Headlines about South Africa around the world in recent weeks have been filled with alarm over xenophobic attacks on fellow black Africans and communities running riot in sprees of looting and burning, with wild scenes of police firing teargas, stun grenades and even live ammunition to keep control.
The World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town was almost completely ruined – and was largely drowned out – by the riotous conduct of mainly angry young women in the streets outside where rage against ongoing sky-high rape, domestic violence and femicide boiled over into chaotic scenes.
President Cyril Ramaphosa even left that vital investment-oriented WEF discussion to deal with protesters, but within days the long-suppressed frustration, anger and fear of women who run a one in five chance of being raped in their lives forced his hand in calling a joint sitting of the national assembly.
Joint sittings are not unknown, nor unprocedural, but are for state of the nation and annual budget speeches and debates.
This past week, feelings have been running so high in South Africa that Ramaphosa had little choice but go with the public tide of sentiment and take the unprecedented step of calling a joint emergency sitting to show that his administration is serious about getting on top of femicide and sexual crimes against women and children.
Harsher sentences, longer terms, no parole and other measures strongly focused on punishment have all been widely endorsed.
But as MP after MP pointed out, if the culture of the land in which rape has become so common – in which intimate partners are all too often the killers of women – is not addressed, then nothing will change.
SA’s foreign relations minister Naledi Pandor has been at pains in international media, such as BBC’s “Hardtalk” programme, to say that while the recent outburst of violence – including a part-xenophobic, part-criminal wave of looting and burning which raged around Johannesburg – was regrettable and bad for SA’s reputation, it was also understandable given a history of over 300 years of colonialism and racism, topped by 48 years of apartheid.
While there had been xenophobia, it was not the lead factor in the recent troubles, she said.
The minister has a point: of the 12 people killed during the supposed ‘xenophobia-driven’ looting and burning of shops in great Johannesburg, 10 were South Africans.
And while there were some troubles around Johannesburg, to some extent Pretoria and a few other places, there was not a general xenophobic outbreak such as in 2008.
According to Pandor, 25 years is not enough time to redress all the problems of modern-day South Africa, embedded as they are in race-based systemic oppression over centuries.
Her argument stands, but as with so many other aspects of South Africa, there are co-existing and competing realities to her narrative.
One is that many South Africans are simply past arguments that rest in “apartheid and before” as an excuse for what is wrong today.
The youngest voting cohort in the SA population have no direct experience of apartheid, only of non-delivery on their dreams.
The freedom to vote is one thing, the freedom to live as you wish is an entirely different matter – the pent up resentments around the latter have all come home to roost for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), regardless of many achievements since democratic rule in 1994.
The chants at protests, no matter what they may be about, routinely include the demand for whatever is wanted to be delivered “now”.
Many demands are contradictory with others, or the law and constitution, or are practically unfeasible – none of which seems to matter to incensed protesters.
There have been calls on the streets for a return of the death penalty for rapists, murderers and child sex abusers, as well as for castration of rapists and sex offenders.
The complexity of a new democracy struggling to come to terms with the realities of daily life – ridden with poverty, inequality, crime and the struggle to survive – becomes clear when that reality is measured against the high ideals of the constitution.
On the same day as the joint sitting to see what could immediately be done to stop violence against women and children, the SA Constitutional Court decided that spanking of children (corporal punishment) is illegal.
Ministers of religion from around the country, along with conservatives across the colour line, have collectively voiced dismay that “sparing the rod” had been taken away from parents as a corrective for misbehaviour in children.
Sociologists and criminologists, brought onto nationally broadcast radio and TV shows to discuss the roots of SA’s top-to-bottom violence problems, almost all point to early childhood as formative and agree that beaten children tend to grow up into child-beaters.
Meanwhile, the on-the-ground reality is that child “correction” through physical punishment is part and parcel of almost every home and while spanking is now technically “assault”, it is unlikely to go away any time soon.
Likewise with femicide, in a country at the top of the murder rates for non-war zone states.
Just the day before Ramaphosa’s joint emergency sitting to discuss curtailing deadly violence against women and children, three children were among four people killed just 20 kilometres east of Parliament.
In this instance, the perpetrators, known gangsters, were quickly caught.
Ramaphosa has been forced to extend the deployment of army units sent into the murder epicentres of the high-density, low-income eastern suburbs of Cape Town to assist overwhelmed police, to March 31 next year.
Murder rates have shown barely any movement despite the army’s presence.
There is widespread civil support for a now-galvanised Ramaphosa administration to do something – but tougher sentencing, removing parole options and similar measures cannot, in themselves, be sufficient to stop the many forms of violent criminality plaguing SA society.
One reason is that the police force and prosecuting authority were both deliberately allowed to be hollowed out under the nine-year rule of former President Jacob Zuma, and so are now largely ineffectual.
Even with the best plan possible, the question is: can Ramaphosa really do anything to turn the tide of violence and violent crime so long as there is still so much poverty, joblessness, inequality, inherent social tension, tribalism, xenophobia and cultural patriarchy at play, along with investigative and prosecutorial inadequacy and corruption?
There is no doubt he is trying, but success seems far off.
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