Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Politics of Violence Against Women: A South African Perspective

We have a new guest blogger, Debbie Marais, a young graduate student working in South Africa on her Masters Dissertation. Here's her first post:

2005 was an interesting year for South African politics. (It was also an eye-opening time for gender relations in South Africa – more on that to follow). As someone who pays less than close attention to the intimate political workings of government, some events of last year triggered an uncharacteristic scrutiny of news items pertaining to one particular Member of Parliament: ex-Deputy President, Jacob Zuma. Headlines about corruption seem to be peppering our newspapers with increasing frequency.

More alarming, perhaps, is the more than occasional revelation of the alleged involvement of top political leaders and government officials in corruption cases. Alarming, or encouraging? Corruption most likely occurs in most governments around the world and it is certainly not new to South Africa. What is encouraging is the transparency with which these cases are reported, indicating a transparency within our current government that was remarkably absent in the governments of our former apartheid state. We may not condone corruption but we do commend the speed at which such cases come to light.

It was our former Deputy President’s alleged involvement in the Schabir Shaik corruption case that led President Thabo Mbeki to fire Zuma - the man widely considered to be Mbeki’s most likely successor in 2009 - in June last year. Enter the first event that was a milestone of particular, personal significance to me: the appointment of our first woman Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. A proud day in South Africa’s democratic history and one that had many of us – women in particular – saying to ourselves and each other, “How far we have come!”

Then the news broke: a 31-year old AIDS activist, reportedly a family friend of the former Deputy President, had brought a rape charge against 63-year old Zuma – alleging that the attack took place in November during the 16 days of activism against women and child abuse campaign.

Following the rape allegation, reports began to indicate that support for Zuma, still strong despite the corruption charges, was dwindling.

And yet: shortly after the new year dawned came the announcement that Zuma would still be allowed to campaign for the ruling ANC in upcoming local elections on 1st March (with temporary suspension of this participation in February when he stands trial for rape) . With Zuma facing two charges of corruption and one of rape, and Mbeki having just announced that the ANC will up its efforts in stamping out corruption in local municipalities, one reporter has quite aptly commented that “the situation is not simply confusing, it is bizarre” .

But it is not the politics of these proceedings that has sparked my fervor. It is the content of an article written by Nicola Jones that has “filled (my) heart with fear” (Words to fill your heart with fear): The perpetuation of sexual violence by the cultural endorsement of gender inequalities seems to be fuelled by support for a powerful politician such as Zuma who, apparently, can do no wrong: “Why do they make such a big thing about this rape thing?” says one supporter on the Friends of Jacob Zuma website “He is not some ordinary person – he is JZ! If he wants he must get.” Add to this Nicola Jones’s reporting of the “huge antipathy towards merely the concept of a woman president – and women and white people in general – on the Friends of Jacob Zuma website” and one realizes how far we have not come in eradicating the gender inequalities and the “sex as entitlement, sex as power” culture that has made South Africa a country with one of the highest incidences of rape in the world. Some have attributed to the legacy of apartheid the social ills that have transformed male identity into something typified by aggressiveness, risk-taking, sexual prowess and dominance over women – notions of masculinity that have now become entrenched (Sayagues, 2004: South Africa: Helping men become men. Inter Press Service, September 19 2004). In spite of the remarkable achievements of our young democracy in promoting and constitutionally entrenching human rights, the daily experience of inequality by women, and the violence perpetrated against women by men continue unabated (Abrahams, Jewkes, Hoffman & Laubsher, 2004; Jobson, 2005; Sideris, 2005). “Because of our patriarchal system, power is in the hands of men. Women do not have much say in decision-making, societal issues, and even more sadly, in their intimate relationships. Men control their sexual rights. Women cannot choose when, how and with whom they can have sex” (Memela, 2005, p.98).

“Without role models and little social support for constructing different practices, appealing to culture may represent as much an avoidance of anxiety as a defense of privilege. Cultural constructions of what it means to be a man not only legitimize male authority but also provide men with a set of regulations that spell out the rights, duties and obligations that accompany paternal authority. Reverting to this framework is one way of escaping the personal uncertainty that change induces” (Sideris, 2004, p.30). And what about existing role models? What about Zuma and his masses of loyal supporters? An indication of the entrenchment of these cultural attitudes (towards women and their secondary status in society) in the population at large is evident in the support that continues to rally around Zuma, in spite of (or, shockingly, because of?) his rape charge. The ANC Youth League (ANCYL) remains loyal to Zuma still, promoting that the ANC and the country should be headed by the same person - and that person should be Zuma.

Political support for a leader is one thing; support for the perpetration of violence (sexual or otherwise) against women entirely another. Does such support exist?
Reading one Zuma supporter’s comment on the Friends of Jacob Zuma website, I fear that it does: “If they say Msholozi (Zuma) is a rapist then we are all rapists. Let’s show them how.”

Debra Leigh Marais, 2nd February 2006



Abrahams, N., Jewkes, R., Hoffman, M., & Laubsher, R. (2004). Sexual violence against intimate partners in Cape Town: prevalence and risk factors reported by men. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 82, 330-337.

Mail & Guardian online – see links above

Memela, L. (2005). The role of culture and society in shaping gender inequalities. Agenda Special Focus: Gender, Culture and Rights, 96-99.

Jobson, M. (2005). 5,25 million minutes: Gender and culture after 10 years of democracy. Agenda Special Focus: Gender, Culture and Rights, 14-23.

Sideris, T. (2004). “You have to change and you don’t know how!”: Contesting what it means to be a man in a rural area of South Africa. African Studies, 63, 29-49.

Sideris, T. (2005). Post-apartheid South Africa – gender, rights, and the politics of recognition: continuities in gender-based violence? Agenda Special Focus: Gender, culture and rights. 100-109.

The Witness online – see links above

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