In the notion of the vulnerable in society as mainstreamed in various policy choices against gender-based violence lurks a warped and hideous social construct of infantilisation, writes Mashupye Maserumule.
Women's Day on 9 August should be a day to showcase the generational dividends of the women of 1956’s bravery but is sullied by continued misery, which is gendered.
How can such a beautiful country, for which its foundation as a democracy is supposedly anchored in the virtue of humanity, spew such ugliness and brutality particularly on women and children? This question is glaring in the nation’s angst, especially following the grotesque violation of eight women who had gone to shoot a music video in Krugerdorp’s mining site, west of Johannesburg. They were gang raped.
Women still bear brunt of social justice
This happened as the country welcomes the women’s month of August, during which the ninth day is declared a public holiday, to commemorate the bravery of that cohort of about 20 000 women, who in 1956, took the bull by the horns and confronted the apartheid system over the pass laws. They had marched to what used to be the citadel of apartheid, the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to protest these. Their cause was pulsated in the chant: "You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock / Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokotho".
Scared of this, the arch Afrikaner supremacist JC Strijdom, who as Prime Minister at the time, cowardly avoided the women who had wanted to hand over their petition to him. This demonstrated their fortitude, and their struggle continues as they still bear the brunt of social violence.
The history of their struggle is that of pain. Will the tide ever be turned? The sordid story of eight women raped in Krugersdorp is but part of the ignominious trend, and this has been so for some time now.
In the World Population Review, South Africa is the third on the list of countries with the highest rate of rape, with Botswana and Lesotho respectively leading the pack.
Latest crime statistics, released on 3 June 2022, show that social violence has worsened and the most affected by this are women and children. Sexual offences in the first three months of 2022 stood at 13 799, compared to 13 144 in 2021. This is the increase of 13,7%. Rape has also increased by 13,6 %. It has gone up from 9 518 in 2021 to 10 818 in 2022.
Shocking as they are, these figures may even be more staggering as instances of gender-based violence happen largely in the private spaces where the perpetrators and victims are normally known or related to each other, and often these go unreported.
Where are the smart policy decisions?
Crime statistics are important to quantify the problem. But are we really making smart policy decisions from these crime statistics? If so, why are the numbers related particularly to sexual violence remain high? In other words, shouldn’t their usefulness lie in how they optimise policy practice and strategy? And this is not simply a function of number crunching but the appreciation of the complexity of social phenomena where strategic thinking is key.
As the cliché goes, "numbers don’t lie" but "good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers". Wasn’t Greek philosopher Plato here warning about the danger of theoryless empiricism, especially as it pertains to the attempt to understand social complexity for strategic policy intervention?
Research on gender-based violence shows that at the core of this vile is toxic masculinity - construction of men as socially dominant figures in a society where misogyny and homophobia are the bases of this. This should be key in framing the understanding of crime statistics on gender-based violence to ensure that policy responses and strategies are not only focused on the manifestation of the problem but its causes. This point was made many times and is worthy of reiteration as, almost thirty years into democracy, women and children continue to bear the brunt of gender-based violence. And, because of this, they are referred to as the vulnerable in society.
In other words, those who are exposed to being attacked or harmed, either physically, emotionally, or both. And this shapes the logic of many interventions against this social aberration. However, in various ways, it is used in the language of policy and strategy, the concept of the vulnerable in society to characterise women and children tends to presuppose meekness and sound more like a corollary of masculinity. This should not be.
For masculinity is a social turpitude which should be expunged from social interaction and co-existence, and one way of doing this is to ensure that it doesn’t have any parallel of whatsoever in the psyche of society.
In the notion of the vulnerable in society as mainstreamed in various policy choices against gender-based violence lurks a warped and hideous social construct of infantilisation. And this needs to be debunked.
Women seen as weak
Women and children are not weak, but society endangers their existential being. In other words, if they were, would we have had a day called 9 August in 1956, which has since 1995 been declared a public holiday to mark the valiant of this country’s women to social justice?
In the Sotho idioms there is a saying that mosadi o swara thipa ka bogaleng, loosely translated to mean "a woman holds a knife on its sharp sides or ends". Despite how dangerous or challenging the situation may be, women confront it with the determination to turn it around for the good of society.
The women of 1956 are the epitome of this attribute. They had managed "to create a public voice for themselves" in a political system where patriarchy and misogyny loomed large.
Today, more than half a century later after their historic march to Pretoria, and almost three decades into democracy, these vices continue to be drivers of gender-based violence. And this is where social distemper lies but is often masked by characterising women and children as the vulnerable in society with the undertones of infantilisation. This conflates their being in the receiving end of gender-based violence and peddles stereotypes that they are inherently meek.
As borne out of staggering statistics on femicide and filicide, women and children need the protection of society against this vileness, not as the weak in society but for gender justice.
The policy narratives should be clear that patriarchy and misogyny unleash violence on their existential being, and interventions to counteract this in a sustainable way should focus on what spawns these social deviancies. And this should start by rebuilding society's social fabric and moral edifice, which in many ways appear to have collapsed.
Reimagined education system
In this pursuit, our education system could come in handy, but it should be reimagined to not only focus on developing the cognitive faculties and technical competence of students for the job market but to also focus on their character formation for responsible citizenry.
Education creates an opportunity to recreate society, and efforts should be stepped up to assert its strategic value. Meting out punishment against social crimes is necessary but only deals with symptoms of social distemper rather than its root cause.
- Mashupye Maserumule is professor of public affairs at the Tshwane University of Technology and writes in his personal capacity.
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