South Africa In The Wake Of Gender Based Violence Protests-#WhatComesNext
Words: Jo Elliott
In September of 2019, protests rocked South Africa after the murder of University of Cape Town Student, Uyinene Mrwetyana. All over the country, women were asking “Am I Next?”. But as with anything, the news moves on, people move on. After the initial uproar, it can be easy to feel like nothing has changed, that no difference has been made.
But change isn’t always the big protests that make the headlines. In fact, it’s usually the people quietly working, every single day towards meaningful change who are making the biggest difference.
In Cape Town, the Rape Crisis Centre has been working to introduce Sexual Offences Courts throughout South Africa. These are specialist courts that centre the experiences of survivors. They have separate waiting rooms, support services, a separate room for survivors to testify and intermediaries for children and people with disabilities.
The Rape Crisis Centre has been working to help establish these courts since 1998. The first-ever sexual offence court, Wynberg Court , opened in 1993. However in 2008, the Government scrapped the courts and did not reintroduce them until 2014.
What resulted from the #AmINext movement
Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, announced approval for regulations relating to Sexual Offences Courts in September 2019, following the protests. These regulations allow for a legislative framework to be put into place for the courts.
This would mean more funding for already established courts, as well as to set up new ones.
Counselling Coordinator for Rape Crisis Trust Cape Town, Shiralee McDonald said in regards to the impact of the #AmINext movement:
“It provided a bit more leverage with Government. I do think it kind of gave them the will to go, you’re absolutely right, this is an important issue — it really is. It’s that idea that if you’ve got the deterrents in place, if you’ve got the political will, and the deterrents in place, it’s one way of making sure that members of society take things seriously. I think we ought to be really chuffed that our Government is going to take this so seriously.”
It’s time to shift the blame
The idea behind these courts is to centre the survivors of the crime in the process more. Shiralee explained “You often hear from a survivor how silenced her voice feels, in her healing journey even. She’ll talk a lot about why did he do this, why me, the focus is on the perpetrator a lot of the time. Actually he doesn’t deserve that, he doesn’t deserve that kind of focus, she deserves the focus on her in order to be able to complete that process, which sometimes feels unfinished.”
Strong male role models
Rape Crisis has been working since 1976, but other organisations tackling this issue have also emerged since the AmINext movement. Father Figure, a non-profit based in Cape Town focuses on providing father figures for children whose fathers are absent. The idea being that having positive male role models in their lives will prevent violent behaviour from occurring.
Founder Nathi Mahlanyana said, of Father Figure’s founding in the wake of the protests:
“Father Figure was already an idea, was already something on paper, but on our side, it was that we kind of had to follow up on how do we prevent such things from happening? How do we add value in kids’ lives?”
Change is happening
Amongst those working to end violence against women , there is a sense of optimism, though they do acknowledge that there is more to be done.
Speaking to Shiralee, she expressed this sentiment, stating: “There will be another wave [of activism], I have absolutely no doubt. I think with every wave, well I hope at any rate, that with every wave there is a shift. It might be very small, but that’s okay. It’s slowly changing, the ideas that we have about who gets raped, what is rape, the issue of building safe relationships, the issue of building a culture around consent, those things are going to take time to shift. I always hope that with a wave comes a little bit of shift, each time.”
How do we measure impact?
In these situations, it can be so easy to feel helpless and frustrated. Often it feels like there is nothing you can do to change anything, and progress can be incredibly slow.
But no movement makes progress overnight. Dr Carla Lever, who is an expert in protests and a Research Fellow for the Mandela School said:
“Unfortunately for most activists, it is rare for a protest to have a direct, measurable and timely impact, which means that people who insist on quantifiable data often dismiss its impact. That would be a mistake though. Mass action operates at a more subtle social level, where it shifts perceptions and adds political pressures in ways that are not immediately apparent.”
It has been true throughout history. After all, it took centuries for women to gain the right to vote, with women in Saudi Arabia only being given this right five years ago. It would have been so easy for those women to give up and decide that it wasn’t worth it.
But they kept working, making incremental changes over time until eventually, the change they wanted came to pass. The same will be true of tackling these violent crimes. The changes may be small and incremental, and happen over a long period of time, but eventually, we will be able to feel the effects of these small changes.
It would be wrong to feel like there is nothing that can be done. Yes, there are Governmental measures being put into place, with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s five-point emergency plan announced back in September.
This includes prevention measures, plans to strengthen the criminal justice system and improve the legal and policy framework for issues of violence towards women. It also ensures that the care and support systems in place for survivors of these kinds of violence are adequate and works on improving the economic power of women.
What can we all do?
However, there are things that people can do in their everyday lives. It doesn’t have to be taking part in a protest, or petitioning the government for change. People doing small things in their everyday lives is just as important as big protests. Shiralee McDonald said: “You can make a difference, you just have to understand how to make that difference. And that difference can just be in your everyday interactions with people, it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture.”
She added: “When someone is making a joke and you know that joke is harmful, ask them about it. Challenge people, I don’t mean in an adversarial way, but don’t look away when you know something is going on.”
You can also volunteer for organisations like Rape Crisis, or other organisations that are tackling gender-related violence, or if you don’t want to volunteer your time, then you can donate money to ensure that their incredibly important work continues. It can even be as small as just talking about these issues in your everyday life, to reduce the surrounding violence targeting women, no matter how uncomfortable these discussions can be.
The message is clear
“Am I Next has been pivotal in making conversations around GBV a national priority. It sent a clear message to government that women’s safety cannot be sidelined and women will not be silenced. The truth is, too many people are motivated to act when they identify with an injustice. Gender-based violence is an issue for all South Africans, whatever their gender.” said Carla.
We have already done the hardest work in this respect. Yes, there is more work to do in making society in South Africa safer for women, but #AmINext started the ball rolling. It initiated the process of change and made the voices of South African women heard. Now we just need to make sure that those voices keep being heard. That we keep pushing for change and show that these issues matter. The conversation has started, people are making change, but it is not the responsibility of just a few organisations. It’s up to everyone, we all have to do our part to ensure that the momentum #AmINext continues, even in small ways in our everyday lives.
For it is only by working together that lasting change can be made.
Originally published at https://capechameleon.co.za on February 3, 2020.