NSP GBVF, the 24 demands of the #Totalshutdown sought a review of past national action plans to evaluate why they failed. It demanded that the review must identify individual and institutional causes of the failures and make recommendations. Upon the completion of the review process, there was a further demand for the development of a national action plan. 

The 24 demands are specific about the kind of leadership that is required for the national action plan to be successfully implemented. The demands included the development of a set of criteria for people who are going to lead the response. 

The demands are intentional about being led by people who have a deeper understanding of the causes and consequences of GBVF and knowledge of appropriate response mechanisms. The demands did not leave anything to chance. All the pillars are important, but this is considered to be the most important of all the pillars, because if we don’t have the right leadership, the plan will fail. 

Sadly, even with these safeguards in place, it is increasingly beginning to look like the NSP GBVF is going to go the way of past plans that were frustrated by poor leadership. 

The NSP GBVF establishes an institutional framework to lead the implementation of ending, or at least reducing, GBVF. There is an entire chapter that is dedicated to this effort. At the top of the ladder sits the president as the political champion of the response. When the champion is the president, the championing has to include exercising the powers that the president enjoys under section 85 of the Constitution. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has the power to coordinate the functions of state departments and administrations. He has the power to prepare and initiate legislation. Section 91 gives him the power to hire and fire his cabinet. The president can lead the response effectively. 

Cabinet ministers take turns to make mind-boggling public utterances on GBVF. These include “educated men don’t rape”, “[a victim is] lucky to be raped by one man” and reference to a murder victim as a “beautiful girl, a yellow bone”.  

The current pool where cabinet ministers — who are women are selected from the ANC Women’s League — issued a reminder that doubled as confirmation during the organisation’s  policy conference in July that it remains lost on what it takes to combat GBVF.  It placed the castration of rapists as a policy issue that it would like to take forward. 

It is not lost to us that as we plan this summit, we have a cabinet minister, Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana, who is accused of sexual assault of a masseuse at Kruger National Park. There has been silence on this incident from the leadership that is responsible for the GBVF response.  

The NSP GBVF mandated the department of justice to develop legislation that will establish a council on GBVF. The council is the custodian of the NSP GBVF and it is responsible for its implementation. The legislation does not exist, even though a draft that was open to comment was circulated about a year ago. How this work was left with the department of women, youth and people with disabilities (DWYPD) instead of the government remains a mystery. 

The NSP GBVF also established an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) tasked to play a key facilitation role, act as political liaison and provide financial support for the council. To date, the functioning of the IMC is still shrouded in mystery. Civil society has called for a robust communications strategy to enable those who are waiting for change to happen to be informed of the developments. 

We have received nothing. We have not seen the agenda, minutes and any confirmation that the IMC exists and convenes, however infrequent that may be. Civil society only became aware of its existence and its “ability” to make decisions in June 2020 when the DWYPD placed an advertisement in a national newspaper inviting people to apply to be trustees, because there was a process to establish a trust for GBVF, instead of the NSP-mandated GBVF council. 

This decision was attributed to the IMC. The reason for the deviation was that it takes a lot of time to pass legislation. This was said at a time when we were witnessing the government’s capacity to pass laws at unprecedented speed, namely Covid-19 legislation and regulations.  We have a measure of what high-level commitment looks like. 

For the past five months, the department has been saying that the legislation has been given to the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). Last week, Nedlac responded that the labour market chamber adopted the report, which will be sent to parliament before year-end. How and why did this process get there? 

After the first presidential summit, an interim steering committee that comprised  the government, civil society, business and development funders was established. It was disbanded when the NSP GBVF was adopted in April 2020. Without the legislation and the council, the interim caretaker of the NSP GBVF is the DWYPD. In June 2020, the DWYPD became the face and the chief architect of the abandoned trust for GBVF. It had to bear the brunt of demands from civil society organisations (CSOs) while the IMC remained invisible. 

