When Uyinene Mrwetyana went missing on 24 August 2019, her family and friends started a nationwide campaign to find her and bring her home. They put up posters. They begged the South African Police Service (SAPS) to launch an investigation. #BringNeneHome was tweeted and retweeted across the country.
When the news broke that a male employee of the country’s postal service raped and murdered Mrwetyana in a post office, South Africans were stunned, horrified, and angry. Jesse Hess, also a 19 year old student, was murdered in her home. Leighandre Jegels, a boxing champion, was shot and killed by her former partner. Women’s Month, meant to commemorate the women who marched against pass laws in apartheid South Africa, ended with the murders of young women at the hands of men.
Although South Africa’s murder rate has dropped since 2000, it still has one of the highest murder rates for women in the world.
A 2018 report shows that almost 69% of victims of sexual offenses in South Africa are women. In 2017, at least half of murdered women were killed by a partner.
These statistics, and the murders of Hess, Mrwetyana and Jegels are a painful reminder that gender-based violence is prevalent in South African society, with seemingly no government action and political will to protect the lives of women.
There have been calls for government intervention in the past. Students protested against rape culture and sexual violence on university campus in 2016, only to be arrested by the police for disrupting the peace. The 2018 Total Shutdown campaign marched for an end to violence against women in South Africa. Its organizers called for women and gender non-conforming people to stay at home and not engage in any economic activity on 1 August, the start of Women’s Month. They demanded that government finally treat gender-based violence with the urgency it required. Dressed in black and red, protesters across South Africa marched to government buildings and handed a list of 24 demands.
These demands were simple enough, including that President Ramaphosa not appoint anyone known for perpetrating violence against women into any government position. The response was more promises and pledges to act. A year later, with the murders and disappearances of more women across the country, the deep frustration and anger against government inaction has only grown.
After the murders of Hess, Mrwetyana and Jegels, students held vigils and memorial services for the women whose lives were violently ended, and mourned at the traumas and fears that their country silenced and delegitimised. Women shared their experiences of trying to report cases of abuse and assault to the police, only to be ridiculed and dismissed. Parents shared their fears of having to bury their children. Enough was enough. Protesters took to the streets during the World Economic Forum on Africa, demanding that President Ramaphosa come out and address them on. He could not act as though it was business as usual when women were living in fear of rape and murder. Once again, the protests were met with police, who deployed water cannons to disperse the crowds.
For the women of South Africa, there is a pervasive sense that the time for empty promises is over. No longer can strong words and political rhetoric satisfy the demands for justice and protection. Women are fighting back. On social media, anonymous accounts have taken it upon themselves the names of alleged abusers and rapists. Women have used online platforms to share their experiences and find support and justice. They have relied on the care and support of each other as they press politicians to introduce legislation to protect women and tougher punishments for those convicted of gender-based crime.
President Ramaphosa has promised that this time, Parliament will deliver. One of his proposals is to amend the law on the National Register of Sexual Offenders. Currently private, the president seeks to make the register public and accessible. “Enough is enough”, he declared in an address. It remains to be seen whether or not Ramaphosa and his government will succeed in their proposals. For the lives affected by violence against women, they need to.
‘Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo’ is a famous South African refrain. ‘You strike a woman, you strike a rock’. Invoked to praise women for their strength, valor and value, the words are from the 1956 women’s march in South Africa. Protesting against the introduction of apartheid laws that would affect women, the women’s march is a symbol for women’s activism and rights in the country. However, six decades on, and the situation of women in South Africa is still one of oppression and violence.