Globally, there has been a spike in reported cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) as a result of national lockdowns, and South Africa has been no exception. Growing economic and social pressures, coupled with the fact that victims are no longer able to escape their perpetrators at this time, have contributed to the spike. According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, around 2300 cases of GBV were reported within the first four days of the lockdown with only 148 (6.43%) of reported perpetrators being charged. While, according to the Minister, the number of reported cases has decreased, this is not a firm indicator of a drop in GBV. The underreporting of cases, especially within the lockdown period where victims have little opportunity to escape perpetrators, has likely been exacerbated. Given that the easing of the nation-wide lockdown from level five to level four does not lift restrictions on the movement of people, this means that victims of abuse are expected to continue being stuck with abusers in their homes. This calls for government to proactively develop new methods and solutions in identifying and assisting those who are vulnerable.
Over the past two years, government has made progress in addressing the GBV challenge. Formed after the 2018 Presidential Summit on GBV, the Interim Steering Committee on Gender Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) has led the implementation of an Emergency Response Action Plan which emphasises a coordinated approach in dealing with GBV. Including interventions such as the strengthening of the justice system, and ensuring more opportunities for women, amongst others, the plan also emphasises the need to change social norms and behaviours. In challenging norms and behaviours, the need for GBVF sensitivity training targeted at key role players and stakeholders has been highlighted. For new and effective solutions to be developed, problematic views and beliefs within society, and especially amongst policymakers and law enforcement personnel, need to be addressed and challenged.
In political spaces, GBV is weaponised and used as a mere political tool. Though the African National Congress (ANC) government has put issues of women empowerment high on its agenda, there have been glaring failures in the way the party treats the issue of GBV in practice. Chief among these is the deplorable behaviour of its members during the rape trial of former President Jacob Zuma. The insults and harassment meted out to the accuser and the way the trial was politicised put paid to any vague notions of leadership accountability on issues of GBV within the party. The embarrassing behaviour of ANC MP’s during the debate on the State of the Nation Address in February where an ANC MP levelled accusations of abuse against EFF leader Julius Malema, not to highlight the issue of women abuse, but to embarrass him, lends credence to the charge that GBV is used as a political tool. It also displayed the party’s unconscionable approach to the issue women abuse, particularly considering that the MP concerned was never censored by his party for his utterances. In the same vein, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s belated apology, extended on behalf of his party, showed complete distain for women and victims of GBV. It took a court of law to force the MP to apologise to Mr Malema, his wife, the women of our country and society at large.
The party’s approach to GBV has also seen it treat the portfolio of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, as a post to reward cadres or neutralise unwanted Ministers. One can safely say that the woefully inadequate duo of former Ministers Bathabile Dlamini and Susan Shabangu, were not suitable for such a position, owing to their track record of supporting their fellow comrades who are accused of GBV. Since the lockdown, Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has largely been anonymous and silent in the debate around GBV. Her only highlights thus far include hosting a virtual panel discussion and an engagement with the GBVF Committee.
The response by the South African Police Service has been dismal thus far. One would have hoped that with many communities being saturated with police personnel, GBV, with its attendant policing difficulties, would be somewhat easier to police during this time. However, this has not been the case. This is partly accounted for by the fraying relations between police and the communities they police, which has been made worse by incidents of abuse of community members in the enforcement of the lockdown regulations. This is compounded by a long history of indifference by police when dealing with victims of GBV. Historically, there has been an outcry about how in some stations police have tended to encourage victims to reconcile with their abusers and often resorting to victim shaming. This calls for greater effort in building partnerships with communities, gathering proper intelligence and monitoring previous offenders through community networks. After all, perpetrators are known in their communities.
Interventions such as the continued operation of the Department of Social Development’s GBV Command Centre during the lockdown, increased capacity within shelters nationally, and GBV response work being declared essential under the lockdown are necessary and welcome. However, as President Ramaphosa stated during his engagement with the Interim GBVF Committee, much more still needs to be done. It remains necessary for the culture of complacency on GBV to be aggressively tackled both within and outside government and other formal structures of society. Business as usual will not protect our women during this difficult time, and beyond.
Written by Pearl Mncube