Civil society pushed back against the establishment of that trust and the process was unceremoniously abandoned. Subsequent attempts to get CSOs involved in fixing the mess only served to increase the trust deficit. The relationship between the department of justice (which was mandated by the NSP) and DWYPD (the de facto caretaker of the process) when it comes to the development of the legislation is unclear, as was the decision to send it on to Nedlac. 

No legislation to establish the council means that there is no council in place. Without an implementing structure that is permanently tasked to lead the response, the NSP GBVF cannot be implemented.  The council is not surplus to requirement; it is the heart of the response. The council has to provide strategic and political guidance. 

Some of its functions include setting the national agenda, facilitating programming and resourcing, setting priorities, facilitating strategic partnerships, increasing accountability and strengthening coordination. The organogram of the structure of the council includes the replication of similar but smaller structures at provincial and municipal levels. These structures will also be located at the highest level, the premiers’ and mayors’ offices. The NSP GBVF has not been institutionalised. 

When it became clear that the formulation of the council was not going to happen, a formation known as the End-GBV collective emerged. This is conceptualised as a space for collaborative work between civil society, development partners and government. It is organised according to the pillars of the NSP GBVF. People make time to meet, find solutions, showcase innovations and provide updates on ongoing projects that serve to strengthen the pillar work. 

It has had varying degrees of success. Some groups are developing relationships of trust. In some pillars, the work remains ad hoc because it depends on who shows up. Some government representatives are able to respond with useful information and others are so far down in the decision-making process that they are not able to do much to move the work on. In many ways, the focused and collaborative platform has starved the government of its favourite excuse — that we have a dysfunctional civil society that is always bickering instead of working. 

The demand for a budgeted and funded NSP GBVF could not be louder.  The government’s duty is to fund the NSP GBVF. A national GBVF fund must be established with resources from the national treasury, development partners and the private sector. Similar to the approach adopted by the DWYPD, instead of establishing the fund that was mandated by the NSP GBVF, the president moved to establish the private sector-led GBVF response fund in 2021. 

This was marketed as an interim measure to ensure that funds are made available to support civil society while the legislation and council were developed. Corporates lined up on live television to make pledges to fund the NSP GBVF. But the draft legislation to establish the council that was circulated towards the end of 2021 made no mention of a national GBVF fund. When and how the GBV fund will be established remains unclear. 

We need government departments to ring-fence NSP GBVF funding so that the spending can be monitored. This does not exist as yet. The “disappearing” R1.6-billion makes the case for the importance of this clarity. In September 2019, about six months before the finalisation of the NSP GBVF, Ramaphosa announced additional funding that would be used in the response against GBVF. 

This money was intended to fund the emergency response plan (ERAP) that was to be implemented within six months from October 2019 to March 2020. ERAP has submitted a report that details how the funds were used. To some, the audit trail is not so clear. But there are civil society organisations that confirmed receipt of funds via the NDA as part of the ERAP’s response.  

Reports that were published by the Commission for Gender Equality and Wise4Afrika are critical of the implementation of efforts, but there is no assertion that the funds ever existed. Where did the funding come from? Did the treasury allocate money for the R1.6-billion plan, ERAP, or did various departments repurpose existing budget line items? 

Contributions by the private sector and development partners to GBVF remain a trickle compared to what is possible if the government were to be deliberate about investing to end GBVF. Some government circles hold the view that the private sector and development partners should fund CSOs, thereby allowing the government to reserve its funding to provide government services. Civil society has always been clear about the need for a fund that the government contributes to. Although civil society performs better in certain areas, it does not have the scale and reach that the government has. 

The section on government responsibility is well-detailed in the NSP GBVF. It requires the government to align its strategic plans and programmes with the outcomes of the NSP, and it mandates the government to allocate a budget for respective pillars and ensure the allocation of funding and resources at national, provincial and local levels, among other things. 

If this work has been done, surely making it available should not be a challenge. If the president knows about these things, then the chronic underreporting by various government departments is tantamount to insubordination. What has Ramaphosa done?

