On Gender Violence

February 12, 2013

Anene Booysen memoria(At the memorial service for Anene Booysen. Source: Daily Maverick)

Anene Booysen was a 17-year old girl from Bredasdorp in the South Western Cape. On Saturday the 2nd of February she went to a bar and drank there until the early hours of the morning. She was then lured out of the bar by some men, who raped her and mutilated her body. Several hours later she was found at a construction site by a security guard and taken to hospital where she later died from all her injuries. Before she died, she named at least one of her attackers (her former boyfriend, Jonathan Davids).

Since then there has been a huge media outcry and somewhere in all the outrage and public statements and marches, the person of Anene Booysen has been, if not ignored, then overlooked. For stories on this, read Kate Stegeman in the M&G and Ranjeni Munusamy at the Daily Maverick. I’ve read several stories on this and heard radio interviews and commentary and all I know about Anene Booysen, other than her shocking murder, is that she was fostered by another couple after her mother died. On the night Anene was killed, her foster mother warned her not to stay out too late.

There is talk that this will finally highlight the appalling violence against women in South Africa in the way that the terrible gang rape in India of the woman known as “India’s daughter” highlighted gender inequalities and violence there.

Generally people have reacted to this story with a combination of shock, numbness, disbelief, sadness, anger and outrage. There have been calls for improved justice, calls for a sustained focus on gender activism, as well as calls for increased funding of NGOs such as Rape Crisis. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights called for a comprehensive approach to tackle the “pandemic of sexual violence in South Africa”. Other commentators have said that after the initial outrage, we as South African society will forget … until the next time.

Apart from making a quick donation to Rape Crisis, I spoke to one of my colleagues about what he thought should be done. He was all for stopping school for a morning and protesting outside Parliament. Since my colleague is a lot older than me (and a respected figure) I couldn’t forcefully disagree with him. But I was frustrated by this response. It’s all very well to protest at what government is doing, but what are we doing? Government would say that they have substantial social development budgets. The President condemned the incident and called for a end to violence against women (perhaps ironic given that he was himself charged with rape a few years back, a charge that was later dismissed).

As for what we as schools or community organisations can do, schools have the power to raise money for worthy causes. Schools as organizations raise money and awareness with all kinds of drives and initiatives. Of course we are all busy. But isn’t it time that civil society engaged around this issue? How do we as a country address these vitally important issues?

We often hear the statement that South Africa is the “rape capital of the world”. Just today I saw that about 65,000 cases of sexual violence are reported in South Africa every year. A small percentage of those result in convictions.

Munusamy quotes Saths Cooper, one of South Africa’s most prominent psychologists, who highlighted the complex nature of sexual violence in South Africa.

He said there were several root causes of sexual violence against women including power relations, socialisation and economic and social conditions.

“In most societies where there is economic stability and social security, incidence of rape is fairly low. But when social and economic conditions are unstable, and there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety, there are concomitant levels of rape and other aberrations,” Cooper said.

“We don’t know to what extent the frustration of young and old males, at their wits end in a society that has discarded them, where they have no jobs and women tend to get things quicker exacerbates the situation. That is not a cause, but could be an underlying issue behind incidence of sexual violence.”


I hope this story runs and runs. We need to move past numbness and hand-wringing and finger-pointing and outrage and highlight the areas of this problem that need fixing. Then we can support the various organizations that are already working to address the various facets of the problem. Justice needs to be the first priority. Empowering women and young people is crucial. Rehabilitating men is also important. It’s time for the politicians and civil society leaders (and all of us) to come up with plans to address this massive problem.

Writing about crime

June 23, 2009

One of the less pleasant aspects about living in South Africa is that I get to think a lot about crime. There’s the vigilance when out in public (and also at home), the horror stories in the media and then the reports on how bad things are. Just this past week we had that disturbing report that of 1,000 men polled in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, 25% admitted to having committed rape at some point in their lives. The study received reasonable coverage in the media and has now been relegated to everyday conversation over the dinner table or over tea with colleagues. Everyone seems to agree that it’s shocking, frightening and disturbing.

We’ve also had some good news with the dress-rehearsal for the World Cup soccer tournament, the Confederations Cup, making us believe for however short a moment that we have a soccer team to be proud of. But even here, the tournament has been marred by theft from one of the teams, the Egyptians, who vehemently deny allowing prostitutes up to their rooms, and thus indirectly inviting a robbery.

