On Tuesday, members of Parliament debated gender-based violence in the country to mark the end of Women’s Month.
But this was a debate with a difference.
The emphasis here was not on contesting ideas but on affirming a loosely shared non-partisan call to greater action from lawmakers, government, and stakeholders alike.
The debate was held in what President Ramaphosa has called a “dark period” filled with tragedy and sorrow culminating with the tragic news of the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, and many others this week.
The tragic news has, once again, brought to the fore the femicide crisis in the country as well as the shared fear-induced paralysis women feel over their autonomy as human beings in South Africa.
Minister of Women in the Presidency Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said she had a “heavy heart”.
Person ’employed and paid by the State’
“I’m still reeling in shock at the brutal murder of Uyinene in the hands of an employee in the post office, a person who is employed and paid by the State and instead of providing a service with a smile brutally ends the life of an innocent, very pretty young girl,” said Nkoana-Mashabane.
“It’s no longer just another shameful act that we read about, it’s over a taboo. Where are safe spaces for women in this country?
“As a nation, how do we deal with such evil within the confines of our law? Is this the freedom that our forebears fought for that their children will be maimed and killed particularly girl children and young children?” asked Nkoana-Mashabane.
“Unfortunately, most of our homes are warzones and domestic violence has reached endemic proportions, therefore, we see the escalation of violence everywhere.”
Following the minister was the chairperson of the Multiparty Women’s Caucus and ANC MP Nkhensani Kate Bilankulu.
“It is our collective duty to eradicate gender-based violence and femicide…
“We are grateful that Amy-Leigh de Jager has been returned home safely but what about Amahle Thabethe, an 8-year-old from Gauteng who’s been missing since April?
“What about Janika Mallo, a Grade 7 pupil from Northwood Primary Cape Town whose head was bashed in, brain leaking from the left inside of her face? What about Jesse Hess, a first-year student from the UWC who was murdered and found dead on her bed?” asked Bilankulu.
“And Uyinene who was raped and murdered. Women are finding themselves asking [hashtag] ‘who is next’.”
“As the ANC, we call for a state of emergency to be declared on gender-based violence and femicide. Men who murder women and children must get nothing [less] than a life sentence. Cases on gender-based violence and femicide must be fast-tracked.
“The ANC calls for an activist society, working together to call out those that are culprits of abuse, violence against children and women, rapists and against all those who seek to undermine the Constitution.
A country in crisis
DA MP Nazley Sharif, dressed in black to mourn all those who identify as women and girls who have lost their lives at the hands of a man, took to the podium. She too spoke of a country in crisis.
“Our country is in a crisis. Dear women, I can stand here and give you statistics on the amount of violence woman face, but we know what they are.
“You read about a new femicide case almost every day in South Africa. You know what it is like to live in fear every single day. You know that there is no safe space for you because you experience violence in your own homes too. We know that when we are out socialising with friends, we have to go to the bathroom in a group or else risk being attacked.
“You cannot go to the post office by yourself to collect a package that you’ve been waiting for without the fear of being attacked, raped, and murdered. We cannot even trust those we love because of the fear of being shot by our husbands and beaten by our boyfriends,” said Sharif.
“Equality must start with us as individuals, by unlearning these toxic patriarchal systems and gender norms and roles.
“We must start expanding a society of consent.”
She ended off with a poem by UCT student Zoë Human.
“We’re a country with no rainbow, only rain. And that rain is red and warm and bruised between her thighs.”
‘Our country is under attack’
EFF MP Mmabatho Olive Mokause said: “This can never be a normal debate.
“This can never be business as usual as some of our benches are portraying it to be. Our country is under attack. Our girl child, our sisters are under attack, but this remains business as usual for the ruling party.
“I would like to take this opportunity first to pass our deepest condolences to the families of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre ‘Baby Lee’ Jegels, and the 14-year-old Janika Mallo, who were all brutally killed by men in this country over the past week.
“These young women join a list of thousands of other women who are raped, maimed, beaten, enslaved, emotionally molested, and brutally killed by men in this country.
“The perpetrators of these vile acts are likely never to pay for their sins because our criminal justice system is fraught with inefficiencies,” said Mokause.
“We can no longer continue as business as usual, we can no longer fold our arms as lawmakers in this country. We need to enforce education against patriarchy and sexism, complemented by legislation to protect and promote women’s liberation and the close monitoring of the implementation thereof in order to realise real women empowerment.
“Up to now, interventions for dealing with violence against women have been superficial, half-hearted and based on the wrong understanding of the root causes of the vulnerability of women.
“Across all party lines, it’s time women stood up and say this has gone too far, and it cannot go on any longer,” she said.
Time for consequences and action
ATM MP Thandiswa Marawu said to members: “Instead of celebrating the arrival of spring and the singing of birds, sadly we are mourning the gruesome and cruel passing on of innocent souls at the hands of merciless killers who do not value human life.
“Leighandre Jegel, Uyinene Mrwetyana, Karabo, and Thoriso join a long list of young women whose lives were brought to an untimely and abrupt halt by their murderers.
She asked: “Is the right to life enshrined in our Constitution for the sole preserve of the murderers?”
“We cannot come here and make empty speeches to score political points and not put proposals not only to stamp this tide but to end it once and for all. Murderers and rapists must know that there will be dire consequences for their crimes.”
Good party leader and Minister of Public Works and Infrastructure Patricia de Lille said as a nation: “We must hang our heads in shame today.
“Our women and children are under siege and South Africa is in a [vicious] war being waged against our women and children.
“The scourge of violence against women and children and femicide is an utter disgrace in our country where women fought for justice for all.
“South Africans are sick and tired. There are calls to bring this country to a standstill. It’s time for action and I agree with that,” said the minister.
Echoing the words of other MPs, Deputy Minister of Women Hlengiwe Buhle Mkhize said: “Today is not a day for a divisive, or factional, or party-politics debate. It is about all of us as the august house to reflect deeply and say: ‘Having passed the laws, having come up with strategic policies what more needs to be done?'”
ACDP MP Marie Sukers said that the ACDP called for the National Assembly to forget about politics and to lead a national call for prayer. She refused to look at her notes and have a normal debate she said in the context of the crisis.
She “borrowed words” from poet WH Auden.
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, silence the pianos and with muffled drum, bring out the coffin – let the mourners come.”