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Russell Pollitt, S.J.September 08, 2022
A woman holds a sign as demonstrators gather Sept. 4, 2019, at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town during a protest against gender-based violence. (CNS photo/Sumaya Hisham, Reuters) A woman holds a sign as demonstrators gather Sept. 4, 2019, at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town during a protest against gender-based violence. (CNS photo/Sumaya Hisham, Reuters)

On Aug. 9, 1956, 20,000 women marched to the seat of government, the Union Buildings in South Africa’s capital of Pretoria, to protest the unjust “pass laws” of the apartheid state.

Black people could not travel—even to work and back every day—without a “pass” that was like an internal passport. It was a way of controlling and maintaining segregation and the flow of people into urban areas. If you did not have the document in your possession, you could be arrested and end up with a criminal record.

After the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, Aug. 9 was named Women’s Day, a national holiday in commemoration of that protest march, and August has been designated Women’s Month, intended to celebrate women and their achievements.

But 28 years later, women in South Africa find themselves fighting a new enemy: gender-based violence.

After apartheid, women in South Africa find themselves fighting a new enemy: gender-based violence.

South Africa is a “very violent” country its police minister, Bheki Cele, has acknowledged. Advocates for the protection of women charge that rape is systemic and endemic in South Africa. Police statistics confirm this: There are about 115 rapes per day in South Africa, a level that is among the highest in the world.

On Aug. 29, 2019, a South African student studying in Cape Town, Uyinene Mrwetyana, was brutally raped and murdered when she went to the post office in Claremont, a suburb of Cape Town, to collect a parcel. In 2015 the whole world watched as paralympic star Oscar Pistorius was jailed for murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in a fit of rage.

On July 28, just before the start of Women’s Month this year, eight women were repeatedly raped by illegal miners in Krugersdorp, to the west of Johannesburg. The young women had agreed to join a film shoot for a music video when the gang of miners accosted them.

In the days after the gang rape, Police Minister Cele, said on national news that one of the victims was “lucky” since she was only raped once.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many organizations in the country raised alarms about spiking levels of gender-based violence, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa repeatedly described violence against women and children as a “second pandemic.”

During the Covid-19 lockdown, many organizations in the country raised alarms about spiking levels of gender-based violence.

In a written response to questions about the problem, the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka, and the archbishop of Cape Town, Stephen Brislin, agreed violence in South Africa has reached horrendous levels.

“South Africa is an extremely violent society, and [gender-based violence] is a subset of this pervasive violence,” Archbishop Brislin said. “We cannot resolve G.B.V. without giving attention to violence in general.”

Bishop Sipuka, who heads the primarily rural diocese of Mthatha, prefers not to use the term gender-based violence, saying that it implies “a kind of tit-for-tat reality where men violate women and women do the same to men.” He said that while the latter may happen in a few isolated cases, the term gender-based violence “minimizes the seriousness of the scourge” of violence against women.

“So let us name this for what it is: women’s violent abuse and murder,” he said. “We are talking about the gruesome killing of women in South Africa, which has earned us the infamous identity as world champions in violence and [the] murder of women.”

Bishop Sipuka said: “The term that comes close to naming our reality of violence against women in South Africa is femicide, not G.B.V.”

Some observers say that the current violence against women is part of the legacy of apartheid when the state killed thousands of people, creating a social template for violence. One way of protesting was to meet the violence of the state with other kinds of violence. This traumatic history, poverty and current levels of unemployment in the country all contribute to the levels of violence in South African society today.

“We are talking about the gruesome killing of women in South Africa, which has earned us the infamous identity as world champions in violence and [the] murder of women.”

Under apartheid, Archbishop Brislin said, “Males who belong to the previously oppressed majority were, in a sense, de-masculated and their dignity impaired. This has led to frustration and an overcompensation in toxic masculinity in their social and private lives.”

Archbishop Brislin said that many young men have grown up in violent homes and have not learned other ways to resolve conflict. “Their model of conflict resolution is violence, and so the problem is perpetuated.”

Or, Bishop Sipuka added, boys are raised with no fathers present at all.

The absence of fathers and role models for young men has its roots in the apartheid system. Many South African men found work far removed from their families—for example, in the mines around resource extraction centers (which were mainly urban areas)—while their families were forced to stay in segregated rural areas. As a result, boys grew up without fathers.

