It was a powerful moment. Gender activists held up underwear as President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the keynote address at the Presidential Summit on Gender Based Violence and Femicide in Centurion on Thursday.
The underwear was meant to signify the many women who had been victims of rape and abuse at the hands of violent and abusive perpetrators throughout the country.
Ramaphosa, who had spent the morning listening to harrowing and shocking testimony delivered by women from various walks of life about their personal accounts of abuse and rape, said that he was ashamed and “deeply hurt” by what he had heard.
“It is a moment that has filled me with sadness and shame as a man in South Africa,” he said.
Ramaphosa was temporarily distracted from delivering his speech as the protestors stood up holding underwear and posters with phrases such as “Stop femicide”, “#MeToo” and “Dros survivor” on them.
Acknowledging the need to address social norms surrounding how boys and girls were raised and treated in society, Ramaphosa said that there needed to be change.
“We must raise boys and girls with the knowledge and understanding that no person has the right to treat them as inferior or to harm them in any way, and that boys and girls are equal in all respects, he said.
Ramaphosa also addressed the stigma of victim blaming, and how society often tried to blame women who were silent or appeared not to speak up.
“We find similar or worse victim blaming in statements such as ‘Why does she stay with him if he beats her?’ or ‘Why did she wear a miniskirt to the taxi rank?’ or ‘How drunk was she?’”
Ahead of the president’s address, calls to have Martha Marumo released after being sentenced to life imprisonment in 2005 for killing her husband in self-defence echoed throughout the room.
“Release Martha!” was chanted, as the president made his way to the stage.
Moments before this Marumo and other women had shared their stories of pain and disappointment after being failed by the justice system and authorities.
Avela Faye, whose pregnant mother was brutally killed, gangraped and mutilated at the hands of her adopted brother and his friends, said that the justice system had failed her family because the case went cold.
“When they were done, they slit her throat, and they disposed of some of her body parts. But the main ones – being her head, hands and heart – were sold for rituals. I haven’t buried my mother. My mother’s killer roams free in the streets of South Africa and the case went cold,” she said emotionally.
The room was filled with emotion as a blanket of empathy filled the air. Many of those present wiped away tears as Faye relayed her tragic story to them.
Sarah Masimene and her child were stabbed by her boyfriend. She was left paralysed. She shared her painful and often frustrating visits to the department of justice’s offices, where she was told not to speak up as they would not do anything to help her.
“Mr President, we are dying. I am here, I cannot even move,” she said boldly.
“I cannot even hug my children, but today there is no way that I see justice in this. The offender has been sentence to 20 years, 10 years for two attempted murders.
"Minister [Michael] Masutha [the justice minister, who was present], I went to your office several times, crying and pleading, but I was told that you commanded them that we as the victims must not say anything and I submitted my documents, and the chairperson told me that there is nothing that is going to be done,” she said.
She said that victims were being ill-treated by the justice system.
Various high-profile ANC members attended the event, including Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete and Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini.
The conference, which was a result of the Total Shut Down campaign, heard those present call on the president and government to implement harsher laws against perpetrators, and for the recognition of members of the LGBTQI community to be taken more seriously.
The Total Shutdown movement took place on August 1, when a series of marches took place across the country to raise awareness of the scourge of violence against women and children.
The movement has given a list of 24 demands to the president, including the development of a national action plan on gender-based violence and the consistent sentencing and enforcement of existing laws – in particular the minimum sentencing legislation in sexual and domestic violence cases.
The summit continues on Friday.