Lisa Vetten
Lisa Vetten

Activists do make a difference, Haffajee

There’s an old philosophical riddle that goes like this: If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Updated for a contemporary 21st century South Africa reeling from the rape-murder of Anene Booysen it might read like this: Does work exist if Ferial Haffajee can’t recognise it? Because, according to her, the South African violence against women movement has done nothing but talk in the last 20 years.

I’ll give Haffajee the benefit of the doubt and assume that her sweeping dismissal of thousands of women’s efforts over the last two decades is borne of ignorance and not arrogance. Here’s the tutorial on what’s been done by this movement since 1977 when Rape Crisis Cape Town opened the first rape crisis centre in the country.

People Opposing Women Abuse opened in 1979 and by 1991 there were seven women’s rape crisis centres in South Africa. These services were entirely created and managed by civil society which continued establishing them post-1994. Today you’ll find these organisations, large and small, staffing the government’s Thuthuzela Care Centres, the police’s victim-friendly rooms, the courts and health clinics. Their efforts are not always appreciated either. At the height of former president Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism, the Greater Nelspruit Rape Intervention Project found itself barred from some hospitals in Mpumalanga because they were providing antiretroviral drugs to rape survivors to prevent HIV infection. Other organisations ensuring services reach rural women include the Thusanang Advice Centre in Free State, Peddie Women’s Support Centre in the Eastern Cape and Justice and Women in KwaZulu-Natal. And yes, these organisations talk all the time on behalf of their clients — with the police, with prosecutors, with nurses, with doctors.

No organisation is paid in full by the state for the work they do. Unlike journalists and editors, many are expected to volunteer their time, or subsist on small stipends. There is too much work to do and not enough hands to do it all. Employment in this sector is precarious and retrenchments commonplace. Constant exposure to traumatised women, difficult working environments and the stress of dealing with uncooperative civil servants take their toll and burnout in this field is high.

It is also this sector you can thank for the fact that the specialised Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units were re-established in 2010 after Jackie Selebi effectively dismantled them in 2006. Even the SAPS acknowledges that it was the talking of women’s organisations that persuaded them to re-establish the units. Still more talking, largely in the Constitutional Court, by organisations like the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Women’s Legal Centre has resulted in important judgements around the state’s duties to rape survivors.

But this, apparently, is all irrelevant, ineffective talk, talk, talk and, as an antidote to all this useless hot air we spew, Haffajee proposes making the environment safer for women and taking ”baby steps” to strengthen the police and court response to rape. These are exceptionally old ideas that the violence against women sector has been exploring for a decade and more.

In 1994 researchers at the Human Sciences Research Council were already trying to develop policy promoting women’s safety. Research examining how to create safer public environments was also undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in 1999 and 2003, with still further recommendations around promoting women’s safety in public spaces made again in 2008. Also with their eye on prevention is the Medical Research Council which has conducted extensive research to understand why some men rape.

Organisations also formed the National Working Group on Sexual Offences in 2004 and spent three years battling Parliament on the Sexual Offences Act. They have continued providing Parliament with information about the implementation of the Act, helping to hold the state to account.

As for the weaknesses in the police and courts’ handling of rape cases, studies and recommendations in this area have been proposed by the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation and the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre since at least 2003. Then there’s also been the 1 in 9 campaign which protested the criminal justice system’s treatment of gang-rape survivor “Buyiswa” and also held their own against Jacob Zuma’s supporters outside the high court.

No doubt there’s more women’s organisations could do and do better. And certainly there is a need for fresh impetus. But Haffajee’s wholesale rubbishing of many women’s work over many years, coupled with the cool plagiarism of the ideas this sector has been working to implement for over a decade, is not going to be leading us down that essential and long road to freedom.

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    • Loudly South African

      I would be interested if the research on “why men rape” could be summarized and published.

    • Mariano Castrillon

      Activists not only make a difference, they are the conscience of the people.

    • Georgina Pilkington

      yes well said Lisa Vetten. We all need to understand the complex issue and what each person can do. The NGOs as far as I can see are crucial in this area.

    • Eugene van Rooyen

      I think it is so irresponsible to criticize women’s movements at this moment in time. It would have been much more constructive to investigate the role of so called “mens organisations” who are clamouring around and taking away vital funding from the women’s organisations while actually doing nothing practical in the fight against gender inequality.

      If the voices of women’s organisations have not been heard, you cannot say they have not been shouting loud enough. You should say why has nobody been listening to them?

    • Penny

      This is true, much has been done to help women after they have been raped, assaulted etc. What needs to be done is bigger than the remit of women’s organisations. The structure of society has to change; patriarchy has to be dismantled. Men’s organisations should be rising up to rid us of the scourge of violence towards women. Men have to stop. Women can attempt to influence this but the job is too big

    • The Creator

      You can’t expect much from Haffajee, but at the same time, the list presented here doesn’t really amount to much accomplished in twenty years of freedom to act. Unsuccessfully lobbying the government and running a handful of advice offices is better than nothing, but it’s not going to change anything. In fact it’s no more than the Black Sash or the Institute of Race Relations managed back in the 1970s.

      Activists would make more of a difference if they were more numerous and more active. And, in my experience, a whole lot of NGO activists are actually in it for the money. (Probably not so much women’s rights activists, since women’s rights isn’t going to make much money for big business.)

