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Girls & Women

South Africa’s President Makes 7 Pledges to Fight Gender Violence and Xenophobia

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South Africa has been gripped by violence aimed at women and girls and African immigrants, with xenophobic attacks in Pretoria and Johannesburg, and the murders and rapes of several women and children across the country.

And while citizens are asking themselves how South Africa can properly address two social problems that have tragically become the norm — gender-based violence (GBV) and xenophobia — calls for political action also became increasingly urgent.

On Thursday night Cyril Ramaphosa made a sombre address to the nation in which he spoke against the constant violence experienced by African immigrants, as well as the murders of student Uyinene Mrwetyana, champion boxer Leighandre Jegels, and four siblings who were murdered by their father.

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The tragedy of these latest deaths sparked outrage that led to South African women starting conversations on social media, with the hashtag #AmINext. In these posts, women shared their own experiences of GBV and their daily fears living in a country that’s reported to have some of the highest incidents of GBV in the world.

Ramaphosa spoke from Cape Town, where he was hosting the World Economic Forum Africa.

“Our nation is in mourning and pain. Over the past few days, our country has been deeply traumatised by acts of extreme violence perpetrated by men against women and children," he said

"These acts of violence have made us doubt the very foundation of our democratic society, our commitment to human rights and human dignity, to equality, to peace, and to justice," he continued. 

He added: “The nation is mourning the deaths of several women and girls who were murdered by men. We know the names of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre Jegels, Janika Mallo, Ayakha Jiyane and her three little siblings, but we also grieve for many others who have died at the hands of men.”

“These killings have caused great pain and outrage because acts of such brutality have become all too common in our communities,” he continued. “Violence against women has become more than a national crisis.”

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He called the killings “a crime against our common humanity”, and said he wasn’t just speaking in the role of South Africa’s president.

“I also speak to you as a husband and a father to my daughters,” he said, “Like millions of men across this country, I am appalled at the war being waged on our sisters, our mothers, our wives, our partners, and our daughters.”

He added: “The collective anger, the pain, and the fear that these killings have caused must strengthen our resolve to end all forms of violence and abuse perpetrated by men against women.”

Here are seven actions Ramaphosa said his government will take to address the issues of gender-based violence and xenophobia in South Africa.

1. Sexual offences courts

According to Africa Check, there were 43,195 cases of rape reported in South Africa in 2015 — and 15,790 of these were reported to have been attacks on children.

Ramaphosa noted that the state has already started reforming the justice system through courts that focus exclusively on sexual offences — but has highlighted that this action will go further.

He said: “We have established 92 dedicated sexual offences courts since 2013, with a further 11 to be opened this financial year to improve conviction rates and provide comprehensive and appropriate support services to ensure survivors of sexual offences are not subject to further trauma.”

2. The register of sexual offenders

It’s been reported that Mrwetyana’s rapist and killer was previously arrested for rape. While this case was later withdrawn, the post office did reportedly know about his previous arrest and 5-year jail sentence for a car highjacking.

Nevertheless, he was still able to be employed by the national post office in Claremont where he attacked Mrwetyana when she went to collect a package.

“We call on you [parliament] to make the sex offenders list publicly accessible on online and mobile platforms that anyone can easily access,” Ramaphosa said. “This list should be a free government site so that anyone can access the list even when they don't have data.”

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He added: “This National Register of Offenders will list all the men convicted of acts of violence against women and children. I will ask parliament to consider amending the legislation to make the register public.”

Ramaphosa’s announcement coincided with the launch of a petition — hosted on social justice platform amandla.mobi — calling on South Africa's minister of justice, Ronald Lamola, to make the register of sexual offenders public.

3. Stricter jail sentences and focus on rehabilitation programmes

When he signed the gender-based violence declaration in April, Ramaphosa noted that there are legal issues that the country still needs to tackle in order to protect victims and survivors, and to stop re-traumatising victims when they report their experiences of rape and GBV.

On Thursday night, Ramaphosa said: "I will propose to Cabinet that all crimes against women and children should attract harsher minimum sentences. We agree with the women of our country that the state should oppose bail and parole for perpetrators of rape and murder against women and children.”

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Ramaphosa also said the government will continue working with non-governmental organisations and activists.

