Address by Deputy Minister Ntombazana Botha at the Gender Justice working retreat dinner held at Zevenwacht, Cape Town

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27 Sep 2006


Firstly, I would like to thank the organizers of this Retreat for the privilege to address you tonight and to share with you some our of thoughts with regard to the issues of gender violence, culture and gender inequality. I am saying “our thoughts” because what I am going to say tonight is not solely about my brilliant ideas and wisdom. These are ideas that have come out of many discussions that we have been having with a number of people, women and men, who are grappling with these issues. I would like to acknowledge with thanks all those people (and, of course, they know who they are) who have made a contribution to this, my speech, and who have made me to appear wiser today. So, I am just the spokesperson.

I am also very conscious of the fact that I am tonight addressing an audience that has much more knowledge and experience than I have, but I hope that this input will enrich your deliberations during this Retreat.

Perhaps I should begin by looking at “culture”; what it is and what it means. The safest definition that I have been applying in recent times is simply that “culture is a way of life”.

South Africa is a nation of diverse cultures, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it: “We are a rainbow nation”. But, if we were to put this “rainbow” under a microscope we would find that, although the majority of the people of this country are African, the dominant culture today is less African, more European or Western.

The legacy of colonialism and apartheid is still evident today in the way we live (our lifestyle) and in the way our society is structured. Colonialism and apartheid neglected, distorted and suppressed the culture of the majority of the people of this country. The creativity of our people was systematically stifled and communities were denied the opportunity and resources to develop their own cultural expressions unless you were going to satisfy the wishes of the settlers. My thoughts flash back to the way Sara Bartman was treated by her colonial “masters” with grave contempt and humiliation.

So, the culture of the colonial and apartheid became the dominant culture that lured many of our people.

Very often, when people talk about culture, they think it is only about music, dance, traditional dress, circumcision or mshini-wam. Those things that we can see, hear and touch. Not at all! Culture is the totality of knowledge, beliefs, values, norms, attitudes, gender-relations, parenting, governance, and whatever else you can think of. It is about the total or holistic existence of a people. So, obviously this would incorporate the social, political, economic, environmental and spiritual life of a nation.

I am not entirely convinced that when we celebrate our National Days we are conveying this message effectively. Instead, the meaning of culture is fast-becoming lost in the frenzy. In fact, the erosion and self-serving manipulation of our culture has done us a lot of harm to the extent that I believe it has contributed greatly to the gender violence that is endemic in our country. The quote from an address by the first President of a democratic Botswana, Sir Seretse Khama, is still true today. He said “A nation without a past is a lost nation and people without a past is a people without a soul”

Sadly, what we experience today is the marginalization of the culture of the indigenous people of this country which is regarded by some people as backwards and their practices antiquated. The Khoi and the San people, who still do not have any qualms about their traditional customs and semi-nudity lifestyle, are probably the only communitywhere gender-based violence such as rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse of little girls and other traditional practices harmful to women are less prevalent occurrence or occur with less frequency or not at all.

This culture of the Khoi and the San communities, is not only frowned upon, but it is made to appear inferior, you see they are not like us, we often say. Same applies in the case of Muslem women who wear the parda. They are seen as still holding on to repressive traditions.

This morning I listened to Xolani Gwala’s morning talk. In the discussions about crime and crime statistics he raised an issue about anger- that there seems to be a lot of anger in our society especially among Blacks. The criminal element is Black and predominantly African – that’s the sense I got as the calls kept coming in. violence is attributed to a particular cultural group. I don’t remember anything being said about the issue of gender-based violence (violence against women and children) or just male violence which is one of our biggest challenges.

But, be that as it may, we just cannot run away from the fact that colonialism and apartheid brutally almost destroyed our soul. It destroyed our indigenous knowledge systems, our wealth, our belief systems and our traditional justice system.

During the colonial and apartheid era, the majority of the people of this country, the indigenous people, the African people were on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by the immigrants or colonizers. All forms of resistance were successfully suppressed by these regimes. Wars we fought, our people were robbed of their land, cattle were stolen or destroyed, girls and women were forcefully taken as sex slaves. This era was about power and control. The boers had power and control over us as a people.

Is this not what is happening today? Whether it is on the global level – George Bush invading Iraq, Afghanistan or threatening to invade Iran or in our own localities where physical, sexual or psychological violence occurs so frequently in the family, in the community. Those who are most vulnerable to violence are those who are less powerful either physically, economically or otherwise.

Gender-based violence too is about power and control. The UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women ( CEDAW) defines gender-based violence very broadly as “any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in private or public life. Violence against women shall be understood to encompass, but not limited to, physical, sexual, and psychological violence occurring in the family, the community, including battery, sexual abuse of female children, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence, violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence against women perpetrated and condoned by the state”.

Gender-based violence should be understood in this broader sense and not just in terms of physical violence as was the case before – or as is apparently the perception of police officers whenever a female victim of gender-based violence appeals to them for intervention. Or is it a case of just turning a blind eye or collision with the male perpetrator. This definition encompasses all these issues of power and control.