    • Mr. Direct

      Get some private funding from successful women and successful companies selling to women, get some big names behind the cause, and take some rape cases and make them HUGE. Get the media in, make it a circus, and do it again and again until people cannot look away. Shove it in their faces until they acknowledge the problem and do something about it.

      Get tough.

      The only way something gets solved in this country is to kick, and scratch, and fight, and scream. Dancing is for the celebration afterwards.

      I wish you luck in whatever you do though…

    • Barbara

      We would be able to talk less if the Government did more of what they are mandated to do. Having bourne the brunt of 3 court cases by the Dept of Health against GRIP because we advocated and gave Life saving HIV PEP to rape survivors, we have done more than just TALK. Ferial, please do not dismiss our, and our survivors, blood, sweat and tears as just talk.

    • The Critical Cynic

      All efforts to raise awareness and rid the world of the scourge of violence, especially power play violence in all forms, misguided or not, deserve support in some way from those who agree with the basic principles.

      I believe the question of how to rid the world of its injustices is starting to be answered NOT by the people appointed by us to act on our behalfs – the governments of the world whose inaction and inability to direct their enormous resources to solving the problems smacks ever more of complicity in global crimes like human trafficking, the drug and arms trades, money laundering – but rather BY THE PEOPLE who really not only WANT to make a difference but also INTEND to.

      Avaaz is a global community of over 19m individuals with targetted campaigns making a difference on a multitude of global and local issues. Learn about us here

      If you are financially able, I ask you to Please support AVAAZ’s efforts to build a better world for all.

      Want to take real action to end the war on women, but don’t have much time yourself. Perhaps you could donate to a cause that has proven its ability to influence those in power to make better decisions and take better actions?:

    • India

      Thank you for this honest, informative piece in the midst of so much emotion and sensational coverage. Yet the media and the women’s organizations together have moved the country forward on these issues and must continue to work hand in hand to urge government to continue to provide support things like the Thuthuzela Care Centres and Sexual Offences Courts, and ensuring funding for NGOs like Rape Crisis, and so many, many others and to keep the topic alive in the hearts and minds of every man and woman, boy and girl in this country.

      The organizations that Ferial dismisses are not just activists, they are passionate prosecutors, police officers, social workers, doctors, nurses, teachers, researchers, students, and economists who have dedicated their careers and their lives to fighting injustice and ending violence against women and children. I have never seen such a committed group of individuals, many of whom make tremendous sacrifices to do an often thankless job. They deserve our respect.

      Their work has only just begun, they need more resources and they need more people, but they also need every South African to believe that violence against women and girls is never, ever okay. That is the struggle of the next twenty years.

    • Angelica

      Well said Lisa! It is appalling that people who have not been in the gender sector feel they have the right – just because they edit a newspaper – to bash and discredit the work of so many women accross the country. Let’s hope Ferial Hafajee’s comments are borne of ignorance and not arrogance. What is going on at City Press?! Her latest editorials are a shame and do not contribute at all to the informed national dialogue we should be having on violence against women.

    • suntosh

      I would also be interested in a more comprehensive accounts of:
      – long-term projects that have tried to PREVENT gender-based violence
      – academic research on why men rape

    • baksteen

      @Lisa Vetten @The Creator

      As an impartial observer, I feel uneasy about your criticisms of Farial Haffajee. I have read many of her editorials and have always found her writings heartfelt, insightful and considered. For me the red lights go a-flashing when someone is referred to by their surname only (Haffajee) – this feels like some kind of self-righteous dishing out of punishment; discrediting. Familiarity turned inside out.

      I won’t add anything about @The Creator’s comment, other than that you can’t expect much from him (we all know the lord is male, right?).

      Pieces like these unfailingly leave me wondering: wouldn’t it have been better if the author contacted the person they’re about to attempt a character assassination on – and written about the result of that conversation. Instead Vetten (see how that feels, Lisa?) goes the ugly route. Maybe I’m not informed of the behind the behinds of this issue. But how could I be. Don’t try to spoonfeed with your knee-jerk opinions, seems a good policy. Yes? Ok.

    • Jen Thorpe

      Hear hear.

      I always find this current affairs led activism/slacktivism takes great opportunities to discredit the people working quietly in the background every day to understand and prevent violence against women.

      Power to all those women who dedicate their lives to this.

    • Tofolux

      It is quite ironic that almost all of the so-called opinion-makers and analysts have some relationship with media. In saying that and noting how wrong these ”critics” are, can we ask if they have a problem with recognising the truth? Or lets be brutal, do they have a problem with the truth or honesty? Lisa Vetten is quite correct to challenge Haffejee and to set the record straight. The other issue is the sheer opportunism of Haffejee. But I guess, this opportunism is to be expected. As seen in the past, not only has this opportunism made more profits for her newspaper, it is clearly and unashamedly aimed at instiling and maintaing the fear factor in her audience. Not only is this fear polarising, it causes unnecessary tension. Should we be concerned, I dont think so. Her influence is very limited.The problem however is that her actions distracts us from our responsibilites which requires ALL our attention. We have societal issues which are real and challenging on all levels in our society and there is no organisation and no person who has the answers to our challeges. If we had then the attacks on women would be a thing of the past. Ironically these attacks are reported by media on a daily basis with no sense of an analysis of why these attacks happen. But for all the critique, it is quite obvious that we should ignore these people. The answer to our problem lies in the very community that media despises and it is time we took them more seriously than the charlatans.