(Photo Credit: Dave Mann / The Con)
analyzing and changing the status of women in households, prisons and cities
(Photo Credit: Dave Mann / The Con)
In the news this week: in Cambodia rape victims have been “failed” by the so-called justice system; South Africa’s justice system is “failing” women; the United Kingdom “fails” women who suffer from domestic violence; and the United States’ program of mass incarceration fails all women, particularly women of color. The only problem with these “failures” is that they are successes. They are part and parcel of the public policy of patriarchy-as-nation-State. The State does not fail women; the State assaults women.
One of every twenty women in the world lives in the United States. One of every three women prisoners in the world is currently in a United States prison or jail, and that figure does not include immigrant detention centers. Globally, the 25 jurisdictions with the highest rate of female incarceration are 24 individual states and the District of Columbia. West Virginia tops that list, imprisoning 273 out of 100,000 women. There is no failure here. There is a decades long campaign to cage and otherwise brutalize women, and particularly women of color, all in the name of `protecting’ not only Society but also the women themselves.
In Cambodia, LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, released a report yesterday that documented the massive “failure” of the State to address rape: “LICADHO’s monitors report that it is usually the result of a failure by police to respond to reports by victims, and in some cases, of suspects being tipped off by police that a claim has been made against them … This report brings to light the immense failure of the Cambodian justice system to properly investigate and punish cases of sexual violence against women and children. The reasons for this failure are many: corruption, discriminatory attitudes towards women and girls, misinterpretation of the law, and lack of resources all combine to perpetuate and entrench a system in which impunity prevails.
“The report has focused on the failures of the justice system rather than on the experience of individual victims; it must not be forgotten that at the centre of all the cases discussed there were women and children who had experienced a terrifying and violent attack resulting in psychological and often physical trauma. The failure of the criminal justice system to punish their attackers compounds their experience of abuse and perpetuates the harm they suffer. Moreover, every failure to punish reinforces existing public mistrust of the Cambodian justice system and conveys the message that rape is not an offence that will be treated seriously; it not only lets down the victims concerned but reduces the likelihood that future victims will take the risk of reporting the crimes committed against them.”
There is no failure in Cambodia. Police refuse to respond. The State refuses to put women and children at the center. We hear similar reports from South Africa, where the justice system fails “to adequately address gender based violence since the impunity of men as rapists is tacitly accepted.” Likewise, in the United Kingdom, when the State proposes to cut or almost eliminate domestic violence services, we are told, “The current government is failing women.”
There is no failure here. The State seeks to reduce women’s autonomy and dignity, and thereby extract ever more value, all of which accrues to men’s power, stature, wealth and pleasure. None of this is new. It’s the oldest play in patriarchy’s rulebook. Stop calling structural violence against women “failure.” Call it violence against women, and stop it. #PatriarchyMustFall
(Photo Credit: EPA / Kim Ludbrook / Daily Maverick)
“It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, just outside Pretoria, and Karabo Moseneke is celebrating her ninetieth birthday.” What follows is only a small part of the story of the life and times of Karabo Mabel Moseneke, but even this small part is worth knowing. It’s the story of the grace and beauty of a woman’s endurance.
Karabo Moseneke was raised in a religious family. Her father worked as a chef and her mother worked in a laundry, and they struggled to make sure their daughter would be educated and become a teacher, which she did. She married a man who became a headmaster, and they created a house that cherished the spirit and the substance of freedom, especially freedom that emerges from and within education. They had four sons, the most well known of whom is Dikgang Moseneke, who is currently the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, the second most powerful judge in the country. Much of Karabo Moseneke’s story is filtered through the rise of her famous son. Dikgang Moseneke was born in 1947.
In 1960, at the age of 13, Dikgang Moseneke opened the newspaper and was changed forever. Black African children, like himself, had been massacred in Sharpeville: “The inequality was egregious. You could see it out there, jumping at you as a young person … My sense of fairness was inbred and I think it’s inbred in every child.” And so the 13-year-old boy joined the African Student Union, which was intimately linked with the Pan African Congress: “I had caught on to a wonderful phrase from someone called Robert Sobukwe, who said, `You must be your own liberator, in your lifetime.”
