South Africa: 'Justice Is Blind - but Not in the Case of Gender Violence'

Photo: GCIS
A rally against rape and abuse in South Africa

Durban, South Africa — On Tuesday, Feb. 19, famous South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was charged with premeditated murder, with prosecutors arguing the athlete had "put on his prosthetic legs, walked seven metres and fired four shots through a locked bathroom door," killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day.

The sprinter, who made history by participating against able-bodied athletes in the London 2012 Olympic, denied the charge during his bail application, saying that he had mistaken Steenkamp for an intruder.

Pistorius's bail application - due to resume this Wednesday, Feb. 20 - has attracted massive public attention, as many have questioned if the case will be the ignition of a powder keg that has been waiting to go off in South Africa, where violence against women has reached record proportions.

Only two weeks ago, the country was left in shock when 17-year-old Anene Booysen was brutally gang raped, mutilated and disembowelled, dying of her injuries soon thereafter.

The two men charged in the crime are due to face their bail hearing on Feb. 26th.

The two cases have resulted in heated debate and public protests, with rights activists and politicians both calling for action against gender violence in a country numbed by its exposure to violent crimes.

According to one-year statistics from the South African Police Services released in 2011, seven women were murdered each day. Meanwhile, crime trackers estimate that one woman gets raped every 17 seconds, bestowing upon South Africa the dubious title of the world's rape capital, according to Interpol. Yet, less than one percent of rape cases are reported to police.

"Hundreds of thousands" in search of justice

Amanda Gouws, a political science professor at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and a commissioner for the South African Commission for Gender Equality, said that despite the public and media outcry around the two high-profile cases, she was not hopeful that justice would be meted out for Booysen.

"I have seen too many cases that start out with a big bang, but many of them don't reach a good conclusion because witnesses were not all interviewed and evidence was contaminated or they fail because of technicalities etc.," Gouws said.

"But it may be that this case was high profile and so horrific, that it will. But there are hundreds and thousands of other cases that are not."

Pistorius' arrest occurred on the same day as President Jacob Zuma's State of the Nation address - a speech that many had hoped would provide direction to a country beleaguered by service delivery protests, an economic downturn and violent crime.

In Gouw's view, however, Zuma, failed to adequately addressed the issue, adding that, "Justice is supposed to be blind - but not the case in gender violence."

"If you look at what he said about violent protests in South Africa - that we need an intervention on a national, provincial and local government level, that we need a prioritisation of the role of the court - he did not say that about gender violence.

"In light of 5,000 protests a year and 64,000 rapes in 2012 alone, the address left her "very disappointed," she said.

Research published this year by South Africa's Medical Research Council revealed that more than a quarter of the test group of 1,738 men from all races and economic backgrounds had admitted raping at least once.

Need for better leadership

However, violence against women in South Africa is not confined to rape or murder. The police include non-sexual physical abuse, emotional and economic abuse, as well as stalking in its definition of "domestic violence."

Only last week, South African media reported that Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale's wife, Judy Sexwale, had accused him of all three in an affidavit filed as part of their divorce proceedings.

It was not the first time that a high profile South African politician had been accused of violence against women, with Zuma himself making international headlines in 2006. Zuma, then deputy leader of the ruling party, was eventually acquitted of rape.

Lubna Nadvi, chairperson of the Advice Desk for the Abused in Durban (an NGO that provides crisis intervention to the victims and perpetrators of violence) and a lecturer in political science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told IPS that the country's leadership still needed to take a clear stance on gender violence.

"I think the president needs to clearly state that women and girls are not freely available as sexual objects to men, to be used and abused, nor does African or any other culture give men the right to abuse women.

"Hopefully such stronger declarations from him will force men to think about how they act and behave in the future, whether he remains president for another term or not."

With violence against women on the rise in South Africa, the Booysens, Pistorius and Sexwale cases had shone a much-needed media spotlight on the issue, she said.

"What it means is that the media is covering these stories more frequently and with greater depth."

Breaking social numbness

She said that the South African judiciary and public had to take into account the extremely violent context within which these crimes were committed and reflect on what the country needed to do collectively to change the prevailing environment, mindsets, thoughts and actions.

"If the nation as a whole doesn't take action soon, we are at risk of becoming known as a place where no woman or girl is safe anywhere, especially near her intimate partner. This should not in the least be anything we should be aspiring towards," said Nadvi.

Gauteng-based sociologist Shafinaaz Hassim, who recently authored a novel about domestic violence in the Muslim community, agreed.

"That these incidents have been highlighted drags civil society out of its apolitical numbness and crass denialism and demands that we get involved in supporting women in every way that we can - as individuals, communities, and organisations."

But changing the tide is not just about providing support for victims and retribution for perpetrators - but is also about re-educating children and eliminating gender stereotypes, said Hassim.

"By putting the negatives in the spotlight, we're able to define a new way forward, we're able to heal and transform our society so that we don't wear this banner of shame and horror," she added.

*Additional reporting by Nalisha Adams in Johannesburg

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