How a Global Pandemic Has Failed to Stop South Africa’s Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Crisis

Recently, South African women were outraged by the horrific murder of 28-year-old Tshego Pule. She was found hanging from a tree with stab wounds to her chest after she went missing at the beginning of June. Pule was also reportedly heavily pregnant at the time of her death. And while her perpetrator, 31 year-old Mzikayise Malephane, was charged with pre-meditated murder not long afterwards, this is not the universal experience of South African women when it comes to obtaining justice.

There is no other subject, save for governmental corruption and state capture perhaps, that receives as much attention in the media as gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide in South Africa. And despite the alarming statistics which are well above the global average and frighteningly so, there is a glaring lack of political will by the ANC-led government to bring about any actual change. President Cyril Ramaphosa has made promises about perpetrators of violence against women being charged with harsher sentences. This has still not come to fruition. There is radio silence from the numerous task forces set up to develop various approaches in addressing the crisis. And still, women continue to die, the daily online hashtags demanding justice for them falling on deaf ears.


READ: Here’s What the South African Government has Promised to Do About Gender-based Violence

The ongoing national lockdown in South Africa has only exacerbated the GBV and femicide crisis. Under level-5 of the lockdown, stricts social distancing measures, increased policing and restrictions on movement served to entrap victims of domestic abuse with their perpetrators. Additionally, the shelters that ordinarily receive victims, have themselves been under tremendous strain. “Sending women away, that’s heartbreaking. I am literally full to capacity,” says Cheryl Hlabane, manager at the Frida Hartley Women’s Shelter in Bellevue, Johannesburg.

In the first week of the lockdown, the South African Police Service reportedly received at least 87 000 calls reporting GBV through the GBV Command Centre. However, director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, Advocate Bernadine Bachar, says the numbers are much lower. “Very few of those calls actually had anything to do with gender based violence.” Advocate Bachar adds, “The calls that had come through had been calls for things like people looking to get grants, food parcels and referrals. It was a whole slew of different reasons why they were calling the GBV Command Center.” According to Advocate Bachar, the more accurate figure is in the region of about 20,000 calls–– women who actually report their abuse. A former Senior Family Advocate, Bachar has been active in the protection of the rights of mothers and children since the start of her career back in 2000. She is also the chairperson of the Western Cape’s Women’s Shelter Movement.

And while women have risked their lives to reach out for help from the police, under the leadership of Police Minister Bheki Cele, they have been left to fend for themselves. There has been widespread criticism of Minister Cele on social media especially with many feeling that he is more concerned with arresting those found with alcohol than addressing GBV and femicide. Under level-5 restrictions of the lockdown, South Africa banned the sale of both alcohol and cigarettes.

Hlabane shares her own thoughts on this saying, “I wish Bheki Cele was more passionate about GBV the same way he’s passionate about finding people with alcohol. I had to do the same thing. We were trying to call the police and they were telling us there were no cars.

“But as soon as we reported the same place and said that someone was selling illegal cigarettes from there, [police] were there within 15 minutes.”

Speaking further to OkayAfrica about the challenges faced by shelters such as hers during the national lockdown, Hlabane says, “This pandemic has really exposed how terrible it is and how big it is in the country because a lot of organizations had to shut down because they knew that they wouldn’t be able to survive.” Hlabane adds, “Our country has great policies on paper. So for them implementing those policies is an issue, but they go back and they sit down. They talk about all these nice things that they’re going to do but don’t ask us, “What are your struggles? Why are your challenges? Why are there so many high cases? What can we do as the government to be able to make your load easier?”

Hlabane paints a bleak picture as it pertains to the lack of government funding for non-government organisations (NGOs) like hers. She also shares some of the challenges she’s endured personally in running the shelter during the lockdown., ” At the moment, I’m literally breaking the law because I have 22 rooms, but I have women that are in my dining room that are sleeping in our dining room because I couldn’t send them away with their children. There’s a woman that I’ve rescued in the middle of the night where they were crying and I would send an Uber to go and drop them off at the shelter. But where do I then take them after that?”