Three years to the day after the Sharpeville Massacre, Dikgang Moseneke was taken from his home by the police. They wouldn’t tell his parents why nor where he was going. For 90 days, he was tortured and held in solitary confinement. He still bears the scars of those days. His mother searched frantically: “When I got home, I just sat down and started crying.”
When Karabo Moseneke finally found out where her son was, he was about to stand trial. She and her husband went to court every day, during the six-month trial. Every day, the guards would come and ask her if she was the mother of Number Six. Every day, she would respond, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.” Then the guards would tell her that her son, Number Six, was sure to hang. Every night, Karabo Moseneke would have terrible nightmares of hangpal hangpal, the gallows the gallows, and every morning she would return to the court and say, “Tell them that I am the mother, I am definitely the mother.”
Dikgang Moseneke was sentenced to ten years prison, and was immediately shackled and chained, shoved into a van and carted off to Robben Island. For ten years, Karabo Moseneke brought food and love, food as love, to her son, and watched him grow, behind bars, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. During the ten years, Dikgang Moseneke committed himself to studying and moving forward. He completed his matric, Bachelor of Arts degree and a B Juris degree. When Dikgang Moseneke was released, he was placed under house arrest in his parents’ home, for five years. He continued to study, they continued to suffer and support: “My parents never once judged me, they never once blamed me.”
According to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, interviewed separately, the moral of this story is endurance. Karabo Moseneke endured and then some. She never judged nor blamed, and she never gave up and never stopped asking questions. Why should someone hang? Why should her son, who had done nothing, be abused and tortured? Why should people suffer? Where was God in all this? Where is the humanity? And throughout, according to both Karabo Moseneke and her son, they would cry, freely, without collapsing under the heap of sorrow.
It’s a beautiful day in Mabopane, and it is time to celebrate.
(Photo Credit: enca.com)
On Wednesday, in the Durban High Court, in South Africa, women in customary marriage won a major victory. Although their names are known, we’ll call the woman SN and the man BM. In 2012, SN and BM were married at Nkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal, by the Induna of the Cunu Traditional Council. The two were married in accordance with Zulu customary law. SN was 25 at the time of the wedding. The marriage was not registered with the Department of Home Affairs.
The following year, BM took a second wife in another customary ceremony. At the time, SN was “heavily pregnant with their third child.” According to SN, she was forced to attend the ceremony, but never agreed to the second marriage: “I was terribly unhappy with the unfolding events, but felt powerless to do anything about it. I resigned myself to being the first wife, even though I had not given my permission for the marriage.” That was 2013.
Soon after, SN discovered, via social media, that BM had married a third wife, this time in a civil ceremony, and that was the last straw. She sued to nullify both of the later marriages. On Wednesday, the High Court did just that and also ordered that SN be entitled to register her customary marriage.
The Mercury, which has followed this case throughout, called yesterday’s decision a blow to patriarchy: “Our choice of the story, then and now, was … to highlight an ongoing gender injustice that many other women probably suffer in silence and endure in the name of culture and tradition.” They argued that this case is “a matter of human rights and striking a blow against patriarchy and male privilege.”
In 1998, the South African Parliament passed the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, or RCMA. While many, and especially those organizing for recognition of same-sex customary marriages, have seen too much vagueness in the description of “customary”, the law has been used to protect the rights and status of women in customary marriages. It set minimum age standards, and established formal structures of consent. Much of the early impetus for the law came in response to the non-recognition of customary marriages in the prior apartheid regimes and in the earlier English and Dutch colonial regimes.
According to the Legal Resources Centre, who represented SN in court, the key provisions in this case are Sections 7(2) and 3(2). Section 7(2) of the RCMA states that “a customary marriage … in which a spouse is not a partner in any other existing customary marriage, is a marriage in community of property and of profit and loss between the spouses.” Further, Section 3(2) of the RCMA states that a civil marriage cannot co-exist simultaneously with a customary marriage unless the spouses are married to each other, exclusively. Finally, the Matrimonial Property Act of 1984 gives customary law wives equal standing as civil law wives.
SN realized that her husband’s continual marrying in complete violation of both customary and civil law meant he was an unreliable economic partner and that she could be, and most probably would be, out in the cold without a rand to her name. She also realized that she has rights, as a woman in a customary marriage.
