#FailFailFail: A Women's Day letter to the President


Dear Cyril (I’d call you Mr President, but respect has to be earned):

I wonder, I really do, if you actually care about women.

You looked good coming after your predecessor. But then a bale of straw would have looked good compared to JZ, whose reputation as a "sex pest" (one of those harmless terms we use for dangerous predators) had been known for decades before he stepped into the No 1 position. His attitudes to women lie somewhere between the Cretaceous Period and Noah's ark, so you really didn't have to do much to give 52% of the citizens of the country you've governed since February this year a smidgeon of hope.

But it's been one gender-rights face-plant after another. Look, it's clearly an entrenched Presidential tradition to pick the Minister of Women on the basis of utter incompetence. But the vile Bathabile, on your watch? WTF, Cyril? You must have seen all the Twitter jokes about how she has to have nudie pics of you stashed somewhere. I mean, the ONLY candidate I can think of who'd be worse would have been the monstrous Qedani Mahlangu. And although the latter has the blood of 144 utterly helpless innocents on her hands (and I cannot think of a more slow and agonising death than the starvation and cold to which she condemned those vulnerable people), I suspect that Bathabile's strenuous efforts to run away with the milch cow, er, control the payments of SA Social Security Agency (SASSA) grants, if successful, would have caused even more deprivation, suffering and deaths, especially in the rural areas where troublesome journalists and watchdog organizations like Section 27 might be less likely to notice. (An aside, Cyril: why the flying frying-pan is Qedani still a free woman? You and I both know she belongs in jail for the rest of her natural life, and yet she just got re-elected to the ANC’s provincial executive committee. You're the President not just of SA, but the ANC, Cyril. Surely you could have put your foot down? Made a call or two?)

But now here we are in poxy Women's Month, and on the first day of this month, thousands of brave women in major centres and small villages organised and marched against gender-based violence. Like their historical role models, many showed up at the Union Buildings to present you with a memorandum. They were addressing a HUGE problem, with courage and determination, practicing the kind of activism that was revered in the struggle against apartheid.

I am not going to bother to present you with the stats on just how dangerous it is to be a woman, ANY woman, but especially a poor black woman in South Africa. (And goddess help you if you're a poor black queer woman or trans person -- there's practically a bounty on your head.) Because you bloody well ought to know those figures by now, we've only been screaming them from the rooftops for decades. If you DON'T know the stratospherically high rates of intimate violence, wife-battering, rape, femicide and homophobic brutality and murder in this country, then not only are you not paying attention, you have no interest in paying attention. Don’t stand there saying “a number of women have been violated, abused, assaulted...” It's not "a number of". It is hundreds upon thousands of us. At least acknowledge the staggering magnitude of these figures.

Anyway, these women marched along to present you with their extremely reasonable demands (like could the men of South Africa please stop beating, raping and murdering us for five whole minutes and allow us to enjoy just a sniff of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom and equality). Just as the women of 1956 marched on the Union Buildings to protest the apartheid pass laws. You know our history, Cyril, and you had a golden opportunity to rewrite it. You should have been waiting for those women with a red carpet and a marching band, eager to thank them for their zeal and determination. You should have acknowledged them as the freedom fighters they are.

So what happened instead? You had armed police waiting with guns and barricades. Against a bunch of unarmed women enacting their constitutional (and in this country, noble) right to assemble and to protest. Cyril, WTAF? You of all people, after the literal bloodbath of Marikana, know what disaster can unfold when a bunch of trigger-happy cops hopped up on adrenalin and entitlement start waving guns around. What were you thinking? Why have heads not rolled? Those police should have formed a guard of honour for those women: surely they were all on the same side? "Gee, we mop up assault and battery and rape and homicide and murder at off-the-charts levels all the time, and these women want to stop it, just like us, so let's give them a mighty AMEN."

But noooooooo. Violence isn't taken seriously in this country, but least so if the adjective "gender-based" appears in front of it. So you let the cops push these women around and menace them and treat them like criminals. They were teargassed, Cyril. TEARGASSED. The Nats couldn't have done better. You kept them waiting for hours. You had said you’d show up to meet them at 2pm. You kept them waiting, in the cold and dark, until AFTER 8PM, long after their permit deadline had expired, their childcare and transport plans had been derailed.

When you finally oozed out to meet them, you said some very pretty words. I especially like the bit about hanging your head in shame (and so you ought). But you dropped some clangers that could have won prizes for tone-deafness. For starters, PLEASE stop asking SA men to respect us because because we are “mothers [who] bring life into the world”. (This goes for ALL politicians and public bleaters.) First, any female mammal can gestate a zygote; and second, it takes a woman AND a man to create a life (not that you’d think so to judge from the amount of deadbeat dads in which this country is knee-deep). Our rights as equal citizens should NOT in any way be linked to the ability to implant an embryo in the uterine wall. How about respecting women because we are human beings with full human rights?

Much, much worse, you said that "as women who are the victims of gender-based violence‚ you are the ones who have the solutions." HOLY HELL, Cyril, how often do we have to explain? This is like asking cancer patients to cut out their own tumours. For the zillionth time, WE. ARE. NOT. THE. PROBLEM. We're not the ones raping babies and grannies and our fellow students and neighbours and colleagues and friends, murdering lovers who dare reject us, beating our partners to pulp on a grand scale. Sure, we're no angels, and we can be violent, too. But it's the MEN, Cyril, the MEN of this country who need to come to their senses and learn to control their hasty fists. Oh, and don't get all pious about how hard they have it. Women who are hungry and unemployed and mired in all the ills of poverty might make some bad decisions, often through no fault of their own, but it's funny how often they start food gardens or creches instead. OR MARCH ON PARLIAMENT DEMANDING CHANGE. They tend not to violate children and then stuff their broken bodies in bin bags, or murder and burn their ex-lovers, or gang-rape lesbians to death.

So we're disappointed. Again. You wasted an opportunity to show willingness to take GBV seriously, at the very least to turn the march into a wonderful PR exercise (there's an election coming, Cyril, had you forgotten?). You could have made all those whose teeth are set on edge by the rampant hypocrisy of Women's Month feel that at least we were being heard instead of patronised.

And then, blow me down, next thing, the organisers of the march were being charged with “public violence”. Because YOU showed up over six hours late. WHAAAAT? Fortunately, National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole shut that one down, but I’d like answers: whose insane idea was this? The march co-ordinators who were told to "hand themselves over to the police", the women who marched, all the women of the country: we are owed a GROVELLING apology. Do it yourself; invite those insulted this way to tea at the Union Buildings and acknowledge that it was an appalling blunder, and promise it will never happen again.

Go on, Cyril. Do the right thing. The women of South African have the vote. And we'd like to see more than the saccharine lip service (it's barely even that) that gets rolled out by government on Women's Day, and in Women's Month. We're waiting. We're watching.


Helen Moffett