Describing their efforts to better understand the state of GBV, Advocate Bachar refers to other countries they have been observing similar trends. “Looking at China’s lockdown period, they had [a] 73% increase in gender-based violence. France had a 30% increase in gender-based violence. So we were saying, “We’ve got five times the global rate average of GBV” and as a sector, were preparing for huge amounts of women to be accessing services.”

That has not been the case, however. Instead, the numbers aren’t adding up and according to Advocate Bachar, they’re trying to find out why. “I think it has something to do with the fact that a lot of women don’t have access to doctors all the time telling her she can go to the Gender-based Violence Command Center.” She continues, “Other difficulties [include] transport. A lot of the times the perpetrator has the transport so [the victim] needs to get to the shelter or to the South African Police Services. She may not be able to do that during lockdown. Or lack of confidence, in fact, in our police services.

“One of the things that we really didn’t do as a country, first up, was an education and awareness program about what women [can] do when they are being abused at home.”

Advocate Bachar says there is a solution in the works, however. The National Shelter Movement has entered into an agreement with Uber to get women that are in an emergency situation out of the house and either to a shelter or a police station. “It got so untenable that we were taking calls from women saying “I can’t get out. He’s looking over my shoulder. I don’t know what to do.” We would say to her, “Get to the nearest police station, three kilometers down the road.” And she was saying, “I don’t have any way to get there.”

Dr Zubeda Dangor, clinical psychologist and Executive Director for the Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development, highlights the gaps in the government’s response to GBV and femicide. According to her, while the government has made a number of plans, “things are not moving with the level of urgency that is required.” She also rehashes Hlabane’s earlier points on the lack of adequate funding to NGOs saying, “Resources promised to NGOs are not timeous and there is still too much rhetoric as opposed to implementation.”

Dr Dangor goes on to add, “The disbanding of the interim GBVF (gender-based violence and femicide) steering committee during the lockdown, without putting in place the permanent GBV council, is not acceptable. The systems victims have to engage with do not necessarily function well and [results] in women not being helped.”

Queer feminist writer and activist, Rosie Motene echoes Hlabane’s initial sentiments about the country’s policies saying, “At present, our constitution looks great and democratic on paper, but in reality, our government [does] not acknowledge the crisis we are in, despite our president standing on stage at the gender summit, and admitting to it.” Motene adds that, “Our laws and policies are still governed through patriarchal ideologies and this has filtered from the top to the average person on the street.”

Motene also speaks to how the queer community has been specificlly affected by GBV and femicide saying, “GBV is not restricted to rape and femicide but also deals with SRHR (sexual reproductive health and rights). Once again on paper, the rights of LGBTQI are supported but there is a large number for Black lesbians who have been raped and killed and no cases opened due to the homophobia at police stations and in many cases secondary victimisation.” She adds that, “The fact that trans men and women are turned away from medical spaces because of who they are, the lack of research into the medication and testing that is needed, is evident. That is a violence in itself and a violation of one human right.”

“The data on the deaths of our LGBTQI community are not recorded.”

What is undoubtedly clear, and has been for a long time, is that South African women are fed up. In the past, they have taken it upon themselves to organise protests and deliver to the government several memoranda of actionable points from research conducted across the country and internationally. Despite their efforts, the government continues to drag its feet according to Motene. “We have reached the point where we are tired of talking, we have marched, written essays and given interviews. The writing is clear. She adds that, “The next step would be a revolution and perhaps create an impact where it hurts the economy. We need our ministers and heads of department to reflect on what our society is asking for but unfortunately, we will not see change when the head of our police is a misogynist who refuses to listen and understand what GBV is.”

OkayAfrica reached out to the South African Police Services for comment but received no response at the time of publishing.

Visit the National Shelter Movement of South Africa for helpful resources on gender-based violence here.