South Africa's 'Other' Epidemic

By Dale T. McKinley · 10 Dec 2009

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Picture: I am Kat
Picture: I am Kat

It has been ten years since the South African government held its first annual '16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women' (and children) campaign. While the campaign has, no doubt, achieved a degree of success in relation to raising awareness, this has clearly not translated into much positive, practical impact. 

Despite all the good intentions, fine rhetoric, myriad events and work done, the intervening decade has seen a precipitous rise in the overall levels of violence against women. The often cyclical and self-serving debates around rape statistics aside, the fact of the matter is that South Africa has an epidemic of violence against women. Even if a large number of people in our country are probably 'aware' that this is the case, such awareness remains stillborn as long as there is no foundational analysis and explanation of the epidemic upon which it can be tackled and fought. 

The epidemic has varied historical and more contemporary social, economic, political and cultural roots, at the systemic, collective and individual levels. As such, even while there is clearly an overarching socio-historic framework of patriarchy, it is illogical to argue that there is one main source, one key reason for the present state of affairs. In this respect then, it does no good to lay the dominant blame at the door of government, although there is much legitimate criticism that can, and should, be specifically directed towards government's generally laissez-faire attitude and approach. The same applies in respect of 'bad/criminal' individuals (mainly men), 'culture' and poverty.

At the heart of this epidemic are three, inter-linked sets of general societal relations: relationships of power (whether at the physical, material, emotional, sexual or psychological levels - who owns, controls, decides); relationships of production (who controls and benefits from production and reproduction of labour/work); and, relationships of distribution (who has access to what resources, who decides this and who has ultimate control over them). As specifically applied to South Africa during the days of apartheid-capitalism, the vast majority of women experienced a cross-cutting, triple oppression: racial (as part of the colonised black masses); economic (as part of the main component of the poor/working class); and, socio-cultural (as women within a dominant familial and society-wide patriarchy).  

While the role played by women in the various resistance struggles certainly encompassed all three oppressions, in practical terms the dominant anti-apartheid nature of those struggles ensured that the economic and socio-cultural 'sides' of the gendered oppression equation were effectively sidelined. When the apartheid state was ‘captured’ the inherited relations of power, production and distribution were not, outside of a subsequent elite-led deracialisation, altered in any significant way – thus transferring the core character of an apartheid patriarchal capitalism into a new post-apartheid patriarchal capitalism.

The ensuing dominance of neo-liberal ideology has served to entrench and further catalyse the inherited oppressions of women, and more particularly poor and working class women. The previously enforced gendered division of social responsibility and work in the household has transmuted into a hyper-commoditised ‘women’s world’, where women are the privatised reproducers of (unpaid) social services and labour. This is empirically borne out by the fact that in 2009, according to the latest quarterly Labour Force Survey, women make up less than 30% of the entire formal workforce in South Africa. 

Further, neo-liberalism has laid waste to those industries in which poor semi and unskilled women have historically been employed. Hundreds of thousands of such jobs have been lost over the last decade. In 2008-2009 alone, the largest number of jobs lost in any one sector, 350 000, has been in a trade sector dominated by women. For those few still fortunate enough to have formal jobs over 60% are employed in the lowest paying jobs, as clerks, elementary workers and domestic workers.

These structuralised inequalities  - which are in themselves a form of violence - are reinforced by continued and indeed, deepening, levels of socio-cultural patriarchy. In the midst of recurrent economic and social crises there has been a decidedly reactionary turn on the religious as well as 'traditional' and 'modern' cultural fronts. Here, historically dominant male ownership, entitlement and control/decision-making has been reasserted, providing (pseudo) moral and social cover for patriarchal and misogynist attitudes and practices to flourish. Whether realised in 'new' forms of religiously-inspired injunctions for women to submit and obey, constructed ‘traditions’ of arranged/forced marriages, virginity testing and marital rape or adolescence-driven misogynisation of women’s bodies, the effect has been to further incubate, legitimate and catalyse varied forms of violence against women. 

The cumulative result of these past and contemporary realities is that the vast majority of women in South Africa (who are also poor and black) are seen and treated as little more than 21st century chattel. It is no accident or aberration that ever increasing numbers of women are being forced into economic destitution (with human trafficking and involuntary sex work often becoming the tragic 'end-games'), suffer emotional and psychological abuse and are raped and killed. 

When it becomes commonplace for leading male politicians, self-ascribed progressives, corporate mandarins, sports personalities and the like to effectively get away with, and often be celebrated for, verbally and physically assaulting the dignity of women (who, more often than not, are close to them) then we should know that our society is in deep trouble. When a recent representative survey of young men that found one in four readily admit to raping a women is met with relatively little surprise and societal opprobrium, then we must admit a collective sickness. 

One half of the slogan of the 16 Days of Activism campaign is, 'don't look away'. However, the sad reality is that this is precisely what our society, dominated by men at every relational level, is doing in practice. The majority of men, regardless of their socio-cultural, economic and/or political ‘identity’, simply do not want to open their eyes lest they be confronted with the reality of an epidemic they continue to sustain, with a mirror image of their pathetic cowardice and destructive arrogance.

Hold the white flags though. If we allow ourselves to ‘see’ that violence against women is rooted in systemic (in our case, a post-apartheid patriarchal capitalism) relationships of power, production and distribution then it is in struggles to radically change those relations, in the realm of both ideas and practice, where the greatest potential for societal transformation lies. The extraordinary and anti-systemic resilience, empathy, courage and struggle flowing from the ranks of ‘ordinary’ women, combined with an ever intensifying and widening societal ‘excavation’ of the relational roots of the epidemic provide the best means to confront, arrest and yes, eventually slay the dragon.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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