Today’s Cape Times has an interesting piece by Joanne Hichens, who recently edited a collection of crime fiction short stories called Bad Company. Fresh from attending a Crime Stories Colloquium in Johannesburg, she writes:

I can’t remember who said that we’re living in a perpetual state of hyper-arousal, alert to the possibility of crime in everyday life. But isn’t it true that when it happens we are all to some degree vicariously traumatised?

When she gets home she finds that her neighbours’ Mercedez was hijacked the day before and some of her other neighbours email an all-too-familiar question: What must we do to protect outselves? Her answer:

“In a country where crime is routine, the way to protect ourselves, as the colloquium showed, is to cross the divide, to talk and to listen, to risk knowing. Crime is seldom a random dance. Perhaps it could be described as a clash of realities. The criminal’s story is as important as that of the victim in understanding the complexities of crime in all its forms.”

And, perhaps fittingly, that’s what I’m doing at the moment. Reading (and editing) a ‘criminal’s’ story. The level of abuse this young woman (the ‘criminal’) suffered as a child is shocking, disturbing and frightening. Reading her story also makes me realise some of the illogical logic of crime. To those who are already weak and disempowered, the most likely target will be those who are similarly weak and disempowered. Children and the elderly are two unfortunate targets.

I also know that equipping myself with knowledge about the “other” is anxiety-provoking. Realising the extent of people’s desperation and ‘damage’ makes me far less likely to take risks with my possessions or my safety. But it also makes me want to know more. Cape Town is a complex city and the more I learn about it, the more I want to know. Writing about crime gets to the point of a lot of what’s wrong with this city (and with South Africa as a whole).

So I’m both discouraged but also strangely encouraged in the sense of getting this book edited and into the pipeline of publishing. I think it needs a lot of work but it’s a good story. I’ll let you know what happens.

Mbeki as tragic Shakesperian hero

September 22, 2008

President Thabo Mbeki’s shock resignation on Sunday night has me reaching for my Julius Caesar (Act 3, scene 2). I have this image of the noble Caesar (Mbeki) cut down in the forum by the conspirators (Mantashe, Motlanthe, Malema, Zuma et al).

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it….
Here was a Caesar! when comes such another?

I see that Zapiro (our national and increasingly controversial cartoonist) went a far more direct route with his weekly Sunday Times cartoon.

Mbeki gave a good farewell speech – noble, dignified and pleading his innocence while bowing out graciously. Even though he was an aloof, intellectual and decidedly un-empathic president for most of his term in office, I still prefer him over Zuma whom I just don’t trust. Zuma is possibly more duplicitous, saying what people want to hear (business to the business world; socialism to the workers, his Umshini Wam song to the masses) and then doing what he wants anyway. But I guess the masses would say that they love him because he connects with them. They can identify with him.

What was good about Mbeki’s speech on Sunday was that for the first time in a long time, he spoke from the heart as well as from the head. You could see the emotion in his eyes. The irony is that both Zuma and Mbeki have portrayed themselves as victims rather than perpetrators whereas it is their own actions which have got them (and the country) into such a mess.
Antony famously says that “I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on”.

Of course the opposite is true. He speaks very eloquently using the “power of speech” to stir men’s blood to rise up against Brutus and the other conspirators. The trick to being a good politician is to speak eloquently but to let people believe that you are speaking “right on”. It’s also a pity that this new Mbeki, the leader who connects with his feelings as well as his considerable intellect, is bowing out.

Update: I see that Alison Tilley over at Thoughtleader has had similar (but also quite different) ideas on the subject of Mbeki as tragic Shakesperian hero.

Poison: Apocalypse Now

September 15, 2008

Internet hanging today and I’m struggling to connect. I feel a knot in my stomach and it probably doesn’t help that I’ve just read Henrietta Rose-Innes’ prize-winning short story Poison over at Guardian Books. (The Caine prize is for the best short-story written in English by an African writer.)

Poison is apocalyptic and impersonal. Well-written and I can imagine that petrol station she describes very well. There’s a similar one just down the N2 from here. It is a model of efficiency and consumer-friendliness but I wonder what it would be like if there was a shortage of petrol and everyone was scrambling to get out of the city (as in her story). Every time I stop in there for some Wimpy coffee or fill up on the way to a weekend away I’ll probably be reminded of Lynn, the resigned and rather helpless heroine (not completely resigned, she is also resourceful) who is waiting for the emergency men to come and save her with their sirens and flashing lights and shiny vests. There’s clearly a metaphor waiting to be unpacked here (with political and social and environmental overtones).

