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.


Lisa Vetten

Lisa Vetten

Lisa Vetten is a research associate with the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

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