None of this is new. In 2005, the Constitutional Court found the customary law rule that women are unfit and incompetent to own and administer property to be unconstitutional and a violation of women’s rights to dignity and equality. In 2009, the same court found that non-recognition of women’s right to ownership, including access to and control of family property, upon dissolution of a customary marriage, was discriminatory and, again, a violation of women’s Constitutionally protected rights. Repeatedly, Courts have protected women’s rights to property. Community is community, and the Constitution is the Constitution.
SN’s victory is both concrete and aspirational. Concretely, she has secured full recognition – as a woman, citizen, human being. She has secured her material well being, as much as that can ever be secured. At the same time, in her own words, she has protected the rule of “custom, customary law and the law of the country.” Aspirationally, the Legal Resource Centre put it best, “The LRC welcomes the order and hopes that it may encourage women in similar situations to register their own customary marriages. This would give effect to the purpose of the RCMA and address the historic gendered inequality within customary marriages.”
Last year, women stopped the Traditional Courts Bill, and that was a victory for all women. Now women have organized to enforce the actual rule of law of the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act, a victory for all women. SN helped turn women’s silence into a women’s thunderclap, and now, patriarchy is falling, every day. #PatriarchyMustFall
(Image Credit: Wikimedia)
On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, writer, novelist, essayist, teacher, activist, mentor, fierce and ferocious (and often very funny) feminist South African Lauretta Ngcobo died. In the past few days, many writers, and not only South African, have shared that it was reading Ngcobo’s work that led them to choose writing as a path and career. For what it’s worth, I have always directed those seeking insight into the years of anti-apartheid struggle to Lauretta Ngcobo’s And They Didn’t Die and Govan Mbeki’s The Peasants’ Revolt. In December 2012, in Africa Is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane named Prodigal Daughters: Stories of South African Women in Exile as a favorite book of the year.
The South African Sunday Times titled its obituary for Lauretta Ngcobo, “Lauretta Ngcobo: Writer and activist who gave vulnerable women a voice.” Lauretta Ngcobo knew better. She knew that women weren’t and aren’t vulnerable. Women are made vulnerable, by many forces. In Ngcobo’s works, State policy and patriarchal comrades colluded to oppress women, and then blame, telling them their weakness and vulnerability had caused the oppression. Lauretta Ngcobo knew better.
Lauretta Ngcobo knew that vulnerability is neither status nor class nor caste nor rank nor state of being. Lauretta Ngcobo taught that vulnerability is never inevitable. Vulnerability is always a political and economic power relationship. Individuals and populations are designated and then produced, and reproduced, as vulnerable.
Ngcobo is often described as having opposed “both apartheid and Zulu traditions that limited women’s freedom and reinforced their oppression under apartheid”. While accurate as far as it goes, Ngcobo’s writing make it clear that she was a warrior for women’s emancipation and power as key to the emancipation of all of humanity. And that meant all women. Born in 1931 in Ixopo, in the sugarlands of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngcobo was well aware of the struggles taking place each second of each and every day. She knew of the struggles in the households and in the fields. She knew of the struggles among comrades, including the propensity to discount the worth of rural organizations, especially among the ANC and PAC in exile. She knew the difference between word and deed, and she knew the ravages of white supremacist patriarchy and of homegrown patriarchy, and she rejected both and each.
And she knew she was not alone. Lauretta Ngcobo’s writings and life history teach, and she was always teaching, that women’s solidarity is a tangible, material good, and that it is deep and powerful. She was not sanguine about the past or the future. In 2005, Ngcobo noted, “No matter what African women have done to fight side by side with African men in the liberation struggle, the tension between men and women remains the same, if not worse.” In her non-fiction prose as in her novels, Lauretta Ngcobo showed how “Black women’s associations made … collective rebellion possible.”
Writing of the Women’s March of 9 August 1956, Ngcobo recalled, “We, who were standing in the crowds, felt the waves of the voices in front and carried in another wave further down. (At the time, I was carrying my six-month-old son.) It was the most moving demonstration of dignity, unity and determination and has come to represent the courage and strength of South African women.”
