As the country celebrated Women’s Day yesterday, in honour of the more than 20 000 women of all races who on August 9, 1956, marched to the Union Buildings to deliver a petition opposing the carrying of pass books, there were positive and negative incidents in the run-up to this historic day.
First, the heavy-handedness in which security officials handled the silent protest of four women at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) national results operations centre, who went to the front and held placards referring to President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in 2006.
They held signs reading “10 years later”, “Remember Khwezi”, “I am 1 in 3” and “Khanga” while Zuma delivered his speech. The placards were in reference to Zuma’s rape trial a decade ago. Zuma and his supporters have every right to be infuriated by attempts to link him to rape, a crime he was acquitted of by a court of law.
However, this does not justify the violent reaction of the president’s security personnel to young women who were exercising their democratic right to demonstrate peacefully.
Worrying in the extreme is that the women were manhandled during Women’s Month and in the run-up to Women’s Day. Violence against women in this country has reached endemic levels. It’s very troubling when the perpetrators of this evil are state officials.
Also troubling is the reaction of female Cabinet ministers who, instead of protecting the right to protest, were instead enraged by their act. It was encouraging, though, to see that not all women in a position of power ganged up against the young women.
Credit should go to Minister in the Presidency responsible for Women Susan Shabangu, who broke ranks with her ANC Women’s League colleagues and defended the protesters’ right to picket peacefully.
Speaking at the 60th Women’s Day commemoration in Pretoria yesterday, Shabangu said the demonstration was “a positive reflection of the vibrant South African democracy”.
It’s unfortunate the man at the centre of the storm remained silent. Zuma might be justified in feeling aggrieved at the attempt to link him to a crime he was cleared of by the courts.
But he lost a rare opportunity to demonstrate statesmanship and redeem himself by failing to speak in defence of the constitution, which guarantees the right of all South Africans to protest peacefully.