Violence Against Women in South Africa: President Zuma and the ANC Still Have Not Got the Message

by | Feb 21, 2013

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About Guest contributor

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

By Nabihah Iqbal –

The recent tragedy of Anene Booysen has brought widespread attention to the pandemic of violence, especially sexual violence, against women in South Africa, a country labelled by Interpol as the ‘rape capital of the world’, and where it is estimatedthat a woman is raped every 17 seconds. Booysen’s case has been heralded as marking a turning-point in the country’s attitude towards gender-based violence, but any pragmatists should be wary of notions that this is a wake-up call for the the country’s African National Congress (ANC) government, whose approach to gender-related issues can only be described as ‘sluggish’ at best.

A few days after Booysen’s fatal attack, President Jacob Zuma delivered his State of the Nation Address (SONA). Disappointingly, he offered nothing in terms of specific means by which the government plans on tackling violence against women. He pays some lip service to the issue (which is an improvement on SONA 2012), but no doubt this is only due to the coincidence of the Booysen case occupying the media spotlight in the week preceding his speech.

Of course, President Zuma does not hold back on the clichés. He declares that ‘improving the status of women remains a critical priority for the government’, calling on ‘the need for unity in action to eradicate this scourge’, ending his admonition with the peroration that ‘the brutality and cruelty meted out to defenceless women is unacceptable and has no place in our country.’ But where does he go from here?

President Zuma reaches the apex of his speech on violence against women by proudly announcing the government’s establishment of the National Council on Gender Based Violence in 2012, which he refers to as a ‘coordinating structure to make the campaign of fighting violence against women an everyday campaign.’ However, more bureaucracy is not the answer.

Taking heed of recent statistics, the government needs to realize that more immediate, affirmative action is the way to combat this spiralling problem. Violence against women is still on the rise in South Africa according to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch. Research carried out across South Africa between 2010 and 2012 indicates that, in some provinces, between 50 and 77 per cent of women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. The failure of the criminal justice system to investigate and punish sexual violence, and patriarchal norms and attitudes that excuse or legitimize the use of violence against women have created a culture of impunity. That (sexual) violence against women has become almost ‘normalized’ in South African society is troubling and seriously undermines the country’s progressive legislation on the issue.

What the struggle against gender-based violence needs most from the State is the allocation of resources and funding, in order for existing legislation and policies to be fully implemented. So far the government has failed to make any specific budget allocations to help tackle violence against women. For example, there have been no explicit funds directed towards implementing the police’s legislative mandate under the Domestic Violence Act, since it was enacted in 1998. As well as funding, the government needs to instate an effective education programme within both the communities affected by this violence, and the criminal justice system, in order to increase awareness of the problem. Although the South African Police Service (SAPS) receives some training on domestic violence, officers have themselves admitted that it is far from being adequate. Currently, the Department of Education provides guidance to children about sexual violence which takes place in schools, but there seems to be no state-endorsed approach to educating children about violence experienced out of school, in order to try and facilitate a change in mindset of the younger generations.

Changes must be made in these areas if President Zuma and the ANC are serious about reducing levels of gender-based violence in South Africa for good, and delivering justice to thousands of women who are suffering in a society ridden with sexism.

Nabihah Iqbal is an English Barrister currently working as a legal intern at the Women’s Legal Centre, Cape Town, South Africa



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  1. Andrew

    This is all very well – but the level of rape in any society depends firstly on the attitudes of adults of my gender – and secondly on how parents of both genders bring them up. Not a matter, really, for the State in any shape or form.

    • Nabihah

      @Andrew: How do you expect attitudes to just change in a society which is so deeply affected by violence and gender inequality? In the case of South Africa such a turnaround can only be facilitated by a concerted effort on the part of the country’s leadership. People, both adults and children, need to be taught that gender-based violence is intolerable. Males need to understand that to be a man does not mean having to beat and rape women. Women and girls need to understand that they do not have to put up with rape and violence, simply because they are female and living in a patriarchal society. Related problems of alcoholism and drug abuse also need to be tackled from the top down. If the government does not exert itself in trying to reduce these socio-cultural problems, any positive change will remain extremely unlikely.

  2. Patricia

    I’m shocked by the comment above…”parents need to raise their children right, and if they don’t, too bad for the rape victims”? Excuse me?! Some murderers were no doubt deprived of love & care from their parents too, and the State deals with them for the crimes they commit. With all due respect, what planet are you on? Or should I say, what century are you living in?

  3. Andrew

    Patricia – I did not write the words you put in quotes. And I don’t agree with them – at least not the second half of the sentence. Parents need to raise their children right – I imagine we both agree with that. But if and to the extent that they don’t the evil that results is the fault of the perpetrators and not of the state or its leadership.

    Nabihah – I’m not disagreeing with you that the state through the education system has a role to play. But once again: that role is limited. If parents undermine what children learn in school, that is not within the control of the state.

    That really is all I am saying – that the role of the state and its leaders is limited. And that is true everywhere outside North Korea. So I am living on this planet, and in this century, a time and place where civilised governments know and accept their limitations.

  4. Charalee

    The people, the men and women and the state all have a role to play in stopping the violence.

  5. Andrew

    Principally the men; or rather those men who do it. They can stop it at once. Nobody else can.

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