Image credit: “A University of KZN student is overcome with emotion during a protest over security on campus,” Sandile Ndlovu
Republished with permission from the Forum For Global Human Rights.
Trigger warning: gender-based violence, sexual abuse, murder, rape.
On the 25th of November 2022, activists from around the world mobilized to raise awareness of Gender Based Violence (GBV) during 16 days of activism with the support of the United Nations. However, GBV in South Afrika remains an epidemic. Femicide, the killing of women because of their gender identity happens three times a day , making South Afrika an epicenter for crimes committed against women. However, it is important to recognize these women as rights-bearing members of South Afrikan society, rather than reducing their lives and stories to statistics. Drawing on the historical context of Apartheid South Afrika and the devaluing of life that took place under this brutal regime, this article assesses both the roots of GBV and the ongoing systemic issues in preventing and prosecuting perpetrators of GBV crimes. Although the South Afrikan government has made undertakings to its very own 1994 Constitution , and international commitments to the United Nations Elimination of All forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) , this article aims to be a reminder of such commitments, as well as a critical assessment of how South Afrika is failing its citizens, despite its national strategic plan to end GBV.
The role of Apartheid in normalizing GBV
The system of Apartheid South Afrika yielded fertile ground for rape and other acts of violence, providing a historical context to modern-day GBV. These acts of both sexual and non-sexual violence were state-sanctioned to prevent resistance from Black South Afrikans. No resistance would make the seizure of land and implementation of discriminatory legislation much easier for the masters of the Apartheid system. Rape became the necessary prelude to uphold the system of Apartheid and its fundamental characteristics that to be Black is to be inferior. Sexual violence manifested in various forms from ‘Jack rolling’ which refers to a form of gang rape where multiple perpetrators kidnap and rape women , and ‘virgin cleansing’ which is carried out by men who believe that sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) like HIV/AIDS can be cured by raping a virgin woman .
Acts of sexual violence did not end when Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994, with no explicit laws set out to combat GBV in the 1994 Constitution of the Republic of South Afrika , the building block for its liberation. The Bill of Rights states that “Everyone has the right to life” , but does not commit to outlining how the gendered context within which the right to life is often violated. Above all, it remains firmly embedded in South Afrikan society that the threat of rape remains as strong as it did pre-Independence, seeing Black South Afrikan women like Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula being murdered in what is supposed to be a liberated South Afrika . Combatting the epidemic of femicide and sexual violence has to begin with a reckoning of how they became normalized and desensitized under Apartheid rule in order to alleviate the post-traumatic stress that the country is currently under. In return, such a reckoning will hopefully create demand for women’s voices to be heard and for each individual case to be treated with equal urgency in South Afrika’s courts.
In 1995, fourteen years after it had been enforced, South Afrika ratified CEDAW complementing it with the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (DEVAW), which explores in depth the prevalence of GBV. Article one states that GBV is “any act of… violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm” , such physical acts of violence fall under “rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment…” which are characterized under Article two. By such definitions, the day-to-day beating of female partners, ‘jack rolling’ , ‘virgin cleansing’ and the most extreme cases where women are murdered , are all direct breaches of the UN convention and speak to how the conditions that women live under in South Afrika do not reflect universal standards.
The murder of Popi and Bongeka
In South Afrika, legislation has acted as a prologue for what needs to be a national conversation on GBV to help awaken South Afrikan society into action. Being a party to DEVAW will perhaps demonstrate to the international community that the state is taking action against GBV, but it is women in South Afrika who deserve to see these efforts become something greater. In South Afrika, two in five women will be beaten by their domestic partner , and 30-40% of women have experienced sexual or intimate partner violence in their lifetime . These statistics do not point to the thousands of women who lose their lives to GBV every year, estimated at around 13,815 over the age of 18 , nor do they account for the failures of public bodies to uphold human rights legislation in order to protect these women. GBV alone points to a sickness that plagues South Afrikan society, but the disregard of human rights legislation on the part of public bodies, further reveals how far they have diverged from the standards of fundamental rights, further burying this sickness in the soil of the nation.
