Melanie Verwoerd

How 4 silent women became the voice of this election

2016-08-08 11:37

WATCH: #RememberKhwezi protesters violently removed

2016-08-06 20:31

A group of women protesters have been removed from the IEC results centre after holding up placards in front of President Jacob Zuma referencing his rape charge from 2006.WATCH

Melanie Verwoerd

During a student-led pro-democracy protest in Beijing in 1989, a solitary young man walked to the middle of a road on the edge of Tiananmen Square and stood facing four tanks that were making their way towards the protesters. He stood his ground in front of the first tank, moving his position each time the tank tried to manoeuvre around him. A CNN camera crew filmed this and beamed it across the world. Decades later, that unnamed young man's image still stands as a symbol of courage and bravery in the face of power and oppression.

On Saturday night four young women did something similar in Pretoria. As President Jacob Zuma stepped onto the stage at the Independent Electoral Commission's main counting centre to address the nation after the local government elections, these four young women stood up and, with the whole nation watching, held up hand-written placards reading: "Remember Khwezi". . . "I am one in three" . . . "Kanga" . . . and "10 years later.”  

They stood quietly for the duration of the speech, while the press and photographers and those watching the broadcast, lost all interest in what the president had to say.

For an instant it was not clear what the young women were protesting about. But within seconds Twitter lit up as people realised that the placards carried references to the rape case against Zuma 10 years ago, involving a young woman whom the court named "Khwezi" to protect her identity.

The nation held its breath. This was a remarkable act of courage. The young women were protesting against a president who does not take kindly to criticism, and whose extensive circle of bodyguards are known for their aggressive action towards those who show any form of disrespect. Yet these women quietly stood their ground. 

Caught unawares

I immediately thought of the women of the Black Sash who, for so many years during the apartheid era, stood silently with placards, embarrassing the National Party government at every possible public opportunity. It was also poignantly obvious that these four young women were following in the footsteps of the women who marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria in 1956 to protest against the imminent introduction of passbooks for African women – the women we are celebrating this week. But, unlike the Black Sash women, these four were not protected by their status and race in society. Nor did they have the protection in numbers as those who led the march to the Union Building did. They must have known that, like the Tiananmen Square tank man, the repercussions could be severe.

Thankfully, everyone was clearly caught unawares and it was only after the president finished his speech that the protesters were roughly removed by the bodyguards.

(At this point one has to ask why the ANC doesn't learn when it comes to basic public relations? The story was already written, the damage from an ANC perspective already done. If the bodyguards had left the women alone, they would have had to leave of their own accord. Instead, by removing them forcibly,  they provided the press with a second story.)

Then came the ANC’s reaction. ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa was nowhere to be seen, so it was left to ANC Women's League President, Bathabile Dlamini, to comment. Now, as we all know, the delicate art of spinning is not her strong point. Naturally and correctly, she stated that this protest showed no respect for the President. Which was, of course, the point. It is totally inconceivable that something like this would have happened with Nelson Mandela, or Thabo Mbeki, or Kgalema Motlanthe. Not only were they widely respected, but they would never have compromised themselves to the extent that such a protest would have made any sense.

Pandemic of gender-based violence and rape

Shockingly, Dlamini also accused the IEC of being involved in something that was "highly choreographed".  Then, using feminist language, she suggested that these were "reactionaries supported by clandestine forces...who pay them to embarrass the ruling party". She went so far as to say that these young women, who are believed to have links with the EFF, were used to advance and fight the battles of patriarchy.

So there we have the supposed guardian of the rights of women, saying by implication that these women could not have done this out of conviction, or of their own accord. They must have been paid for by men, who used them for their own battles. Apart from the blatant, patriarchal sexism behind these statements, I am sure I am not the only one to find this highly ironic, coming from an organisation which has been a passionate defender of the president with each new scandal, and who has been deathly silent on the whole Marius Fransman debacle.

Of course, Dlamini correctly stated that the president was found not guilty during the rape case against him. But clearly the protestors were not only talking about the specifics of that case. They were raising the issue of the pandemic of gender-based violence and rape that terrorises the women of this country. And, yes, they were criticising a president whose actions and utterances when it comes to women have been highly problematic, and who, a week before, laughingly embraced sexual harassment accused Marius Fransman and took him along on his day of campaigning in Cape Town.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Friday that, in the light of the election results, the ANC would go out and ask people why they didn't vote for the ANC. I would like to suggest that one of the main reasons was there on the placards a few feet away from him on Saturday night. And if, like Dlamini, he also believes that the women were paid or used, he should have a look at what people on Twitter have been saying.

'We salute you'

And if that is still not enough, surely all the polls placing the president at the bottom of South Africa's political popularity lists, the numerous ANC veterans who have pleaded with the president to resign, and, of course, all the votes that went away from the ANC should make it clear: the ANC has a huge liability in its current leader.

After all the blustering, spinning and analyses during this very male-dominated election campaign, it was the quiet actions of those four women that spoke the loudest.

And so, on behalf of millions of South Africans, I would like to say to those four protestors: "We salute you for your courage and bravery, as we salute those brave women who came before you and fought for our rights as women to be treated with dignity and equality."

Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' imbokodo!

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

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Read more on:    anc  |  ancwl  |  bathabile dlamini  |  jacob zuma

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