South Africa’s GBV scourge is a tale of two tragedies
In most places in the world, this would have been earth-shattering news, and there would be wall to wall coverage in all the TV and radio stations, and newsrooms would have appointed dedicated teams to get to the bottom of the story and ‘what it means’.
One doesn’t like to encourage blind panic of course, but anywhere else in the world there would be panic, fear, and public outcry. Newspaper letter pages would be filled with angry letters from readers asking how this could happen right under our noses. And there would be no rest for anyone – not the editors, the police, the government, and certainly not the usual suspects – until someone had been paraded in public as the monster responsible, tried, convicted, and sent away for a long time.
But not here. Here, violence against women and our youngest children is so commonplace that it no longer shocks us. In South Africa, the perpetrators of criminal violence against our most vulnerable citizens have to do something different – something inhumanly macabre – to attract even mild attention.
Early last month the remains of six women were found in downtown Johannesburg. A 21-year-old man has since been arrested. It is one of the worst examples of sustained violence against the bodies of women that we have seen recently.
As just one example, the case reminds me of the sickening career of Shaun Oosthuizen, the man convicted earlier this year and sentenced to four life terms for the murder of four elderly women in their homes and old-age homes.
On July 8, 2018, Oosthuizen travelled from Gauteng to Mbombela where he went to Macadamia Old Age Home to rob and kill 85-year-old Henrietta Catharina Potgieter.
He was arrested and was later released on bail. While he was out on bail, he murdered Barbara Esme Fenton, 74, by strangling her to death on 1 September 2018 at her home in Alberton. Soon after his second arrest he was further linked to the June 2018 murder of Engela van Wyk, 86, at Rus n’ Bietjie Old Age Home in Springs. In prison, the man has since confessed to at least two other murders of vulnerable, elderly women in Sunnyside and Roodepoort.
Tragically, it does not end here. Recently the Sowetan newspaper published the most heart-breaking statistic: over 500 defenceless children have been killed in this country this year alone, at a staggering rate of three every day.
Many were infants who were not even a year old. Again, in South Africa, such statistics are enough only to raise an eyebrow briefly, until the news cycle moves on to a different but equally brutal reality of the lives of our people.
This week President Cyril Ramaphosa opened and led the Second Presidential Summit on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide (GBVF), four years after the inaugural event in 2018. As the president noted in his opening, we have made some strides, at least at the level of policy and intent, since that first event.
The first step was the development of a GBVF Emergency Response Action Plan in 2019. This Action Plan was adopted and supported by political leadership across all our diverse parties and paved the way for the release in April 2020 of the National Strategic Plan, which had been carefully drawn up together with civil society.
But, as the president noted, determined and well-meaning plans alone will not make a dent on the bleak picture of violence against the innocent and the defenceless.
“Despite our efforts, violence against women and children continues unabated in our country,” he reminded us.
“Just as the country was reeling from the news of a gang rape of a group of women in Krugersdorp, we were confronted with the news of the murder of 4-year-old little Bokgabo Poo, who was dismembered, and her body parts thrown into a field.
Just as babies are not being spared, even the elderly have become targets of violent men. We have in recent times seen a spate of rapes and killings of elderly women, our mothers and grandmothers that are meant to be respected and treated with dignity. These horrors defy comprehension. There are really no words for them.”
There is something fundamentally wrong, broken even, about a country that preys so mercilessly on the two of our most vulnerable demographic groups: infants and elderly persons.
This situation suggests that we have become a people who cares naught for its own future. Our youth is fatalistic and wallows in despair, unable to imagine that their lives can ever be bearable, let alone successful, given the depraved circumstances under which they grow up.
The causes are many and deep-rooted, and even with the best of wills and all the optimism in the world, it is abundantly clear that we cannot fundamentally change this picture quickly. We are too far gone down the wrong path: a brutalised society struggling to recover from three centuries of violence, dispossession, and dehumanisation; a failing democratic political project and a seeming lack of courage to dismantle it and imagine something new; economic despair for the vast majority; entrenched patriarchal violence against women, children, and the most vulnerable; and the gradual abandonment of any progressive social values for a materialist and nihilistic dystopia.
We need to pull ourselves back from the precipice, and fast. Before all is lost and there is no going back. We must start by confronting all forms of gender-based violence, beyond the annual slogans and ineffective campaigns. We must make sure that crime in all its forms no longer pays. And we must urgently begin a social dialogue among ourselves about exactly what sort of society we want to become.
What we have now cannot possibly be what we dreamed of in 1994.