Battered, Bloodied Women Confront Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa outlines a number of steps to beef up the state’s response to the rape and murder of women. It’s old wine in old bottles, but President resists calls for state of emergency and the death penalty.

Say No To Xenophobia
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On Thursday September 5, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa cut out of the elite gathering of the World Economic Forum (WEF) to meet militant and angry women and men who staged an #EnoughisEnough protest outside parliament that spread out as far as the eye could see in the Cape Town CBD.

Activists say it is the largest march against the war on women in recent memory, the movement catalysed by the rape and murder of Uyenene Mrwetyana, the 21-year-old student murdered by a Post Office employee who lured her into the Claremont mail room and then raped her and bludgeoned her to death with a scale.

He had previous charges against him which was not picked up by his state employer. Last weekend, an off-duty policeman shot his boxer girlfriend, Leighandre “Baby Lee” Jegels, in the face, killing her instantly even though she had a protection order against him and he should not have been in possession of a gun.

Thursday was the second day of protest. On Wednesday Sep 4, protestors almost brought down the house as they pushed against the barricades outside the WEF meeting which draws diplomats and business leaders from around the world.

Meant to be a showcase of Ramaphosa’s reform initiative, it became an elite glasshouse as protestors staged sortie after sortie to make their point and demand the president address them. Later, police opened water cannons on the protesters and used stun grenades against them; in Johannesburg where looters and arsonists targeted migrant traders, there was no such policing.

#AmINext and #EnoughisEnough

Ahead of Ramaphosa’s visit on Thursday, the fence of the house of parliament was pinned with posters reading #AmINext, the slogan of a new movement against violence against women.

A woman is murdered every three hours in South Africa, according to Africa Check and in 2018, 49 900 sexual offences were reported to the police, most of which are violence against women.

“I don’t want to die with my arms up or my legs open,” said other posters in another slogan that signifies a new stage in the war against violence against women. This week, an older (and arguably more patient) generation gave ground to activists and students who brook no political speech.

“Booh!” shouted the crowd as Ramaphosa tried to calm them on Wednesday afternoon with the rallying cry to women of “Malibongwe.” “Death penalty, death penalty,” shouted some in the crowd. Ramaphosa promised a national address in an hour and then took five hours more to deliver it.

When he did, the president was obviously exhausted. The SABC broadcast an earlier pre-recording in which he fluffed and had to recompose himself, showing the strain. Perhaps that is why Ramaphosa did not seize the moment.

Eloquent words; insufficient actions

Ramaphosa said the right things: he said that he spoke as the president, as a husband and a father to his daughters, he called it a “war” against women, a sign that he understands the serious crisis of fear and violence that is normative for South African women.

“Women have every right to expect that they be free from harassment and violence on the streets, in schools and campuses, on buses, taxis and trains, at places of work and worship, and in their homes,” he said. Deflecting from calls for a state of emergency, Ramaphosa said he heard the calls but downgraded emergency to urgency.

“I will therefore be asking Parliament to discuss and identify urgent interventions that can be implemented without delay.” He called it a crime. “It is a crime against our common humanity.”

But when it came to outlining the crucial “what”, he did not use his power to seed far-reaching ideas and to add a few deliverables with timelines.

Instead he presented a lukewarm plate of leftovers that have not worked like an updated and modernised sexual offenders list (the state’s has not been able to draw up one that is accurate); to introduce harsher minimum sentences (an old idea that is sometimes implemented and sometimes not); that the state should oppose bail and parole applications (a new idea); rehabilitation programmes; to strengthen emergency rapid response teams as well as other criminal justice measures like more specialised courts and care centres which have been on the agenda for over two decades but which are never quite delivered at the speed or scale commensurate with the war.

The president said old and questionable sexual violence cases would be reopened but with the National Prosecuting Authority gutted by state capture, this feels like a promise that can’t be met in the short-term.

President Ramaphosa said he would ask Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni to allocate more funds to these measures but with a near bankrupt fiscus, political analyst Karima Brown said on news channel, Enca, that she wanted to see where the money would come from and how much would be allocated. Ultimately, the address fizzled because it may have had heart, but it did not have the power the moment demanded.

A bloody week

This week, Ramaphosa was meant to have celebrated 100 days in week. His team had planned to unveil a number of big reveals at the WEF meeting of how his reform agenda is working. Instead, it turned hellish on Sunday night when looters started a bloody trail of arson and looting in Malvern, the run-down residential and business suburb on the eastern flanks of Johannesburg.

By Monday, it had spread to eight areas where migrants (and South Africans) run small retail operations. By Tuesday, the east Rand was flaming; by Wednesday, Alexandra and Katlehong were part of the trail of destruction. Gauteng and Johannesburg, the economic heartbeat of the country, and Ramaphosa’s key constituencies were out of control.

The international opprobrium from the African Union (which put out the first stern release against the attacks on migrant traders) the United Nations (which voiced strong opposition) from Nigeria (where President Muhammadu Buhari called a demarche on the South African high commissioner Bobby Moroe and dispatched a special envoy to South Africa) must have cut Ramaphosa who is an internationally renowned statesman.

In Nigeria, both South Africa’s high commission in Abuja and its consul office in Lagos are still shut after threats. MTN, Shoprite and Multichoice have had to close offices in Nigeria and Zambia after threats and attacks.

For a leader who is seen as business-friendly, this is not a liability Ramaphosa wants to own. The president’s reputation has taken a battering on many levels in a week he hoped to launch as evidence of his success.

In his address, Ramaphosa appended final figures. Ten people died in the bloody week; 289 are in jail. South Africa’s reputation is in tatters and Ramaphosa’s as a peacemaker and mover and shaker is hurt. “There can be no excuse for the attacks on the homes and businesses of foreign nationals, just as there can be no excuse for xenophobia or any other form of intolerance.

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

As always, the eloquent president has the words, but has he the action? Since 2015, the Daily Maverick has tracked the rate of looting on shops owned by migrants and there has not been any significant justice for these actions.

While hundreds have been arrested and the violence contained, our tracking system reveals that the criminal justice system cannot sufficiently provide leverage against looting and xenophobia by holding up the promise of justice.

Ramaphosa is an enormously popular president, but his reception by the biggest march against sexual violence on Thursday Sep 5 and also the outcry against the attacks on violence against migrant traders for the entire week shows that he needs to rethink his governing strategy as he moves out of the honeymoon period of a presidency of promise.


Written by Ferial Haffajee

Ferial Haffajee is a prominent South African journalist and associate editor of Daily Maverick. Haffajee was editor of the City Press newspaper from July 2009 until July 2016 and was previously the editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa.