Over the past 25 years, South Africa has made significant strides in elevating women to positions of seniority and leadership. In the recently passed general elections, all major parties had the issue of gender parity, as one of the main tenets of their manifestos. Following the May 2019 general elections, South Africa broke new ground with 46% women in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures and 50% women in cabinet. All the speakers in the national and provincial legislatures are women. However, when one considers the relationship between gender inequalities and violence by men against women, one wonders whether the increase of female representation in positions of authority and influence, will have a bearing on government and parliament’s ability to effectively implement approaches that address gender-based violence.
South Africans need to tread cautiously. A lot of the gender-based violence in South Africa is unfortunately systemic and structural. It is a result of patriarchal forms of upbringing that cancel out women and elevate men to underserved and unjust positions of power over their female counterparts. This is a result of a stubborn patriarchal culture which demands compliance and conformity from all who encounter it and does not admit any difference. We must not forget that women in positions of power can also be complicit in perpetuating gender-based violence.
The problem is prevalent in corporate South Africa, where sexual violence against women remains one of the most hidden forms of abuse of power, with the very few women occupying managerial or senior positions forced into silence about it. Those who have dared speak out, often found themselves isolated and further victimised, with their fellow females turning a blind eye.
The silent crisis is prevalent in South African politics as well, were female victims are quick to be accused of baiting politicians for fame or labelled as political pawns. The sad thing is that it is done by fellow women.
Politicians accused of sexual misconduct allegations have been known to enlist their supporters to defend them against their accusers. They play victim and, in the process, tarnish the fight against gender-based violence by appealing to stereotypes about women. Tragically, structures created to represent the interests of women have been seen to take up the cause on behalf of alleged perpetrators purely to advance factional interests and power plays in their organisations.
The ANC Women’s League, to its eternal shame leapt to the defence of both Mduduzi Manana and Jacob Zuma when the two were accused of violence against women. Their uncritical posture gave succour to criminal conduct and condemned the victims to shame and humiliation, all for the benefit of lousy house politics. And yet, the organisation has the audacity to seek to position itself as the voice of women on issues of women empowerment, emancipation and the deconstruction of patriarchy.
President Ramaphosa’s response to the growing crisis is an encouraging one. However, talking about the crisis is unlikely to change the situation. Platitudes about Government’s commitment to fighting gender based violence will do very little. Elevating more women into positions of power will not change things. Rather, changing the systems and culture that make it possible for men to perpetrate violence against women is what will change things. The task is urgent one that all South Africans must fully support and embrace as an article of faith.
President Ramaphosa’s address to the Joint Sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces about gender-based violence has taken the issue where it belongs. Parliament needs to play a bigger role in addressing the crisis on our hands. It is Parliament that must design the laws that put paid to the system of patriarchy as we have it. It is Parliament that must hold government accountable for its failures. An arm’s length approach by this important institution will not assist in driving the change that South Africa and South Africans need to pursue to create the kind of country that has an extreme intolerance for women killers’, abusers, rapists and molesters. It is time that women that occupy positions of influence in government, business and parliament make their numbers count and set this country on an alternate path of gender equality and effectively deal with gender based violence.