Silences and the Unspoken Relationship Between Xenophobia and SGBV in South Africa

“It is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there were so many silences to be broken” – Audre Lorde, Your Silence Will Not Protect You 

There is a silence that rests with those that are not yet heard. It rests uncomfortably and challenges a sense of security that many thought they had in their homes and in public spaces. The silence interrupted, uncovers the numerous cases of xenophobic violence, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and femicide which stagnate the quality of life for those who are most marginalised in South Africa.  It robs them of their freedom from fear, freedom from want, and the freedom to live in dignity

For the vast majority of people living in the deep and systemic violence of South Africa: xenophobia, SGBV and femicide are connected. What exists in between, is both silent and unseen, particularly in the media and in the decision-making amongst our political leadership. This silence must be broken or the bodies of the most marginalised bodies that are seen to live the identities of both ‘foreign’ and women or even further, ‘foreign’, women and queer continue to live under threat and violence.

This means that the threat of violence, violation or death can come from several directions, without their relationship and existence being known and understood as a remnants of the unaddressed legacies of Apartheid and colonialism in South Africa. 

The everyday violence that plagues South African life is not new nor can it be isolated, it rather paints an explicit picture of the past that never left the psyche of the nation. 

The current deprivation caused by the lack of service delivery, poverty, inequality and unemployment is dealt with through substance abuse and communicated through violence towards the most marginalised. This deprivation is compounded with intergenerational trauma, the lack of trust in the criminal justice system and patriarchal social norms. 

Currently xenophobia, SGBV and femicide are being policed and responded to by national and regional leadership and actors within the SADC architecture as separate acts of criminality. This erases realities that should be prioritised as the call to address SGBV, femicide and xenophobic violence as a state of emergency, as it should be, is escalated. 

I write this as a South African; to challenge other South Africans to reflect on this, but also for those who live in fear as ‘foreign’, women and as part of the LGBTQIA+ community to know that this silence has to be broken, interrupted and disrupted amongst others. 

Right now, South Africa is barely afloat as a coherent nation. Particularly look into the Crime Statistics for 2018/2019 released on 12 September 2019 and the African feminist organising in the #AmINext movement after the femicides of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre Jegels and Jess Hess. The crime statistics reflect that, between 1 April 2018 and 31 March 2019, a total of 2,7171 women were murdered in South Africa, which means that every hour, a woman in South Africa is at risk of being part of that statistic and we are tired of. 

All precautionary steps that young women grow up hearing to avoid such instances, such as avoiding walking alone or taking public transport at night, talking to strangers or wearing certain clothes, are rape myths that do not help to avoid rape and femicide. The precautionary steps should rather be directed at men, who are the primary perpetrators, on the repercussions for such actions against women from a young age. 

The #TotalShutdown and the #AmINext protests in South Africa are a testament to the lack of trust in the criminal justice system in South Africa and are a clarion call for justice to be delivered in private and public spaces that women have to enter, because danger is so pervasive and unpredictable. 

To live another day as a woman in South Africa is to survive landmines and escape death at every step. 

Sexual offences, too are reported to be on the rise despite instating Sexual Offences courts and the Presidential Summit in 2018, that prioritised GBV intervention on paper. The number of reported sexual offences increased to 52, 420 in 2018/19 from 50,108 the previous year. The sexual offences category is broad as it includes rape, sexual assault, attempted sexual offences and contact offences. So it is worthwhile to highlight that most of the cases reported are of rape, although in regional debates, rape in ‘peace-time’ does not get the urgent attention needed to free women of a silenced war that continues on their bodies.

Rape remains a commonly unreported crime and under-addressed topic outside of conflict. Many women do not report rape in South Africa because of the fear of stigmatisation that originates from patriarchal social norms, lack of trust in the criminal justice system and the culpability of police in these crimes.

To understand why one doesn’t think of the police as a place of refuge in cases when they are abused, the figures of police culpability speak volumes. The 2018/19 annual report of the Independent Police Directorate (IPID) detailed that rape by police officers had increased by 12% and at least 55 rape complaints were investigated between April and September 2018. 

It is not without evidence to say that this is the chilling reality that leads many women to resort to reporting to religious institutions, family members and community networks or to not report to anyone at all.

As one of the most dangerous countries in the world with many silenced social issues, South Africa needs to show more than political commitments. Release the National Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Strategic Plan (NSP) and sign onto regional and international frameworks in Africa, such as the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, the Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights and CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women). 

These political commitments need to translate to the real change for the lives of African women.

For South Africa, assistance is needed through regional pressure and African feminist solidarity to ensure that South Africa complies with its commitment to act towards reducing GBV incidences by half by 2030 as outlined in Part 6 on Gender-Based Violence, Articles 20-25, which it is currently failing to do on its own.

SADC, through the SADC Ministers of Gender and Women Affairs and the SADC Secretariat Gender Unit, need to apply regional pressure, regional talks and also begin a process of reinstating the SADC Tribunal as a concrete step towards regional cohesion, sustainable peace and justice. Such actions will ensure that South Africa recognises gender is a cross-cutting issue that is central to the commitments it has made in the Protocol on Gender and Development and the Regional Strategy and Framework of Action for Addressing Gender. 

Reinstating the SADC Tribunal will create the opportunity for the most marginalised individuals affected by SGBV, femicide and xenophobia to access justice. This will also set a precedent for addressing all the regional silences, which include election violence in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, internet shutdowns and the shrinking space for civil society in the region.

All of these regional silences are African feminist issues. It is not only time to apply regional pressure through the SADC architecture, but it is time also for African feminist ideas to influence decision-making, leadership and high level actors in all regional structures, including the African Union. 

Such a task needs solidarity from African feminist communities on the continent so that powerful collaborations between movements such as TotalShutDownSA in South Africa and TotalShutdownKE in Kenya and #AmINext in South Africa and #AmINext in Rwanda can translate to regional interventions that address the violence that immobilises us all on local, national and regional levels.

Mbalenhle Matandela is an African feminist activist, researcher and writer and also teaches Gender and the Politics of Development at the Gender Department at the University of Cape Town. Find her on Twitter @MbaliMatandela

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