Reflecting on the meaning of the life and life work of Lauretta Ngcobo, Angelo Fick concluded, “Lauretta Ngcobo’s passing has left a gap in South Africa’s culture of letters. It may take us some time to come to terms with the importance of her work and her life. Ngcobo’s work is indispensable for anyone interested to know how we were, and how we resisted, and how in that resistance, the lives and struggles of Black women cannot be forgotten or discounted.”
While her passing has left a gap, Lauretta Ngcobo’s life work has left a home for writers, activists, women, feminists, dreamers and builders.
The #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements are noteworthy for having “a fairly well-defined ideology and view of history, which could be described as Black Consciousness combined with anti-imperialism, feminism and, to a lesser degree, socialism.” Of particular interest to many is the feminist leadership and core of these movements. When Africa Is a Country compiled an eleven minute video on #FeesMustFall, whom did they interview? Women: Malaika wa Azania, Khanyisa Nomoyi, Ntombikizhona Valela, Julie Nxadi, Siyamthanda Nyulu, Lithle Asante Ngcobozi. For the entire film, the discussion of #FeesMustFall and of the national shut down is conducted and led by women. This has been a feminist uprising, from leadership personnel to strategy to implementation.
One sign of this feminist impulse is the insistence of women within the movement to challenge the decision making and discursive practices of the movement itself, and to do so openly, publically and positively. Daily Vox reporter Pontsho Pilane wrote about what she saw at Wits, “The way female student leaders were systematically ignored, sidelined and silenced during the #FeesMustFall movement suggests that once fees have fallen, the next big issue that needs attention is our attitude towards women … I don’t know what is worse, experiencing overt sexism or just being systematically sidelined by the already patriarchal political environment. Either way, I think it is time that we seriously talk about the erasure and silencing of black women in this student movement and many others like it. Those who believe that black women will put their womanhood at the altar of sacrifice in the name of the “collective struggle” are blinded by their male privilege and will indeed feel like this is an attack on their person. Black women calling out the patriarchy and misogyny within the movement is not an attack, it is a protection of their humanity – including their blackness and womanhood – in its entirety.”
Kagure Mugo, a recent UCT alum, saw the same: “We are living in a South Africa that tried to build itself without young people, without women and too a large extent without the so-called `previously disadvantaged people’, because of the nature of hierarchy within the struggle system, and now we are here. This grading of the suitability of leaders based on age and gender within movements is what has landed us in this position where #FeesMustFall is a national issue, #Marikana is a part of reality, and we still desperately need #16DaysOfAcitvism all year round. We forgot about young people, the worker and women once certain men reached the top. Intersectionality is not an expensive word, it is integral to building up a people because no-one is simply one thing.”
The names of women leaders in this movement keep on keeping on: student leaders like Shaeera Kalla, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, Jodi Williams, Alex Hotz; outsourced workers like Moedie Motlanke, Cathy Sepahela, Zelda Mohamed; and reporters like Pontsho Pilani and Ra’eesa Pather all attest to the centrality of intersectionality in this movement.
As Camalita Naicker, a student at the University called Rhodes, wrote, “There has been an insistence from the beginning that any struggle for decolonisation must be intersectional and recognise not only the role played by women, but that transformation must have gender relations as central tenet. The constant feminist backlash has kept many movements from collapsing into reliance on patriarchal or misogynist leaders and leadership styles even if this is an on-going battle. Perhaps even more inspiring has been the fidelity to principles and values that foreground the collective spirit and decision-making practices of these movements. Rejecting and resisting co-optation or the tendency of management to divide and rule by attempting to single out student leaders and have private meetings, while remaining disciplined has proved their maturity and intellect time and time again.”
#FeesMustFall #FeesHaveFallen #RhodesMustFall #RhodesHasFallen #PatriarchyMustFall The feminist future of #PatriarchyMustFall is now! Viva!
(Photo Credits: zelamartin.com)
With unbelievable insensitivity Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, has labeled a section of the protesting students as gangsters. This comes only three years after the Marikana massacre, when a similar criminalisation of protesting workers by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa played a role in creating conditions for the police to kill thirty-four mineworkers in a single incident. The consequences of criminalising protestors have either passed over Prof. Jansen’s head, or he actually does not mind the killing of black protestors as much as he minds a school girl laughing at what she perceives as her white teacher’s overreaction to the death of a dog.
