Gender Based Violence: The time for calls to action is over - we must ACT!

Mzi Nduna, Department of Psychology, University of the Witwatersrand

Rev Vusi Vilakati, Bethesda Methodist Church, Johannesburg

There was no business as usual in the first week of September 2019 in South Africa. Government, civil society, private sector, organised formations and the general population responded with shock to the news of the killings of women and children.  One of the women killed, whose death galvanised the society to speak out and call for action was Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19 year old first year student at the University of Cape Town. She was not the only one. It does not help to enumerate the number of women and children who are victims of gender-based violence in South Africa. Data from police records and research describes the magnitude of violence against women in this country as alarming. This data may be a tip of the iceberg as we know that many women who are raped and abused by their partners and non-partners in South Africa do not report this. Women who die in the hands of men’s violence are not always recorded in femicide studies or records of death as having died of violence.

For those who are known, it does not help to mention their names either. Because a lot of women suffer in silence and their stories never make it to the news headline. There are no vigils for them. No hashtags. No marches. No media attention. And we never cite their names in public speeches.  They remain in the margins of our society with very little recourse (Mungwari & Stofile, 2019).

In a conversation with Rev Vusi Vilakati at the eve of the funeral of Uyinene, we shared our feelings and thoughts about the state of our country.  We agree that the time for ‘calls to action’ has passed. That this is the time for action from both men and women; not ‘calls to action’.

The trauma faced by the South African society is beyond measure. Women are traumatised by the ordeal they go through during the abuse and rape and further endure the multidimensional trauma of public scrutiny, the insensitivity of police and health professionals, and the slowness of the justice system.  In the current system and culture it is difficult for women to report because reporting sometimes mean reliving the trauma a thousand times.  We have said this over and over, but the duty bearers are slow to act. This cannot continue at the expense of the dignity and welfare of our most vulnerable.

We are approaching the 16 Days of Activism in two months’ time. National, provincial and local policies that are aimed at promoting women’s safety are at everyone’s disposal. Schools, universities, churches, and workplaces have policies and guidelines on how to deal with the problems of discrimination and violence against women. And yet we continue to make ‘calls’ instead of using the very same tools that we have at our disposal to act.

Part of the problem of violence is deep-seated sexist attitudes towards women. In our homes, at school, in churches, at work and everywhere, we need to utter words, give advice, and communicate to boys and men messages that promote equality and honestly intervene when this is not the case. We need to deconstruct the cultural vehicles that perpetuate and expression to the misconceptions about manhood and womanhood. This is the simplest thing that each one of us can do, without funding.

Part of the problem of violence against women is the sense of entitlement to use violence to resolve problems. We need to condemn men’s use of violence as a reaction to frustration, annoyance, and disappointment and deceit. We can do this without hosting a seminar, a symposium or a conference. We need to do it every day and everywhere.

Why is it easier for men to use violence toward their partner and restrain themselves when abused by their male employers? Do men react differently towards women than they do towards their male counterparts? If this is the case, why is restraint possible in the other and not towards their women? This is perhaps a deeper mental issue that has been embedded by our cultural socialisation. Men need to take the lead in messaging and reinforcing positive male behaviours and inclusive ways of being men in our society.

Yes, our history has played a major role in the fracturing of the family unit (see, Makiwane, Nduna, & Khalema, 2016). There are children whose parents were stolen by the struggle against Apartheid and exile.  Most of these have only begun to reconstruct fragments of what family is now. Part of our violent history has played a significant part in fracturing of the family unit and breeding a culture of violence(Mncube & Madikizela-Madiya, 2014). This culture has even found expressions in parliament settings.  All of a sudden, it is okay to use force to get what you want. In parliament we call it ‘being radical’ and when that violence is towards women we pretend to be in shock.

We need to name and shame every expression of cruelty whether it is in the public or private spaces. We need to call out everyone and everywhere daily. What if we were to use hash tags to name the perpetrators. #Name raped and murdered so and so…” We cannot continue to use language that is victim and survivor centric. We need to place in the media and public scrutiny the behaviour of perpetrators in ways that describe and shame the violence of our culture.