The murder of Popi Qwabe and Bongeka Phungula, aged twenty-four and twenty-eight, in 2017  is a prime example of what happens when human rights are undermined and disregarded by law enforcers. The best friends hailed a taxi and were never seen alive again , having been pronounced deceased by their families who later identified them . Two taxi drivers were arrested on suspicion of their murders but were later released due to a lack of evidence. Their case highlights the shortfalls of police investigations into cases of GBV and the failure to prioritize justice for victims.
In an interview with VICE , a news reporting outlet, the daughter of Bongeka stated: “the same men that are supposed to be protecting us are killing us” , demonstrating that South Afrika’s police force is both complicit and collusive in GBV crimes. Not only are the police failing in their protective role, they have also been the perpetrators of these crimes, abusing their power as a public authority. Women in South Afrika are afforded no guarantee that the male police officer who responds to their call will not just be another abuser. In the town of Brackenfell, located in the Western Cape province, a police officer allegedly raped a victim of GBV during a call to report her boyfriend abusing her . The officer directed the victim into his police car and en route, allegedly raped her. Sadly, this is not uncommon in police responses to victim calls and is severely rooted in a form of hope that public bodies are accountable to those they serve and will not misuse their power. The Brackenfell case highlights the degree to how flawed the system of reporting GBV crimes is, further evoking fear in female victims. The police, like any other public body, is but a reflection of the pitfalls of a society. But when they are not adequately scrutinized by the state, women in South Afrika are left to hope that the state will protect them. This is precisely what Bongeka’s daughter captured in her statement, that so long as the justice system remains the birthplace of injustice, her mother’s case will never receive the justice it deserves. In light of such institutional injustices, are the efforts of public bodies enough to prevent GBV from taking place?
The TotalShutDown, 21 demands and Ramaphosa’s Bill
TotalShutDown (TSD) is a movement against GBV that took its slogan “my body not your crime scene” to the streets of Pretoria in 2018 . Speaking for women and non-conforming people, TSD argued that viral campaigns against GBV were not doing enough to get to the root issue, dwelling in popular status rather than creating lasting solutions to the problem. Accordingly, TSD created 21 actionable deadlines from protections and support for victims of violence to stronger sentencing for perpetrators . These deadlines were heard by President Ramaphosa who admitted publicly that “we must intensify the campaign against gender-based violence”. In support of TSD, a Declaration of the Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide came into fruition , outlining that GBV is “a violation of the Constitution of South Afrika” and coined a set of aims one being the need to “fast-track the review of existing laws and policies on gender-based violence to be victim-centered and ensure all other relevant laws respond to GBV”.
However, verbal action does not translate into systematic change and awareness without tangible solutions will not guarantee that femicide rates decrease over the next few years, or even that women receive justice in South Afrikan courts. With that being said, it is worth looking at what is currently being done to meet the demands of TSD and South Afrikan women more broadly. With commitments being made by current president Ramaphosa in his three Anti-GBV Bills , women will be offered protection from presenting in court during decision-making on protection orders against perpetrators, as well as being able to make applications for protection orders online . All rooted in a clear goal to ensure anonymity for victims of GBV, the bill is a step in the right direction and proves that more can be done at the systemic level.
Whilst systemic change will grant women legal protection as they push for their cases to be heard in South Afrikan courts, contextualizing GBV is as important. Both the refusal to reckon with sexual violence as a tool to oppress Black South Afrikans under Apartheid rule and how this very tool has been adopted by men as a means to oppress South Afrikan women are the root causes of soaring levels of sexual violence. Simply put, educating South Afrika on GBV is as urgent as prosecuting perpetrators of it. However, the role of movements like TSD proves that South Afrikan society is making genuine steps to tackle this epidemic. Uproar brought about as a result of the murders of Popi and Bongeka are but one example of growing awareness and a refusal to be bystanders to femicide. But the momentum can not slow down, and above all, the state has to take its rightful position in creating a legal framework for female victims to receive justice if GBV is to be eliminated for good.