Jansen put forward this libelous label on 9 October this year when he delivered the inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture at the Netherlands Embassy in Pretoria. After starting off with the story of the black school girl laughing at her white teacher Jansen displays great determination to paint some of the protesting students as callous balls of undirected anger which culminates in the following tirade:
“There is no ideology or memory or history here, only a hodge podge of pro-black/anti-white sentiment on the tip of an angry tongue that finds expression in the lashing out at public gatherings and memorial lectures, in newspaper columns of especially the Sunday Independent though with more balance in City Press, and in the occasional book production.
It is an anger that is particularly vicious of its critics. In its milder forms of dismissal the critics are old, representing a bygone generation that simply by virtue of age is out of touch and irrelevant to the struggles of youth. They should allow the space for political articulation to be occupied by those who really know, the newly angry young activists. In its harsher version, the older critics of the new anger are trounced as everything from right-wing reactionaries to white-loving establishment figures who have done nothing to advance black professors in the academy or decolonise the curriculum or change institutional cultures.”
This is just one of the many untruths about the protesting students that Jansen managed to cram his lecture with, even while being forced to concede that the aims, methods and outcomes of the protests were just. Before I untangle this small sample of professorial lies, let me note Jansen’s basic trick. He speaks about a group of students, particularly the #RhodesMustFall movement at UCT, who have expressed searing anger at the everyday racism at former white and English universities, who have put forward radical critiques of whiteness and who have drawn on thinkers such as Franz Fanon and Cornell West. He also speaks about a group of students who have used violent and intolerant methods to suppress people they disagree with. Without a grain of evidence, he speaks of these two groups as one group. He is thereby able to taint his ideological opponents with the label of gangsterism. Jansen’s main beef with the #RhodesMustFall movement is not any particular action of theirs, but the fact that they have radically broken with his mainstream mix of conservatism with small dashes of liberalism.
Now let us look at the above somewhat randomly selected paragraphs. One might disagree with the ideology and memory of the #RhodesMustFall students, but to say they do not have these things is simply not true. They have a fairly well-defined ideology and view of history, which could be described as Black Consciousness combined with anti-imperialism, feminism and, to a lesser degree, socialism. Their ‘anti-white’ sentiment has been clearly explained and motivated. They hate ‘whiteness’ as the embodiment of racism and privilege. Maybe the professor thinks this is not enough reason to hate, but then he should explain why. He does not like the angry tone of the students, but an angry tone does not invalidate an argument professor, even if it upsets some white people.
It is also not true that the #RhodesMustFall activists have dismissed critics simply based on their age. In fact, it could be argued the student movements have been very respectful of black academics at these institutions, many of whom do not share the radical politics of the students but are intent on using this moment for their own purposes. There have been many reading and discussion groups where older people have been invited to share their thoughts with the students, and even when the older academics were critical of the students the engagements were respectful and constructive. Yes, students have accused some of their detractors of being rightwing reactionaries, but that does not mean they were wrong. Are there no rightwing reactionaries on university campuses? Or is this one just hitting too close to the bone, Professor?
You complain about ‘violence’ but you are helping to set up the students as targets for state violence.
(Photo Credit: Ra’eesa Pather / The Daily Vox)
Fees Must Fall, or #FeesMustFall, has engaged so many from across South Africa and every spectrum imaginable. It has also forcefully brought out other issues, which have largely been cloaked, and for a long time. These include corruption and a bloated management system. The shut down of the University of Cape Town campus has also shut down engagement with students, and so now only management is talking to students.
The struggle around fees has simmered for years. For many years, the staff in Adult Education have tried to convince management that upfront fee payments and the administration of fees were burdensome and mapped out solutions. The fee system is punitive at UCT as you get punished by fines and interest charges if fees are not paid at the beginning and midyear. When we proposed alternative structures that would take in the economic reality of many of our students, we were rejected, without any real discussion or consultation.
Finally Higher Education is receiving national attention and students are linking broader issues with their own struggles like outsourcing, state corruption and neo-liberal politics. The current economic context has sharpened the plight. Undergrads experience it as well it. This is the right moment; now is the time!