There is no culture that promotes violence against women and children. What has happened though is that individuals in their quest to assert their authority/power have deliberately chosen to distort or manipulate certain aspects of culture to justify such violence. Some socialisation and parenting patterns have sought to promote a certain pecking order from a gender point of view. This order would dictate gender roles by suggesting that the boy child is a provider and the girl-child’s existence is defined in terms of how she is going to provide sexually for her husband in her life of servitude.

Currently, the traditional practice of lobola is not appreciated as it was originally intended. It was initially done to bring together and unite families and did not have the commercial dimension that it has now assumed. It has been reduced to a mere financial transaction that forces women to be compliant because of the belief by some members of the community that they have been bought to perform certain duties in the marriage setting.

Culture has often been distorted in the process of being transmitted from one generation to another, as it comes into contact with foreign cultures and self-serving interests. Culture has sometimes undergone changes without the necessary refinement or education which would enable people to adapt.

How to use culture to end gender based violence

It is also important to acknowledge the positive aspects of culture such as the value of UBUNTU and respect for one another. These are some of the values that should be retained and inculcated through, for example, the rite of passage – from boyhood to manhood (in the case of boys) and from girlhood to womanhood (in the case of girls).

We need to recognize the diversity of our cultures and understand the cultural basis of these groups. It would be important to analyse cultural groups where violence is prevalent in order to package messages for them that affirm positive aspects of a particular culture and those that highlight the leadership role of women.

Legislation that has been promulgated recognizes the role of traditional leaders (amakhosi and headmen) in communities and acknowledges that they are the custodians of indigenous culture. Traditionally, tribal authorities used their indigenous justice system to address problems of gender-based violence, e.g., a perpetrator would be fined if found guilty of any transgression. This did not only happen at the level of amakhosi, but also at an inter-family level where elders would meet to discuss matters of gender violence and decide on the appropriate punitive measures.

The rite of passage could be used in a positive way to transform gender-biases and stereotypes. In other words, the rite of passage should be used as a transformative tool where good values and practices are inculcated. In other countries this has been done through programmes such as military service, service in the kibbutz in Israel and, in South Africa, it could be introduced in the National Youth Service programme

Secondly, it is also important that collectively we revisit/interrogate child-rearing and socialisation patterns as they occur within family setting. Clearly, one of the reasons why rape has become a serious challenge is because of parenting that that promoted certain stereotypes early in the lives of both the perpetrator and the victim. Revisiting these socialisation patterns entails amongst others, asking fundamental questions around power and gender, for instance, on what basis can we justifiable say a girl child is actually inferior to a boy child.

The issues of power and control have resulted in the dominance of the male members of the society. Despite our very progressive Constitution which entrenches equality as the cornerstone of our democracy, we are still very far from achieving the South African that we hope for which is united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic. Both racism and sexism are the challenges that women still have to contend with, within our communities, in our churches, in the workplace, in our houses and believe it or not, in our political parties or organizations.

Among us we do find people who still encourage sexism. The succession debate is a case in point. It is sheer discrimination against women to say that “this country is not ready for a woman president” It sends a message which says women are worthless than men, they are inferior to men, they have less power, less intelligence, less integrity and are less competent, therefore they have to be subordinate to men.

Do you know what this translates into? Women have recently been the victims of being booed, hackled, sworn at, and called names by their own colleagues and comrades. I dread the day when people who have such an attitude get the opportunity to govern this country. That very progressive constitution we boast about will go out the window and in will come policies and practices that will deter the advancement of women. There will also probably be a reason advanced for inequality between women and men.

Another disturbing issue is the way women / female victims of gender-based violence are treated in the criminal justice system. It is very clear in some of the judgments that the evidence furnished by the complainant / victim is easily dismissed. Often women are portrayed as liars thereby suffering double victimisation.

Once again, the recent case Sate vs. J Zuma has clearly demonstrated the lack of understanding of our diverse culture and the intolerance of each other’s cultures. Rape should not be taken lightly. We must concede that we do not know each other’s cultures but the least we could do is to appreciate each other’s cultures. Both the prosecution and the judicial officer were members of a totally different culture from that of the complainant and the accused. Even between the complainant and the accused there were stark cultural differences. My wish is that the esteemed judges should understand and accept that education is an ongoing process- “sakufa sifunda”

My second last point - I have been having questions around why this topic only refers to Traditional Authorities and their role in addressing patriarchy. Our society is a patriarchal society in its totality. We cannot confine this phenomenon to Traditional Authorities. As I said earlier, even in our political parties you will encounter this problem.

Fortunately, we have legislation in place which enjoins Traditional Leadership to the principle of gender-equality and through their structures – Houses of Traditional Leaders we can continue to involve them in gender education programmes and also ensure gender-representivity in their councils.

Our greatest challenge lies outside the realm of Traditional Authorities where the struggle is about power and control. Look no further than government departments. Do we look at legislation again to ensure that specific issues like 50% representation of women in all institutions and at various levels become a reality? Deputy Minister Hangana is right – there needs to be more integration and co-ordination and involvement of grassroots people. Let’s talk more.