Blaming the violence against women on historical factors is also a cheap way out of the problem. The reality we live with is that we cannot recover the perfect family unit. This too is fraught with silenced violence in the name of privacy and family stature. There are people who grew up without fathers or mothers who turned out non-violent, and there are people who grew up with both parents who have become abusers. This debunks the myth about the fractured family as a breeder of violence. There is a level of choice and we need to teach children; boys and girls, adults: men and women, that they can choose to not use violence.

Another important factor is that self-regulation in our society is a major issue. We now know that something of the family unit is seriously broken. More than half of the children in this country are raised by mothers and grandmothers or adults who are not their own biological parents (see, Ratele & Nduna, 2018). Statistics reveal that about half the number of children grow up without fathers.  The question is, why is it men, and not women, who come from these dysfunctional/broken/fractured families who develop the propensity to use violence. Is it the family or is it the person?

While the relationship between how one is raised and their adult choices in complex and complicated, men don’t seem to have enough avenues to learn self-regulation. Men (with relative exception) struggle with being present to father and learn how to regulate their emotions in a long-term relationship with the other.

When someone has never known how to set proper body and emotional boundaries, it is easy for them to assume they have a right to women’s bodies.  When men do not know how to manage their vulnerability, control their fear and anger, these emotions will surely burst in the wrong places. Self-regulation means learning to know how to appropriately deal with anger and fear and express empathy.

Whatever the influencing factors, we must cut this chain. We can’t keep transferring violence down generations. Men should boldly stand up and say the train stops with me. Men should learn restraint. Why are men able to restrain themselves when a boss abuses them and they fail to restrain themselves at home?  It is cowardice to fail to confront the real oppressor and chose to oppress those you vowed to love and care for.

Whilst access to weapons needs to be reduced, a man who is determined to maim and kill, will do so even with the most unlikely instrument: a post office scale. Or else a school belt or a belt of a bathroom robe. Yes, the calls for a gun-free South Africa have been made as violence ravages our community with guns in the hands of gangs (Mncube & Madikizela-Madiya, 2014). In addition to gang related violence it is men that we think are not violent who own guns and we do not problematize their gun ownership. Sometimes women are stabbed, children are hanged and lesbians are butchered in on-going related violence. A common pattern in these is the history of the perpetrators.  The victim who makes it to the headlines is usually not their first victim. By the time the victims go public, disclose to family and friends, or report to the police and come forward to the media, it is usually after they have endured victimization and violations in private. Women are not lunatics. One victim should be enough for us to believe that the perpetrator is a risk to society and act against him.

Part of the problem of violence is that the violent history of the perpetrator is always known. We know men in our families who abuse children, girlfriends and wife; fathers uncles, stepfathers, husbands, cousins, nephews who molest and treat women with disdain. We keep quiet and hope that they will not kill their victims. We shy away from referring to their previous deeds. When we protect a perpetrator, we send a very wrong message that his behaviour is legitimate. They continue with impunity. The time now is the time to act against your own that you know perpetrates violence.

We know teachers, lecturers, and priests who sleep with learners, students and congregants. What do we do? We ice-out those who refuse to be their sexual objects. We reason, rationalize and think that these men are not in Luyanda Botha’s league. And yet the motivations for violations are the same; to deal with women, the best way they know how; because the society has taught these men that it is OK to violate women. For these men, a woman is an enemy and sex is a weapon to trash the enemy. Attack, bullying, bringing her down is the best way they know how to deal with women. We allow these men to occupy positions of power and unleash their deep-seated hatred for women with impunity. Teachers become Heads of Departments (HoDs), deputies, and principals. Lecturers become professors; HoDs, Deans, DVCs and VCs. Stewards become church elders, evangelists, priests and Bishops. We promote them, against our knowledge of their misbehaviour, sending a message to girls and women that if they speak out against these men; they will close their opportunities.