Meanwhile, the struggle continues. Late last night, after being evicted from Bremner/Azania House, UCT students walked down the Main Road. And today … #FeesMustFall
(Photo Credits: The Daily Vox / Ashraf Hendricks)
One night in 2010 CN’s* husband hit her so hard that she lost consciousness. CN was taken to the hospital, where she spent the night. The day after she was discharged, she decided to lay criminal charges against her husband. And this is where CN’s story stops making sense. Within 24 hours of approaching the police for assistance, CN was herself arrested, detained and assaulted by the police.
First, CN was given the wrong advice by police officers on duty, and told that she needed a domestic violence protection order from a magistrates court before she could lay a criminal charge. The court simply sent her back. The inspector assigned to the assist CN asked her for her telephone numbers, which he then used to call her husband, to invite him to the charge office. When CN’s husband arrived the inspector first spoke to him alone, and then told CN that she must discuss the matter with her husband to see if they could resolve it. When CN reported to the inspector that their discussion had not resolved the issue, and that she wanted to proceed with a charge, the inspector discouraged her. He told her that her husband would similarly lay a charge against her “for slapping”, and if this were to happen she would also be liable to be arrested. The inspector then asked them to write down their statements, and once they had done so, the inspector arrested both CN and her husband. They were both charged and detained in separate police cells at the police station, where CN then stayed the night.
The following morning, another police officer came to CN’s cell and informed her that he had come to take her to court. As she was being escorted to a police van she asked the officer to allow her a moment in order to speak to a more senior officer. But the officer sternly ordered her to board the police van, and then forcibly flung her into the back of the police van.
CN was subjected to “a dreadful series of traumatic, humiliating, dehumanising and flagrant violations of her rights to dignity, freedom of the person and bodily integrity.” This series of events makes so little sense because it is almost the polar opposite to what the South African legal framework envisages for domestic violence cases.
The Domestic Violence Act of 1998, a well-known piece of legislation that has been on South Africa’s law books for almost 17 years, is very clear about the responsibility of police officers in South Africa. In fact, the legislature regards domestic violence so seriously, that any failure to comply with one’s police duties in terms of the Act constitutes misconduct for the purposes of disciplinary action. The Regulations to the Act go into further detail about the duties of police officers, and a National Instruction issued to all police officers in 1999 leaves nothing open to interpretation. South Africa also has a Victim’s Charter, implementation audit tools, and a host of cooperative structures at local, provincial and national level where domestic violence can be discussed.
And despite all this legal regulation, the South African Police Service has been coughing up a lot lately in civil court for not doing their job. While there are pockets of excellence within the South African Police Service, it is an open and disgraceful secret that our police, particularly in townships and far-flung poor areas, perform badly when it comes to assisting victims of domestic violence. Police officers’ treatment of victims at station level often causes secondary trauma: a refusal or inability to come when called, a failure to explain a victims’ rights and legal options, sending victims home to deal with it “in the family”, and a failure to even understand their own duties under the Domestic Violence Act, or to even have a copy of the Act readily available in their stations. We know this first-hand from women seeking help, we know this scientifically from research, and we even know it from the police themselves. And we have known it for a long time.
What is most concerning is not that our police are doing badly, but that there is no desire to be honest with themselves and the public about shortcomings, and no real commitment to improving the situation. In a briefing to the parliamentary Portfolio Committee of Police, the SAPS would have us believe that they are doing well, and that almost no officers failed to comply with the Domestic Violence Act between 1 October 2014 and 31 March 2015.
Excerpt from presentation by the South African Police Service to Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Police, on 18 August 2015.
They also reported that 100% of all 1 140 South African police stations were rendering “victim-friendly” services at the end of the first quarter of the 2015/16 financial year.
Which begs the question, why does the Women’s Legal Centre and other organisations continually deal with complaints, such as a recent case where a client, whose husband brandished and threatened her with a firearm on several occasions, had to approach three different police stations in her area before she could obtain police assistance? Why are there continued civil claims for damages against the police, for failing victims of domestic violence? Why is the Civilian Secretariat for Police reporting that only 1 of the 156 police stations audited in 2014 were fully compliant with the Domestic Violence Act? Why is it that women who are in possession of domestic violence protection orders, are still being abused and even killed by their partners?
