Susan Shabangu, South African Minister of Mineral Resources, speaks during a press conference, at the 20th Annual Investing in Africa Mining Indaba on February 4, 2014, at the International Convention Centre in Cape Town.
A spate of horrific murders of women and young girls have caused an outcry that cannot be ignored, and there have been promising signs in the last few days to suggest that the issue is assuming the priority status it should always have held. But if you want to stay optimistic, paying close attention to the messages of the Department of Women is probably not advisable.
Let’s start with the good news. Some of the strongest statements we’ve heard in years about dealing with gender-based violence came from government this week – largely from the mouth of one Fikile Mbalula, Police Minister. As Daily Maverick reported on Tuesday, Mbalula has pledged to make sexual offence and domestic violence priority crimes, to ensure that barriers to women reporting abuse are removed, and that women be supported to pursue cases rather than withdrawing charges under pressure.
More good news: on Wednesday it was confirmed that three parliamentary committees will join forces to discuss violence against women. Following a request by the DA’s shadow police minister, Zak Mbhele, Parliament’s portfolio committees on police, justice and women will convene at a meeting which Mbhele hopes will include the testimony of the public and NGOs.
Another positive sign: following an intervention from the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, government committed this week to protect the exclusivity of sexual offences courts, against the backdrop of a proposal which would have seen the courts used for cases other than sexual offences. Activists had argued that the specificity of the courts was an essential tool in prioritising sexual offences.
Rape Crisis said on Tuesday that government has “agreed to take steps towards achieving the full implementation of thee court services over time, to the maximum of its available resources and using all appropriate means”. The NGO termed the decision “a great victory for rape survivors” that will “ensure a legislative framework that aims to protect survivors”.
These steps forward have happened in the context of renewed public outrage following a spate of brutal attacks on women and young girls. But as one journalist asked Women’s Minister Susan Shabangu at a press briefing in Parliament on Wednesday, where has the Department of Women been during all this?
It has been a time, after all, when politicians have been falling over themselves to say the right thing in condemnation of gender-based violence. In addition to the ANC and the ANC Women’s League, President Jacob Zuma issued a separate statement on the issue through the Presidency, and took the rare step of visiting a victim’s family in the Western Cape: that of murdered three-year-old Courtney Pieters. Meanwhile, the government department which one would think might spearhead all of this – the Department of Women – has been virtually invisible until this week’s parliamentary budget votes briefing.
“We may not be in the public space, or your space, but we are working,” Shabangu shot back when questioned about the department’s low profile, suggesting that the media chose not to cover its grassroots initiatives.
Exactly what these initiatives consist of is still hard to discern. Parliament heard on Tuesday that more than half the department’s operating budget of R127.8-million goes on employee salaries, with 35 of its 105 staffers earning R1.2-million per year.
Most of the initiatives Shabangu cited on Wednesday as evidence of government’s commitment to gender issues are programmes run out of other departments. The gender-based violence toll-free helpline, for instance, was launched by the Department of Social Development. The “She Conquers” campaign, which focuses on preventing HIV infection in young girls, comes from the Department of Health.
Shabangu’s department is, in fairness, tasked with developing policy rather than implementing it. It is also given a tiny budget compared to many other departments, something Shabangu acknowledged. “I can’t say we have a lot of budget,” she said. “But if you look at government as a whole, it’s not our sole responsibility to deal with this scourge [of gender-based violence].”
What, then, is the department’s responsibility? If you ask the opposition, it’s hard to tell. DA MP Terri Stander said in Parliament on Wednesday: “In response to my questions in a committee meeting, Minister Shabangu could not name a single thing attributed to her department that meaningfully impacted the lives of South African women.”
At a minimum, however, one might suggest that the department should provide clear and consistent messaging on issues like gender-based violence – but here, too, it is failing.
Minister Shabangu came in for heavy criticism on social media after an interview she gave to eNCA’s Checkpoint programme about the murder of Karabo Mokoena, which aired this week. In it, the minister said: “[Mokoena] was weak and hence she became a victim of abuse.”
Questioned about this at Wednesday’s press briefing, Shabangu initially denied giving such an interview. Pressed on the point, the minister went on the defensive, repeatedly asking: “Are you trying to judge me?” She eventually clarified that she had meant to say that Mokoena, despite being a strong woman in society, was vulnerable within her relationship. “Women become victims because they are vulnerable,” she said – which sounds quite a lot like the statement she was initially criticised for.
“Vulnerable” is a key word for Shabangu when it comes to women. Opening the briefing, she said: “In the last few weeks we have been reminded of the vulnerability of women at the hands of men.” Every violent incident, she continued, “reflects the failure of society to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable in our midst”: women and children.
Later, Shabangu said that government needed to make sure “women are being treated in a way that brings respect and confidence”.
Asked by the Daily Maverick if it was not contradictory to repeatedly describe women as vulnerable – and lump adult women into the same category as children – while simultaneously calling for them to be confident, Shabangu doubled down.
“If we don’t say they are vulnerable, we won’t be able to come up with programmes of empowering them, to make them confident,” she said.
The reality is that there is little about the Department of Women to inspire confidence in women. From that perspective, there is reason to be grateful that the task of improving the lot of South African women does not fall exclusively on this department’s inadequate shoulders.