What has emerged under this pillar is a pattern of purposefully doing the wrong things with increasing levels of impunity. The NSP GBVF explicitly stated that there must be a council, but they tried to set up a trust instead and asked the private sector to establish a fund. The End-GBVF collective is held together by a team of committed volunteers. The NSP mandates the establishment of multi-sectoral national-level task teams to support and monitor the implementation of the NSP, but this has not happened. The desire to create “lite” versions of institutions and systems by people who agreed on the necessity and importance of the real version is disturbing. Is it because there is no appreciation of why the essential components needed to be there, a failure to understand why certain things are important, or is it because they simply don’t care? 

Civil society has never been shy to haul the government to court and hold it accountable. The bulk of the GBV cases have led to legal and policy change, individual remedies for the parties before the court and the development of progressive feminist jurisprudence, but the desired social change has remained elusive. Should there be cases to be litigated, that work is still going to happen because victims of rights violations are entitled to recourse.  

There is, however, a growing realisation among civil society actors that by limiting the accountability to what happens in courtrooms, there is an unintended limitation placed on people who can be part of the conversation of what it means for the government to act sensibly. Globally, there is growing evidence of the power of social movements and non-traditional accountability spaces to bring about social change. We need more people to be part of the conversation, popularise the NSP, speak and work in pillars, and collaborate effectively.  

This summit is a welcome development, albeit an expensive one, which indicates that the government does not see itself as only accountable to the courts through court orders. Seeking to create a space that calls on civil society to hold it to account is an idea that we can support if that is what the summit is intended for. 

There is an expectation of hard and very specific conversations. The accountability questions and issues under each pillar are known by the government, and civil society continues to elaborate on those questions.  The element of surprise has been eliminated. Under this pillar, civil society wants the legislation, funding, council, a functional inter-ministerial committee and all other elements that will provide a solid foundation for the implementation of the NSP GBVF to be transparent. 

We had demands. We had a declaration. We have a plan. We don’t want reports. We don’t want new frameworks. We don’t want speeches. We want answers, mitigation strategies and heads to roll. Nothing short of this will be satisfactory. We believe that we have wasted two-and-a-half years on the NSP GBVF, but the situation is not beyond saving. 

We can regroup, reset and still contribute towards the overall objectives of the plan. There has been work done by the current administration in publicly raising the issue of gender-based violence and femicide. There was the 2018 summit, and  the 2019 joint sitting on GBVF and ERAP, and the establishment of an interim private sector-led fund. This provides hope that there is some willingness to change the situation, even though the ability to act often fails to align with the stated intentions. 

Civil society has agreed to participate in the planning committee and the various working groups to make the summit happen. Most of us questioned the idea of this summit and its intentions. Despite misgivings, we have now agreed to support and contribute to the process as we are currently doing. 

We do so while we continue to bear witness to the various tactics that parliament employs to ensure that the executive is not held accountable. The president who refused to answer questions in parliament about what happened at his home, is the same president who has called the summit.  Civil society will not be happy in November if Ramaphosa and his cabinet want to display this same form of “accountability” that he displayed in parliament. 

We never asked for this summit; we were invited. We are committed to ensuring that it achieves its stated ambitions of holding duty-bearers to account. It is our sincere hope that we will convene a summit where accountability will be possible. 

In the event that we have been set up and these are not the real objectives of the summit, our role will be to use the summit to decisively confirm that the government is presiding over the countless gender-based assaults, rapes and murders. Should we fail to get the answers that we deserve, we will proceed to seek accountability in other fora. 

This is the first in a series of six articles that are organised according to the six pillars of the NSP GBVF to highlight key accountability questions. These articles have been developed to highlight key concerns as we prepare for the second presidential summit on GBVF. The six pillars of the NSP GBVF are:

1. Accountability, coordination and leadership

2. Prevention and rebuilding social cohesion

3. Protection, safety and justice

4. Response, care, support and healing 

5. Economic power

6. Research and information systems

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.