But the story left me dissatisfied, perhaps because I was looking for an example of empathy and there’s none to be had in that apocalyptic landscape. Clearly that could be seen as a sign of the ‘new’ South Africa. Not much empathy. And not much of a plan other than waiting around to be rescued by someone else. If that doesn’t work out she’ll take a rusty bicycle and ride off to find something else.

Proudly South African (and English)

June 26, 2008

I have a friend whose granny taught her to play the “Glad Game”. Whenever she felt like complaining she should think of 10 things to be grateful for. Now this has always struck me as a form of denialism, but I also like the positivity that it generates.

So in the spirit of my friend’s granny I want to think of 10 reasons to be proudly South African: 1. Nelson Mandela; 2. Desmond Tutu; 3. the Springboks; 4. Mamphele Ramphele; 5. Johnny Clegg; 6. Natalie du Toit; 7. the Drakensberg; 8. the winelands; 9. Table Mountain National Park; and 10. the Parlotones.

As a Capetonian, I just had to slip in a reference to The Mountain. As a psychologist, I like to see things in balance. I’ve never been completely comfortable about the “Proudly South African” campaign, perhaps because it seems a bit one-sided. Some people might say that I’m too attached to the opposite emotion, that of shame but I think you can’t do justice to South Africa without acknowledging that shame. I wanted to put the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation campaign) in my list but it didn’t seem right.

No-one in their right mind would start a campaign called “Shamefully South African” but there is a lot of negativity attached to life here. Ask me to rattle off 10 reasons to be ashamed of being a South African and I will immediately give you: 1. Xenophobia; 2. Aids (and Aids denialism); 3. Thabo Mbeki; 4. Zimbabwe (and Mbeki’s failures in that regard); 5. Crime; 6. Jacob Zuma; 7. corruption; 8. the ANC youth league; 9. Apartheid and 10. poverty and unemployment. Not to mention alcoholism and a general propensity towards violence.

Now some of these things are not uniquely South African but they are cause for a lot of heartache. Mbeki’s biographer Mark Gevisser says that as South Africans we have a tendency towards a form of national manic-depression — we alternate between euphoria and despair. The euphoria of our First Democratic Elections in 1994 and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as our first democratically-elected president was closely followed by winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Then we lurched into the despair of Aids, Zimbabwe, the Arms deal and corruption. And underlying a lot of the negativity was the collapse of the Rand and our comparative economic decline. Watching the petrol price go up every week – and realising that our chances of economic prosperity are getting dimmer – is depressing.

Now the book that prompted this national soul-searching on my part, strangely enough, has been The English by Jeremy Paxman. It’s probably a bit dated now since it was written in 1999 but it got me thinking about the links between the individual and the social, the personal and the political. I like the way it starts:

Once upon a time the English knew who they were. There was such a ready list of adjectives to hand. They were polite, unexcitable, reserved and had hot-water bottles instead of a sex life: how they reproduced was one of the mysteries of the western world.

Now I found Paxman to be funny, informative and thoughtful but, to be honest, also smug, irritating and a bit stand-offish. Anna Tomczak writes about the book:

It’s a work of many different hues and shades – sarcastic and critical at times, humorous and witty but also passionate, full of empathy and dedication. And yet, it’s a portrait with a flaw. Out of eleven chapters only one is about English women, the last one, and it’s mainly about prostitution in England. Some females are briefly mentioned. Florence Nightingale and Mrs Thatcher appear in passing. Betty Boothroyd features in one of the anecdotes. What about others? Emily Pankhurst, Vivian Westwood, Mary Quant, Mary Whitehouse, the women of Greenham Common – didn’t they make any impact?

That’s a good point. Perhaps partly because I’m busy with a lot of other work, I found it difficult to just relax and read the book. He moves too quickly from the personal to the national for a start. For example, he mentions going to a funeral of a friend in South Africa and being impressed with the “sweet passion” with which the choir of cleaning ladies sang “Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika”. When it was time for the English to sing their hymn, Jerusalem, he felt embarrassed. “We couldn’t manage it with any conviction,” he says, before commenting that the English don’t have a proper national song. Now, it seems pretty obvious to me that the discomfort with singing “Jerusalem” with great gusto has a lot more to do with being at a funeral than anything else.

But I like the idea of thinking about national identities and teasing out some of the links between the individual and the social. I would certainly like to read such a book about South Africa, but perhaps the scope is just too large. Personal stories tend to be more interesting.