“Many women’s organisations have complained that there aren’t enough rehabilitation programmes in our prisons,” he continued. “These programmes will be increased and reconfigured to reduce the number of repeat offenders.”

He also said all cases of GBV that are currently outstanding or unresolved will be reviewed.

4. Strengthened response of GBV

Ramaphosa said there needs to be a better immediate response to GBV, from how long it takes emergency services to respond to phone calls to delays in DNA testing.

“We will address other systemic challenges such as the backlog of cases, delays in DNA testing, and the availability of rape test kits in our police stations,” he said.

“We will strengthen the emergency teams at a provincial level — which bring together the police, social development, health, justice, and education — to continue providing rapid and comprehensive responses to all forms of violence against women,” he continued.

He added: “These emergency response teams will focus in particular on violence directed at women, children, and other marginalised groups including the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.”

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5. Strategic partnerships to end GBV by 2030

Ramaphosa said different government departments will work together to help end the scourge of gender-based violence.

“We will use every means at the disposal of the state — from the police service to the justice system, from social development programmes to our school curriculum — to strengthen all parts of our national response to gender-based violence,” Ramaphosa said.

He added that the government will implement a multi-faceted plan aimed at preventing GBV including working with schools, communities, and companies.

Ramaphosa also said the minister of finance, Tito Mboweni, will be requested to increase the amount of money spent on fighting GBV.

“The women of our country are calling for emergency measures to end this violence,” Ramaphosa said. “I will therefore be asking parliament to discuss and identify urgent interventions that can be implemented without delay.”

He added: “Violence against women is not a women’s problem. It is not a problem of what a woman said or did, what a woman was wearing, or where she was walking.”

“Violence against women is a men’s problem,” he continued. “It is men who rape and kill women. There is therefore an obligation on the men of this country to act to end such behaviour and such crimes.”

6. Fighting xenophobia

Ramaphosa reminded South Africans that freedom from the racist apartheid government — which saw leaders like Nelson Mandela jailed for decades and the country’s liberation parties banned — was won in part due to the role other African countries played.

“The people from other countries on our continent stood with us in our struggle against apartheid,” he said. “We worked together to destroy apartheid and overcome the divisions it created, where we feared each other and our differences were exploited.”

“Thanks to the people of Africa, we have now achieved democracy and must use this platform to live together in harmony,” he said.

He said there’s no excuse to attack homes or steal from businesses owned by immigrants, and noted the xenophobic attacks are aimed at African people.

He added: “We value our relations with other African countries and need to work to strengthen political, social, and trade ties if we are to develop our economy and those of our neighbours.”

7. Justice for victims and survivors

Ramaphosa said at least 10 people had been killed in xenophobic attacks last week, which were blamed by police minister Bheki Cele on criminals.

In one of the attacks in Pretoria, a drug dealer is said to have shot and killed a taxi driver.

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Ramaphosa said citizens who suspect criminal behaviour should use the correct channels of reporting crime instead of taking matters into their own hands.

“Where communities have genuine grievances these must be addressed through engagement and dialogue,” he said. “But where people act with criminal intent, irrespective of their nationality, we will not hesitate to act to uphold the law and ensure order and stability.”

The president said the government has already increased the amount and visibility of police in areas that experienced xenophobic attacks.

He said: “The criminal justice system is ready to deal with perpetrators of violence, looting, and lawlessness. Since Sunday, 423 people have been arrested for violence-related offences in Gauteng and 21 suspects have been arrested in relation to truck violence in KwaZulu-Natal.”

He ended his address by calling on everyone who lives in South Africa to work together.

“It is a time for all of us who live in this country to confront our challenges directly and earnestly, not through violence, but through dialogue,” he said

There were mixed reactions to Ramaphosa’s address, but one that really seems to capture the national mood comes from social justice organisation, Sonke Gender Justice.

Kayan Leung, the organisation's legal advocacy and litigation manager, told 702 talk radio: “The president has to get a fully functional National Strategic Plan on gender-based violence and it cannot be platitudes, because this was promised at the summit last year and to date, we haven't seen anything.”

Leung added: “We have things called sexual offences courts, the problem is we are not getting funds and adequate resources.”

If you live in South Africa and have experienced sexual or gender-based violence, you can find resources for advice and support here.