I would have returned your greeting
If it weren’t for the way you were looking at me
This street is not a market
And I am not a commodity
Don’t you find it sad that we can’t even say hello
’Cause you’re a man
And I’m a woman
And the sun is getting low
There are some places that I can’t go
As a woman I can’t go there
Feminist icon, left-wing activist and folk singer Ani DiFranco sang those evocative words on her eponymous debut album, which was released in 1990. The Story was an intimate, vulnerable and powerful song about no-go areas for women, simply because they’re women. Almost three decades later, its universality still resonates in and beyond DiFranco’s American motherland.
The state of femicide
South African women are not safe, anywhere. Two years ago, feminist and academic Amanda Gouws listed some of the most gruesome horrors South African men visited upon South African women:
A gang of men raped and killed Valencia Farmer in 1999, aged 14, in a deserted house in Eerste River. They stabbed her 53 times.
In 2012, a group of killers stabbed 19-year-old Sihle Sikoji with a spear in the chest outside Nyanga tavern, near Cape Town, because she was a lesbian.
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp by shooting her through the bathroom door of his upmarket home in Centurion, south of Tshwane.
Karabo Mokoena and her boyfriend Sandile Mantsoe had a heated argument on 27 April 2017 at a Sandton nightclub. Afterwards, Mantsoe stabbed her to death, stuffed her body into rubbish bags and then burned her beyond recognition. Mantsoe was sentenced to 32 years imprisonment for killing Mokoena.
These are only a minute fraction of the stories about the violent realities South African women face.
“People remember these gruesome cases that end up on newspapers’ front pages. These women’s stories come with a flare-up of societal outrage, protest and collective introspection,” Gouws wrote not long after the Mokoena murder. “Then South Africans live in hope for a while, believing that this time something might change. But nothing does in a country marked by unusually high levels of rape and femicide.”
We live in hope that our anger, outrage and tears will make a difference. But alas. On 24 August, a post office worker allegedly raped and killed University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana at a Claremont post office. The man – who was hired despite having had armed robbery and sexual assault charges levelled against him previously – has reportedly confessed to bludgeoning her to death with a scale. The murder has been widely covered in the media and prompted a number of protest marches against the continuing femicide in South Africa.
This latest high-profile murder of a woman means we can add a post office to the list of no-go areas, where South African women are not safe, along with other similarly mundane places: clubs, streets, velds, workplaces, homes… Everywhere is a no-go area.
Naming this femicide is important. This is being written five days after Mrwetyana’s murder. Since then, a South African woman has been murdered every three hours – about 40 women’s lives ended by men. These figures are based on 2017-2018 South African Police Service data, sourced by fact-checking organisation Africa Check.
The adult women murder rate increased by 7.7% between 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. There were 15.2 murders for every 100 000 adult women in South Africa – that is just adults, according to an article on the Africa Check website.
As we know, South African men kill South African girls as well. According to the most recent global database from the World Health Organisation on the murder of females (including adult women and girls), South Africa has the fourth-highest rate after Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho.
The responsibility lies with men
A heavy dread is hanging over a powerless South African populace this week, as it has done before, and will continue to do. As a concerned father, I was immediately thinking about what we must tell our daughters. “No,” a wise younger friend said. “I want to know what you’re going to tell your sons. As women, we already have 20 plans, escape routes, out of every situation in our heads.”
What do we tell our South African boys? Where do we start? I thought about author Margaret Atwood’s famous quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” The full version comes from an anecdote in her 1995 collection of essays, Second Words: Selected Critical Prose. She writes:
“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine.
‘I mean,’ I said, ‘men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.’
‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’
Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’
‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”
In South Africa, with its rape figures said to be among the highest in the world, women are petrified of men raping them. Obvious as it might sound, we have to teach our sons about rape culture and how it manifests itself in multiple forms.
It works, counsellor Kathryn Stamoulis wrote in an article for Psychology Today. It means teaching our sons to become humbler and kinder, to listen more, shut our mouths and realise we don’t know better; to embrace feminist teachings about equality and enthusiastic consent; and shift understandings of what constitutes masculinity.
It starts on the streets, where women get hassled, whistled at and harassed. One of the important points Stamoulis makes is that sexual harassment of any kind is wrong: “Unwanted comments about a person’s body or catcalls on the street are not funny and they are not compliments. It can make a person feel threatened … If we condemn sexual harassment, it will be clear more egregious sexual violence is not tolerated.”
All of the above, of course, applies to all men. We are the problem. And we have to fix it.