There is no scarcity of recommendations for the police on improving their response to domestic violence, and thereby often preventing it. Civil society has, since the operationalisation of the Act, produced a multitude of research papers. Interest groups lobby relentlessly and women’s and men’s organisations clamour to be heard on the issue by various branches of government. We express the same concerns, and make the same arguments and appeals year in, and year out. In fact, even to those of us in the gender-based violence sector, we are starting to sound like broken records. In 2014, the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry heard extensive evidence about the handling of domestic violence cases by police. Community members testified about their experiences, the police released an unprecedented amount of internal data and documentation, and this in turn was analysed by various experts. The police themselves cooperated with the Commission, after initially refusing to take part, and ended up testifying frankly about their own challenges. And yet, the evidence-based recommendations (see Recommendation 14) which have national applicability have been rejected by the national Police Commissioner.
Police officers in South Africa can and must prevent domestic violence, through a quality response to victims. But there is complacency about ongoing police failure in this regard that seems to have set in, and it cannot be fixed by throwing more law or policy at it. Nor do civil claims seem to be driving home the message that the status quo is unacceptable.
The fact is that one station commander who cares about his station responding quickly and effectively to domestic violence, and takes responsibility for making it so, can do more good than ten policy documents and 20 reports to parliament. This is accountability. We should no longer be asking, “what must be done” but rather, “who is doing it”. Accountability means taking responsibility for what must be done, and it means real, personal consequences for failure to do your job.
(Image credit: Women’s Legal Centre)
On Sunday, February 27, Buzzfeed reported at length on the story of Lara McLeod. It’s a devastating, all too familiar story. In brief, Lara McLeod was raped by the fiancé of her sister, Hera McLeod. Hera had given birth two weeks earlier. Traumatized, Lara went home and, the next day, told her parents. They immediately went and retrieved Hera and Prince, the two-week-old. To do that safely, they called the police in. That’s where the awful became the unbearable.
The police called Lara in, interrogated her, compelled her to file a complaint and then arrested Lara for filing a false complaint and charged Hera with aiding in the deceit. From there, it just gets worse. You can read the Buzzfeed account for yourself. The rape and arrest occurred in 2011. Using the charges against Hera, her fiancé won unsupervised visits. Three months later, Prince was found unconscious on his father’s apartment floor. The fifteen-month-old died the next day. The fiancé’s trial on murder is coming up soon. Hera has moved on, as best she can. Lara is struggling.
This story occurs in the leafy well-to-do suburbs of Prince William County, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC, but it could as easily occur in the leafy suburbs anywhere. Every step of the way, every single time the State was called in, from the police to the courthouse, the State did more than merely fail these two women. It assaulted them. A French report on this case notes that in France, of women who report being survivors of sexual violence, only 4 percent have reported the crime formally. In the United States, the situation is the same. In South Africa, according to the Medical Research Council, one in nine rapes are reported to the police.
Why are the numbers so low? There are many reasons. Here’s Lara McLeod’s answer, “The night I was raped, I said I wanted to be left alone. People say rape is serious and you should report it, but look what happened to me: I reported my rape, and they told me it never happened.”
Buzzfeed and others have described the police investigation as “botched.” It wasn’t. Virginia, and beyond it the State, got exactly what it wanted, what it pushes strenuously to get: a woman living with trauma, agony and pain who has learned to silently absorb injustice directed at her as a woman. To botch means to clumsily repair or to bungle. No one clumsily repaired or bungled the investigation. No one cared enough to botch the investigation. How do I know?
Every year, on Prince’s birthday, Hera McLeod sends a letter to the two Prince William County police officers whom she holds responsible for the death of her son: “This year, she included a photo of Prince with his two front teeth in, smiling and sitting on a red truck — with his birth and death dates printed above. `On July 1st, 2015, I would have turned four,’ the card said. `May you always remember how the decisions you make impact the lives of innocent people. I will never forget you. I pray you will never forget about me.’ This year, Kimberly Norton, one of the two officers who charged the McLeod sisters, put the card in a new envelope and mailed it back to Hera unopened. She rewrote her return address in block letters. Not Detective Norton, as Hera had written, but “SGT K. NORTON.” She had been promoted. So had Detective Cavender.”
The State got what it wanted. It’s time for us to get the State we want.