“Men must play the role of raising and educating boys to be human, characterized by love and care instead of being ‘macho,’ who must prove their manhood by being violent. This is easier said than done because many boys do not even know their father,” Bishop Sipuka said.

“The inequalities that still exist in South Africa, unemployment, homelessness, poverty and the lack of opportunity for young people are all forms of violence which beget violence.”

Bishop Sipuka believes that violence has become a way of life for too many South African men. It is “how they handle disappointments in life, like the end of a meaningful relationship or the inability to fulfill expected roles, like earning an income. The feelings of inadequacy that go with not being able to provide are all part of the issue.”

Asked about the contribution of the church and theology to gender-based violence, both bishops said that there has been a problem when a theology of female subservience is promoted in a patriarchal society.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, O.M.I., of Johannesburg alluded to this when he submitted a writ to the synod process in the archdiocese. He said that the journey of synodality can only make sense if women’s issues are confronted head-on.

Archbishop Thlagale went on to say that church documents heap a lot of praise on women yet ignore or gloss over the well-articulated challenges of women themselves. “I must also admit that the presentation of Our Mother Mary as the second Eve has not been able to wash away the stains associated with the biblical Eve and subsequently with all women,” he wrote.

“The Christian ideal is that we are all servants of each other based on the model of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. It is different from subservience and being dominated by others,” Archbishop Brislin said.

The journey of synodality can only make sense if women’s issues are confronted head-on.

The archbishop says that he does not think that the Scriptures or the church’s theology, understood in context, inevitably promotes subservience. “It is about service,” he said. “Therefore, the differentiation of roles should promote that sense of service and should not be used, or be understood, as a means to make people subservient.”

Bishop Sipuka wondered if those who propagate violence are religious in any way. “With all its deficiency in affirming the dignity of women, especially in the past, there is no ground in Catholic theology that those who perpetrate violence against women and femicide can use [this] as justification for their horrendous acts.”

The Catholic Church in South Africa is a minority—only one-third of the population is Catholic. In addition, weekly Mass attendance by men is far lower than that of women, which further diminishes the impact of the church on men.

Archbishop Brislin warned that although a focus on gender-based violence is appropriate, South Africa must treat the problem of violence in its totality.

“As a church, we have to put in far more effort for peace-building, which, as we know, can only be achieved through justice. The inequalities that still exist in South Africa, unemployment, homelessness, poverty and the lack of opportunity for young people are all forms of violence which beget violence,” the archbishop said.

“The church has a powerful impact in the shaping of attitudes. It should give attention to times when the theology offered from the pulpit about women being submissive to men is articulated.”

The bishops believe that the church has a role to play in combating the pandemic of gender-based violence. They say that the catechesis of children and young people can counteract the negative stereotypes many have.

They add that the church can help develop attitudes of mutual respect and teach how to form and live in good relationships. “We should also teach our young people conflict resolution skills. This includes modeling alternative behaviors and ensuring that our churches are safe spaces,” both bishops agreed.

Archbishop Brislin said that preaching and raising awareness on the extent and impact of violence in the country is a significant contribution the church can make. This, coupled with peace groups “to promote an understanding and acceptance of the dignity of each person—and, again, how to resolve conflicts,” is important. He also said that the church should participate with civil organizations in combating violence against women.

One of only a few Catholic women theologians in South Africa, Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, found the bishops’ statements encouraging. However, she said, it would be good for them to engage with women about how they feel. They could then learn what women themselves believe would be helpful in combating gender-based violence.

“The church has a powerful impact in the shaping of attitudes. Therefore, it should give attention to times when the theology offered from the pulpit about women being submissive to men is articulated.”

Bishop Sipuka said, “Our curriculum in schools from Grade R [the first year of school] to university level should give prominence to this problem. Fighting against this must be the country’s long-term plan because it is endemic, and it will not end just by talking.”

Bishop Sipuka was also critical of the government. There is a lot of talk about fighting this problem in South Africa, but the bishop asked, “Could not the government partner with churches and provide them with resources and [the] space to engage with this problem instead of wanting to do it all alone and fail?”

“If we care enough about this problem, platitudes and slogans must give way to actions that will make a difference,” Bishop Sipuka said.

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