As the perpetrators of most of the violence against women, men need to own up to their own wounded-ness, talk about and find help. The crisis we are facing needs men who will move from invincibility and invisibility and publicly confess and name what is broken and create a framework for healing. There is no room for men who live in this society as if it were a jungle where they can take, brutalize and dispose of.

We know of men and women who legitimize violence against women, mansplain it and protect their affiliation to the ‘boy’s club’, protect their husbands, protect their sons, protect their careers.  It is time that men and women who know a man who violates a woman to intervene and stop them. We cannot allow these men to accumulate a profile as a victimizer, as a perpetrator and as powerful, untouchable, influential and protected people. Our silence will not protect us; action will.

We recognize that acting against gender discrimination and violence against women is risky; calling for action is safer. Men and women who fight against gender discrimination and gender-based violence faced backlash for doing so.  Those who call for action are recognized, awarded and are content to be seen to be doing something about the problem of violence against women. When women and men act against gender-based violence; the perpetrators become overwhelmed with fear. They intensify their attack. Therefore, those who act; those who fight back are at risk.  Those who call for action are liked because they do not threaten the status quo. Those who act are intensely disliked because their actions change the status quo.

It is the action, not the call to action that will prevent more deaths, suicides, and victimization of women. It is the action, not the call to action that will stop men from even thinking that they can mistreat women. It is our actions, not our calls to action that will heal the nation of the trauma of years of violence against women in this country. Are YOU ready to walk the talk and eradicate gender-based violence and usher a new era of equality once and for all?

Makiwane, M., Nduna, M., & Khalema, N. E. (2016). Children in South African Families: Lives and Times. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Mncube, V., & Madikizela-Madiya, N. (2014). Gangsterism as a Cause of Violence in South African Schools: The Case of Six Provinces. Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology, 5(1), 43-50.

Mungwari, P., & Stofile, W. (2019). Advocating for the Transformation of Traditional Justice Systems to better respond and uphold the rights of women who experience Gender Based Violence (GBV). In Tswharanang Legal Advocacy Centre (Ed.). Johannesburg: Tswharanag Legal Advocacy Centre.

Ratele, K., & Nduna, M. (2018). An Overview of Fatherhood in South Africa. In T. Makusha & W. v. d. berg (Eds.), State of South Africa’s Fathers (pp. 29-46).

Mzi Nduna is an educator, a researcher and an advocate with a strong ethic of community engagement. She was a Head of School of Human and Community Development at WITS University for two and a half years. Mzi is affiliated to, and supports, a variety of academic and civil society movements and national government initiatives aimed at bridging the gap between science, theory and practice in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Mzi has published 54 peer reviewed journal articles, three special issue journals, an edited book, five book chapters and a number of research reports. Mzi has served as a member of the scientific committees for the First Trans Medical and Advocacy Conference in Africa in 2011; the 4th, 5th and the 6th Sexual Health and Rights Conferences in Africa in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and the SA 7th AIDS Conference. A former Board member of GenderDynamix, Mzi currently seats in the boards of the National Shelter Movement, IRANTI and Sonke Gender Justice. She was an expert panel member of the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC) Women’s Sector. She is currently a member of the technical advice team for the Medical Research Council’s Gender & Health HIV prevention intervention research, the national GBV+Femicide Interim Steering Council, SafAIDS’s Transforming Lives Programme, and the Women, Peace and Security Steering Committee.


Reverend Vusi M Vilakati  (BA, MA Theology and MPhil HRM) is a resident minister at Bethesda Methodist Mission. He is an adjunct lecturer at Henley Business School and a UJ Young Leadership Development Programme facilitator. He is also a UJ PhD candidate in the programme Leadership in Performance and Change. He lectures on African leadership practices and facilitates leadership immersions for postgraduate management students at Henley. His experience and social activism covers diversity management facilitation, training on cultural intelligence and contributor to the African consciousness discourse. His research interests include leadership coaching, business and society, social entrepreneurship and future-fit leadership for the economic advancement of Africa.