The South African government can no longer sit back and be a spectator while violence against women remains a crisis. How much more when its very own cabinet ministers are accused of such crimes. What message does this convey to South Africans about the public safety of women? What does this say about the profile of perpetrators of violence against women? Can we really pretend that they are faceless, bestial beings on the margins of society? The answer is a resounding no!
It is easy to pretend that perpetrators of violence against women (VAW) are monsters and savage beings who are subhuman. The ordinary man on the street would be quick to reduce violent men as sociopaths and psychopaths. However, the reality is that men who perpetuate such heinous crimes are closer to home than we are willing to acknowledge. Perpetrators of extreme violence against women are not barbarians from another planet – they are our brothers, uncles, teachers, priests, fathers and are at times esteemed and well-respected individuals.
Research shows that the overwhelming majority of female rape victims are raped by men whom they know, trust, and love. Only 8% of rapes are perpetuated by strangers. Challenging the erroneous psychological explanations for perpetrators of violence against women is important if South Africa is to effectively deal with the scourge of gender-based violence, and get to its root causes.
The news that South Africa's former deputy minister of higher education and training, Mduduzi Manana, assaulted a woman at a nightclub while his bodyguards watched during Women's Month is another reason for reflection. Manana, just like many other men who perpetrate violence against women, is no aberrational "other". He contradicts the prevailing discourse of what constitutes a violent man. He is a man whom you would meet in a public and private space and feel safe, a man of esteem and a high-ranking state official. Yet he committed the unthinkable.
As such, it is important that we challenge the monster-violent man narrative for two reasons. Firstly, by labelling perpetrators of violence against women as monsters, we create distance between men who commit such crimes from the rest of society and in turn detach ourselves as a people from the fact that violent men live among us. Gender-based violence is not an isolated incident that is perpetuated by the criminally insane, however, it is a systemic social problem that speaks to the issue of gender inequalities, violent masculinities and patriarchy. It is high time that South Africans face the uncomfortable truth, that perpetrators of violence against women are normal men and at times men we idolise.
Secondly, the characterisation of perpetrators of violence against women as monsters takes away their agency – their ability to discern right from wrong and being held to account for their actions. The monster-violent man narrative implicitly declares perpetrators of violence against women as impulsive men who lack restraint and self-control or "provoked beyond limit", thereby absolving them of their crime. Debunking assumptions about the profile of rapists may be the entry point in the cause of ending violence against women in South Africa. This would assist in allowing the space for society to approach the psyche of masculinity and its violent consequences in the South African context.
The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's recently published research study examines why violence against women persists in South Africa and what needs to be done to address it. One of the findings of the research speak to the monster-violent man narrative by highlight the psychological explanations for why violence against women persists as articulated and understood by victims interviewed in the study. The authors of the research argued that psychological explanations of violent men must be considered within the context of structural and systemic realities around gender relations, that is to say, male violence needs to be seen as a power and control technique that is ingrained in and reinforced by South Africa's patriarchal society.
It is equally important that the government respond to the plight of women in South Africa beyond mere rhetoric, but address the issue in a concerted and coordinated manner. This will require the government to move beyond activism on Women's Month or during the 16 Days of Activism for no violence against women and children and instead embark on an ongoing process of public engagement and activism to end violence against women in our lifetime and address systemic gender inequalities.
Finally, the utterances of the president of the ANC Women's League (ANCWL), Bathabile Dlamini, who essentially reduces the country's outrage at Manana's actions as a "political tool" is disconcerting for a number of reasons. Dlamini's utterances highlight the level of internalised patriarchy in the ANCWL, leading one to question the legitimacy of the body and its commitment to one of its objectives, namely, "to combat discrimination in public and in private life and institutions and to work actively towards the dismantling of the patriarchal system, the elimination of laws, customs, practices and structures which militate against equality and to oppose any strengthening of patriarchy". Living up to this objective can no longer be a means to obtain political currency, but a nonnegotiable priority.
Originally published in The New Age, 18 September 2017.