No Excuse for Men Getting Away with Murder. 26/5/2017

Published by GENDERLINKS

Johannesburg, 24 May: On Sunday 28 May, women around South Africa will dress in black and wear red lipstick in honour of the women who have been brutally murdered in the name of love. Under the hashtag #GodCreatedWoman they are part of a new movement – “the All Black and Red Lipstick Movement” that has arisen organically in response to the rash of intimate femicides that has grabbed our headlines over the last fortnight.

The widely publicised case of Karabo Mokoena who went missing on 28 April, to be found charred in a dustbin a fortnight later, is a reminder that our failing state is faltering on yet another gold standard of our Constitution – the right to life, and to bodily integrity. Mokoena had opened a case of domestic violence at a local police station before falling victim to this heinous crime.

The anger unleashed by women under the #Menaretrash hashtag is a reaction to a woman being murdered by her intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa – five times the global average. Bold action is required, but will it be forthcoming?  Why, despite the wide publicity, the facts and figures, and all the programmes, is the state still failing women, more than two decades into our new democracy?

Intimate femicide – the most extreme form of GBV – is a litmus test of how a nation deals with gender violence. GBV baseline studies conducted by Gender Links in four South African provinces show that the largest proportion of GBV is that for which there is not even a category in police statistics – verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. Other forms of GBV such as physical and sexual abuse go woefully under-reported because of the societal pressure and stigma attached to these abuses.

On the ther hand, all deaths are reported, meaning femicide is always incorporated in police statistics. Sadly, despite much lobbying, police statistics do not disaggregate femicide from other forms of female homicide. Femicide is defined as “the intentional killing of females (women or girls) because they are females.” Initimate femicide is the most extreme consequence of intimate partner violence. Because police compile dockets of all murder cases it would be easy enough to add a tick box “intimate femicide”. But this does not happen, leaving it to academic researchers and NGOs to comb through these dockets in order to get the statistics.

Still, because the murderers are intimate partners, they are almost always known, which means legally half the battle should have been won. Yet research carried out by the Medical Research Council (MRC) showed that less than 38% of femicides lead to convictions. The sentence for murder is life imprisonment. Yet, as illustrated in the case of former ANC Youth League provincial leader Patrick Wisani, who received a sentence of 20 years, the maximum penalty is seldom meted out in such cases. Wisani beat his 24 year old partner to death in 2015.

The anger unleased by these recent cases, reflected in the emotional outpouring under the #Menaretrash hashtag, is a response to state failure to give women the security of person that the Constitution entitles them to. If the state cannot deal with these gruesome cases of femicide, how much more the incessant verbal and psychological abuse that women endure? What has come of the Sixteen Days of Activism campaigns now embedded in the nation’s diary and even extended in many quarters into 365 Day campaigns? Why is there still no change?

A comparison with the way in which we have started to reverse the scourge of HIV and AIDS is useful. South Africa has the unenviable distinction of having one of the highest proportion of people living with HIV and AIDS anywhere in the world, but also now one of the most visionary and well-funded programmes to prevent new infections, and treat those infected. Two factors proved crucial: political leadership, and an integrated programme, bringing together all sectors of society under the South African National Aids Council (SANAC).

Whatever his shortcomings, President Jacob Zuma ended the Thabo Mbeki era of AIDS denialism and paved the way for a more proactive response. The same cannot be said of GBV.

Speaking on ETV, author and activist Mmatshilo Motsei reminded us that countries have personalities, and they often take on the personality of their leader. Violence and sexism are deeply rooted in our past. We have a president acquitted of rape, but found sadly wanting in his behaviour towards women. Zuma is also mired in charges of corruption and the #Zumamustfall campaign. Fighting GBV is not high on Zuma’s agenda.

Zuma and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) failed to pronounce themselves unequivocally in the Wisani case. The ANC Women’s League, visible in the Oscar Pristorius trial, was conspicuous for its absence in this case. The odd woman MEC has gone to a funeral, and after a period of missing-in-action Minister of Women Susan Shabangu has offered vague statements about “collective action.”  She then shocked the nation on ETV this week by saying that Mokoena was “weak.”

A recommendation by the UN’s special on violence against women Dubravka Åimonovic in December that the South African government publish a Femicide Watch report every 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) has not been acted on. There has been no presidential statement on how femicide and GBV is to be dealt comprehensively and systemically.

The National Prosecuting Authority has a well thought through model on GBV that involves response, support and prevention. It is recognised that while the criminal justice system is in the frontline of addressing GBV, the causes are rooted in a deeply patriarchal and sexist society. Last week the Cape Town- based Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign went to Parliament to demand that sexual offences be heard exclusively by sexual offences courts that achieve ten times the conviction rates of ordinary courts, but are few and far between.

Solutions have to go beyond courts and laws. They involve schools, the health system, and all the productive sectors, as the economic empowerment of women is a crucial long term solution. The private sector and work places have a role to play, as GBV affects, and is also played out in these spaces. Crucially, cultural and religious institutions that are often part of the cover up need to come to the party.

In 2007 the government adopted a multi-stakeholder National Action Plan to End Gender Violence and agreed to set up a GBV Council. Representatives from a broad range of organisations were invited to be members. Strangely, Shabangu disbanded the Council and has put no structure in place since then. Two years ago, Sonke Gender Justice led a new campaign for a National GBV Strategy joined by several civil society organisations. The call feel on deaf ears. In short, there is no national plan or structure for addressing GBV.

Civil society organisations also have introspecting to do. Our lack of coordination, and contestation of those who seek to coordinate, continually gives the government the excuse that it does not know who to work with on these matters.

Religious leaders, who have a powerful sway on the national psyche,also have soul-searching to do.  The bitter irony of Mokena’s alleged killer quoting bible verses has not gone unnoticed. While the South African Council of Churches (SACC) has come out boldly on state capture in its “South Africa we pray for” campaign, its deafening silence on women’s rights is inexplicable.

What is new now is social media and its ability to mobilise whole movements overnight – witness the “the All Black and Red Lipstick Movement” and the #Notinmyname march by men last Saturday, in answer to the #Meanaretrash outrage. Citizen action is filling the vacuum created by the state and organised civil society.

The power of citizen action is huge. The fact that the state doggedly pursued a stiffer sentence for Oscar Pristorius, for example, is surely linked to the outpouring of public rage for his lenient sentencing in the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

But citizen action and state response need to work together in systemic ways to deliver lasting change. Bold leadership, structures and resources must work hand in hand with demands for accountability if we are to prevent more cases of men getting away with murder.