Sixteen Days of Activism: Talking over doing

Belinda Bozzoli says that over the past 5 years parliament has held 34 debates on violence against women and children

Sixteen days of activism – yet another debate

We live in a place where just over half the population – women - is vulnerable to a variety of possible horrors: frequent violent, sexual attacks; humiliation; patronisation; marginalisation; abandonment; prejudice; limited legal access to property; ideas of them as impure; the risk of being forced into permanent relationships as children; responsibility for a far greater range of social responsibilities than the other half; and even demonization as evil semi-magical creatures and possible murder by burning. And all of this is because of their physical, genetic make-up.

Morally, we in Parliament are obliged to deal with these horrors.  We have the power to make laws; we have authority over prosecution and police; we have the authority to expose just how much of this is going on and the wisdom to try to stop it.

But the action the ruling party – the ANC - decides to take in the face of all this is startlingly bland. On the one hand, there are quotas for women. It is very unclear to what extent these quotas have helped in addressing the problems mentioned above. And then there are the ceremonial responses. In our case it takes the form of debates.  Lots of debates. Regular debates.

We in the National Assembly in the past five years have had no fewer than 34 debates on the question in fact, taking up some 29 hours of precious Parliamentary time.

In these debates, of course, representatives of the victimised 50% - the women - are welcome to speak. The idea is probably that “they tell us about their problems - let off a bit of steam”. There is no real obligation for everyone to attend the debates.  “Let them get on with it. It will make them feel better”.

Perhaps Parliament should rather be using its powers to fundamentally change their situation? “No”, say the powers that be, “let’s not do that. I mean there are powerful people we might have to confront. Like, say, traditional leaders. We can’t do that. These are the people who prop us up in power. We can’t possibly tackle them. Tradition, you know, is very hard to change”.

And what about the other half of the population, the men, which includes those toxic individuals who perpetrate these horrors? “No” they say, “we can’t trouble them – I mean, they can’t help it, can they? Tradition, you know. We can’t dent their pride in their cultural beliefs. And shame they can’t all afford to pay maintenance; and if we prosecute them for sexual assault, they will be disadvantaged - they have also suffered, and you must understand their problems. Harsh sentences – well that’s a bit unfair when you think what a hard time they have had. And a lot of these perpetrators have very fragile egos. They might look all super-confident on the outside, with their massive ideas of self-importance and their willingness to lie and steal, but underneath they are vulnerable. And they also prop up our power”.

“But”, they say, “there is one additional thing we could do though – let’s give them lots of parliamentary seats. We have some spare ones. And if they keep supporting us, they can be allowed to sit at the back and make a lot of noise. I mean they are quite helpful when things are difficult. And they can give all the speeches in all the debates. Yes, that’s the answer – lots of female MPs, lots of debates on the plight of women. That should keep a lid on it”.

What if that’s not enough? Well, they say, “Here’s another thing we could do. Let’s give them their own tiny little government department. They only need a very small budget to hold a few workshops and conferences, where more debating can take place. The Department won’t be able to act, or do anything serious. And we will let the President keep an eye on it just to keep it in line”.

And if that doesn’t keep a lid on it? Well, “let’s also tell them that they can have their debates, but they must realise that their problems are only secondary level problems. They must understand that there are what’s known as real problems - problems for which so-called larger forces are to blame - and secondary problems, for which we personally are largely to blame. We can’t waste time and money on these, can we? – they are mainly domestic. How trivial can you get? No, let’s worry about the liberation of the nation, the stability of the party and world peace and let these debates solve the problems of violence, segregation, humiliation, abuse, neglect and prejudice.”

Thus, we end up with debating the matter of female subordination again and again in Parliament. Many Parliamentarians yawn at the thought. More importantly, the issue of women’s subordination becomes trivialised, bludgeoned into insignificance by the sheer weight of the boredom, the platitudes, the repetitiveness, that accompanies consideration of it. Valiantly, DA and other opposition MP’s introduce more vibrant ideas. But ultimately, the debates drone on, because we cannot bring ourselves to address the real issues that confront women, or to challenge those who perpetuate their inferior standing. These highly symbolic speeches on the intractable issues facing women in South Africa today happen so often that they have lost their impact.

One reason why they continue is that the debates perform an important ideological function for our governing party. From the ANC point of view, they revolve largely around the metaphorical role played by women in the allegory of nationalism. The suffering and struggling victimhood of women, complemented by the semi-religious imagery of the mother of the nation, are two notions that we see in many nationalisms.

Debates such as these serve ANC purposes above all, to reinforce and mourn the martyrdom of women as an integral part of the semi-religious story with which the movement is held together.  It is important to the ANC narrative, ironically, that women are repeatedly identified as victims so that their victimhood can perpetually be lamented. Lamentations – that is what these debates are for many ANC Parliamentarians.

But we are not all from the ANC and must refuse this metaphorical trapping of thought. Instead of speechifying and lamenting, we need to enquire and act. Let us define the problem as one of gender relations, not just of women. Let us look more seriously at the fact that we are plagued by individuals who display what you might call hyper-masculinity - puffed up, aggressive male egos with simultaneously egg-shell thin exteriors - some with violent and even murderous intent. Let us take seriously the fact that we are persecuted by pompous patriarchs who use gullible women to prop up their petty little kingdoms, patronising them all the while. These models of masculinity at the top give the rest of society images to emulate; and they breed a toxic ideology of imperviousness and arrogance.

And those men who succeed in playing the game of hyper-masculinity also eat away at the thin veneers of some of the less successful ones. Taken seriously, the demands of extreme masculinity are onerous. The less successful men are even more liable to kick downwards, to the women below them in the hierarchy, than the successful ones.

In fact, we should enquire into the societal diseases plaguing men, rather than women. When you are trying to understand crime, you don’t look at the victims, you look at the perpetrators. What’s wrong with our men? We need to find out more about how boys are brought up, how they are socialised, how families have failed them and how society nurtures and rewards the hyper masculine amongst them. And this needs to be followed by firm recommendations for societal and legislative remedies and prosecutorial effectiveness.

We should abolish the Department of Women and instead make every single government department responsible – and not just by introducing quotas – for a radical decline in the powers of the patriarchs.

And finally, we should do an annual audit of the state of gender relations, a little like the annual police statistics, which gives us a regular picture of the scale of, and changes in, the various components of patriarchal domination, and the power to act against those – the prosecutors, police, social workers, leaders of government departments, traditional leaders, politicians - who do not show improved statistics every year.

We are all tired of these symbolic, platitudinous ANC debates, tired of perpetual lamentation, tired of words without action while the war against women continues. Don’t complain, as they say, act.

Belinda Bozzoli is DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training