The most harrowing thing I do every day here at home in South Africa is the ten-minute morning drive to my two daughters’ school.
It is not fear of a possible hijacking or attack by criminals that I fear. I am afraid of words.
You see, we have newspaper posters here, tied to streetlight poles, advertising the big stories of the day to lure readers to buy from the ubiquitous sellers at traffic lights. Tuesday was another horrific day.
“Why TV star klapped (slapped) her!” screamed the down-market tabloid The Daily Sun. Its more upmarket cousin, the Sowetan, reported: “Boys forced to have sex: Attempted rape avenged with rape.” And to this daily diet was added Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic hero standing accused of the murder of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp: “Oscar¹s Gun Wishlist.” This story went on to list the six firearm licences Mr. Pistorius had applied for, with a graphic of his face and the three shotguns, a rifle and two handguns staring out at readers. All this staring out at me and my two young girls, one of whom is a fluent reader. To avoid this assault, nowadays, I tune the radio to the more anodyne music stations and steer discussion to South Africa’s wildlife.
This is a country that is at war with its women. The governing political party’s women’s wing, the ANC Women’s League, is picketing “against the high rate of femicide in South Africa” at Mr. Pistorius’ trial.
Femicide, with its intimations of murder on a vast scale, is just about right. Naeemah Abrahams, a senior researcher at the Medical Research Council, says a study of data between 1999 and 2009 shows that the rate of female homicides in South Africa was five times higher than the global rate. On average, a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by her partner or relative.
Yet, despite numerous activists’ voices highlighting the problem, nothing much is done by politicians. Every six months or so, a horrific incident occurs and public voices are raised, politicians turn up at the victim’s house as press cameras flash, then we all go about our business.
We treat the horrific cases as a rarity, whereas the truth is that rape and murder of women is commonplace here.
Following the Pistorius case and the fact that Reeva Steenkamp was killed by a man with a gun, we are once again a country up in arms about the horrific murder and rape of women, but again nothing much is being done. On the evening of the day Ms. Steenkamp was killed, President Jacob Zuma – a man given to calling his main opposition opponent in Parliament “little girl,” gave his State of the Nation speech. He decried the rampant violence against women. Then he announced drastic measures to clamp down on workers and communities protesting against lack of services. He did not announce any serious new measures to fight gender-based violence.
South Africa is a country crying out for a real conversation about violence against women and rape. Not many here discuss the fact that a solution to this problem may have to begin with a discussion of how we raise our young boys and men. Truth is, they are raised with violence: Traditional roles are calcified, bullying at schools and universities is rampant, a macho culture which glorifies gun ownership – Mr. Pistorius loved tweeting about his prowess on the shooting range, something that is very similar to what some of my cousins love to tell me about themselves – pervades our society. It is these men who kill or maim or even rape.
Being who we are, there is always an avalanche of explanations about why we men in South African rape. Many blame the apartheid regime and how it allegedly dehumanized and humiliated black men. Others blame poverty. We wallow in analysis and do nothing while the body count ticks up.
There is something we can do, in my view. We can look at the cold hard facts of what we know, and it simply this: South African men have declared war on their women. They maim, beat, rape, shoot and kill them.
Men have to take a cold hard look at themselves and acknowledge they have a problem. Men need to talk.
Right now, that is not happening. I have written elsewhere and I will repeat it today: We need a state of emergency in this country.
We need a concerted push that sits men down in communities, in schools, in work places, and makes them look themselves in the face and acknowledge that they know fellow workers, acquaintances and friends who rape. Studies have showed that some 28 per cent of men in South Africa have admitted to rape. Who are their friends?
It is us, the ones who walk away, who keep quiet, who say nothing even as the cries of women in our homes and neighbourhoods fill the nights. The answer lies with South African men. Just as the HIV pandemic is being defeated here through concerted and steady education, so too can we teach our men to be empathetic and human.
Otherwise our children – boys and girls – have no future here.
If South Africa does not break the pattern today, now, I fear our children’s pain will not be just stuff they read on newspaper posters on the school run.
Our children will be the real victims.
Justice Malala is a South African newspaper columnist and political commentator.