 Elspeth Burris, Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: Thinking Beyond Carceral Solutions. (Research paper, University of Ottawa,2022): 1-53
 (The Republic of South Africa’s Constitution)
 UN General Assembly, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations (1979)
 Elspeth Burris, “Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: Thinking Beyond Carceral Solutions.” (Research Paper, University of Ottawa, 2022) 10-11
 (The Republic of South Africa)
 Ibid. Act 11
 UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, United Nations (1993)
 Elspeth Burris, “Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: Thinking Beyond Carceral Solutions.” (Research paper, University of Ottawa, 2022)10-11
 Media Hack, Bhekisisa Team, “#SayHerName: The faces of South Africa’s femicide epidemic”, Mail & Guardian, April 14, 2021, https://mg.co.za/health/2021-04-14-sayhername-the-faces-of-south-africas-femicide-epidemic/
 Elspeth Burris, “Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: Thinking Beyond Carceral Solutions.” (Research paper, University of Ottawa, 2022)
 Staff Writer, “Sonke Gender Justice will march in the #TheTotalShutdown – will you?”, Sonke Gender Justice, July 31, 2018, https://genderjustice.org.za/article/sonke-gender-justice-will-march-in-the-thetotalshutdown-will-you/
 Britni Danielle, “#TotalShutDown: South African Women Take to The Streets To Protect Gender-Based Violence”, Essence, October 23, 2020, https://www.essence.com/news/totalshutdown-south-african-women-protest-violence/
 The Presidency Republic of South Africa, “Declaration of The Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide”, National Summit Against Gender-Based UN Violence and Femicide, South Africa, 1-2 November 2018. pp. 1-4, https://www.thepresidency.gov.za/content/declaration-presidential-summit-against-gender-based-violence-and-femicide
 Ibid. 2-4
 Babalo Ndenze, “Ramaphosa Signs Into Law 3 Anti-GBV Bills, Bringing more Protection to Victims”, Eyewitness News, January 31, 2022, https://ewn.co.za/2022/01/31/ramaphosa-signs-into-law-3-anti-gbv-bills-bringing-more-protection-to-victims
Burris, Elspeth. “Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: Thinking Beyond Carceral Solutions.” Research Paper, University of Ottawa, 2022 Available at:https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/43615/1/ElspethBurris_GBV%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf
Bloomberg Quicktake: Now. “Why Gender-Based Violence is So Prevalent in South Africa.” 4 min 27 seconds, Youtube, (2020). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Up8_IKImo38
Danielle, Britni. #TotalShutDown: South African Women Take to The Streets To Protect Gender-Based Violence”, Essence, October 23, 2020 Available at: https://www.essence.com/news/totalshutdown-south-african-women-protest-violence/
Media Hack, Bhekisisa Team. #SayHerName: The faces of South Africa’s femicide epidemic”, Mail & Guardian, April 14, 2021, Available at: https://mg.co.za/health/2021-04-14-sayhername-the-faces-of-south-africas-femicide-epidemic/
Ndenze, Babalo. “Ramaphosa Signs Into Law 3 Anti-GBV Bills, Bringing more Protection to Victims”, Eyewitness News, January 31, 2022, Available at: https://ewn.co.za/2022/01/31/ramaphosa-signs-into-law-3-anti-gbv-bills-bringing-more-protection-to-victims
Staff Writer. Sonke Gender Justice will march in the #TheTotalShutdown – will you?” Sonke Gender Justice, July 31, 2018. Available at: https://genderjustice.org.za/article/sonke-gender-justice-will-march-in-the-thetotalshutdown-will-you/
The Presidency Republic of South Africa. Declaration of The Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide” National Summit Against Gender-Based UN Violence and Femicide. South Africa. November 1-2, 2018. pp. 1-4. Accessed (November 20, 2022) Available at: https://www.thepresidency.gov.za/content/declaration-presidential-summit-against-gender-based-violence-and-femicide
United Nations. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. United Nations General Assembly December 18, 1979. Accessed (November 17, 2022). Available at: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/
United Nations. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. United Nations General Assembly. December 20,1993. Accessed (November 17, 2022). Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/eliminationvaw.pdf
VICE. “A Woman is Murdered Every 3 Hours in South Africa”, 10 min 22 seconds, Youtube (2021), Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atMTFpX_TN4