Activist urges men to dip into well of compassion

2011-08-13 10:21

Mbuyiselo Botha has never known his father. Although his mother gave him and his siblings warmth and love, he couldn’t help but feel empty inside because he didn’t have a father.

The feeling gnawed at him intensely one day as he lay in hospital fighting for his life after he was shot by the police.

The year was 1986, and the streets of Sharpeville – like most streets in South African townships at the time – were burning, with police launching violent attacks on youths revolting against apartheid.

In one running battle, Botha was hit by a bullet in the forehead. While in hospital he had only one wish.

“The one thing I missed while I was in hospital was a father’s voice to affirm me,” says Botha, a distant look in his eyes.

“Every day my mother would visit and break down. That also made me cry and wish my father was by my side.

“I don’t know my father. I come from a dysfunctional, poor family. But a strong woman, my mother, raised seven of us.”
Botha, a father of two men aged 33 and 21, is the founder of the South African Men’s Forum and a director at the Sonke Gender Justice Network, a Braamfontein-based non-governmental organisation that trains community groups advocating gender equality and justice.

He has worked for the International Red Cross and was involved in the civic movement in Sharpeville, his hometown.

Botha also hosts a weekly radio programme on Kaya FM in which he discusses gender equality.

Last year, he made headlines when he took ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema to court for sexist comments he made against the woman who had pressed rape charges against President Jacob Zuma.

Recently, the South Gauteng High Court ordered Malema to retract his statements and pay a fine of R50 000.

Botha has publicly spoken out against the abuse of lobolo, the unavailability of female condoms, and men’s reluctance to test for HIV.

On Thursday, Sonke will launch MenCare, a campaign aimed at promoting increased involvement in maternal and children’s health by men in the age of HIV/Aids.

Botha says the campaign, which is endorsed by the United Nations and also occurs in Europe, “aims to ensure that men take on their fair share of the costs, time and care work required in daily family life”.

These include “participating to a greater extent in maternal health and in childbirth, and at the same time fully experiencing the benefits of having close, non-violent and caring relationships with others”.

A recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations – titled First steps to healing the South African family – has revealed that only a third of children grow up living with both parents, and nearly one million children have lost both parents, many to Aids.

According to the report, about 8% of children live in households headed by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and 48% of children grow up with absent fathers.

The report also indicates that the proportion of absent fathers increased between 1996 and 2009, from 42% to 48%.
“We’re trying to say to South African men that we can change the paradigm of thinking,” Botha says.

It’s been 30 years since HIV was discovered, he said, but the rate of HIV infections is not decreasing.
“The numbers are not going down because the people who spread HIV as a result of culture and inequality are mainly men,” Botha says.

“We refuse to wear condoms. The whole world will not succeed in stopping HIV by not actively involving men.

“But we’ll not succeed by blaming men. We need to engage men and try to make them part of the solution.”
Botha says the MenCare campaign aims to tackle one of the core and enduring aspects of gender inequality, “the unequal worklife divide – the fact that men are generally expected to be providers and breadwinners (working mostly outside the home) and that women and girls are generally expected to provide care or be chiefly responsible for reproductive aspects of family life”.

“We (men) are considered ATMs (automated teller machines) all over the world, that we are uninvolved, detached,” Botha says.

“We’re just there to provide money and we’re always taught as men that the only set of emotions we should display are anger or violence.

“But we’re saying you can still be a real man while remaining compassionate and loving.

“It’s women who remain oppressed, raped and killed by men, and that’s what we’re trying to change.”

The campaign will be implemented through “community dialogues” in which trained activists will engage men on issues of sexuality, gender and culture.

Some of the projects include working with rural communities in Limpopo and North West, where he engages traditional leaders with a view to making them become a part of the solution in breaking down gender stereotypes.

In his interaction with juvenile offenders, Botha says he often finds the common factor to be absent fathers.

He says: “A young man in my township (Sebokeng) was saying to me recently, ‘You know, I like these campaigns you’re involved in. But you don’t have a car. You’re poor and I don’t think I want to be like you! Money is the important thing here.’

“Now this is the problem: our young people will find role-models in people who drive flashy cars and wear expensive clothes.

“They even want to follow the route through which these people acquired their wealth, which is not always the legal route.”

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