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Mandela’s lesson of reconciliation applies to gender divides

As a society on a long walk to making reconciliation a reality, we have already taken significant and decisive strides. Yet, everyday in South Africa is still marked by violence, particularly that of a gendered nature.

Today, I offer some reflections on how we might bring reconciliation closer in our everyday experience of being and doing in the world.

In preparing this address I thought of Anene Booysen… of Reeva Steenkamp… of Zoliswa Nkonyana. All three killed because they were women, and in Zoliswa’s case because she was also a lesbian.

They were women of different races, different classes and sexualities. Yet each of their lives was ended because of certain gender power relations.

These gender relations also kill men. The hierarchies that exist between men require violence to be maintained and so men too are its victims. Male homicide rates and intimate-partner femicide in South Africa are among the highest in the world.

So given this violence, what might reconciliation mean? What can it possibly offer us?

Nelson Mandela, in whose memory we celebrate this day, said of reconciliation the following: Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.

So, drawing on what Mandela said, we ought to focus on how to ‘correct’ the persistent injustices that create the conditions for gender discrimination and its violent consequences.

Gender violence is a manifestation of gender inequality. The violence of gender inequality serves to keep gender binaries and hierarchies firmly in place. Put simple, systematic rapes and killings don’t happen between equals. The violence that kept apartheid in place for so many decades taught us this much.

It is often through violence that we learn what “real men” and “real women” are supposed to look like, and act like, and what will happen to us if we don’t comply. We teach these rules to each other through our language and through our actions.
At the extreme end of the gender violence continuum, those who don’t conform to dominant gender sexual codes such as lesbians may be raped as a form of punishment.
We also know the world over that religious beliefs can be the instigators of violence. At the same time, many individuals and communities have been inspired by their faith to fight against forms of violence that are, in some instances, legitimised through religious discourses.

And so, challenging injustice sometimes requires people to wrestle with the conventions of their own faith – conventions that at times perpetuate inequalities of gender and sexuality. It is one thing to say that people are different. It is quite another to attribute to those differences unequal social values and statuses.

As history has shown us communities of faith can also be places of inclusion, places that celebrates diversity, rather than fear it. Safe harbours for those who are frequently pushed to the social and economic margins.

The statistics tell us that most women are murdered or raped by men they know. Yet, there is a tendency to call these perpetrators monsters – to say ‘they are not like us’ and that ‘they act alone’.

Primo Levi a holocaust survivor, cautions us, “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

Reconciliation works hand in hand with reparation, restoration and responsibility. This means each one of us having to work to change our part in a status quo that keeps certain inequalities intact – between poor and rich, black and white, men and women, straight and lesbian, gay and transgender people.

Reconciliation also challenges us to exercise power in new ways. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish political philosopher said the following, “… the distinction between violent and non-violent action is that the former is exclusively bent upon the destruction of the old, and the latter is chiefly concerned with the establishment of something new.”

And so ending gender violence requires new ways of being persons in the world: transformed ways of using and sharing power in order to build equality. For some this might mean giving up practices that continue to prejudice others.

Make no mistake, reconciliation is a radical act. It is transformative. It opens up the prospect for change – both in the lives of others and our own.

How do we reach beyond our comfort zones to speak out against existing abuses of power both within our communities and outside of them? Such abuses may be of a racial, gender or economic character.

Importantly, we need narratives of gender that repair women’s dignity rather than those that incite violence: narratives that advance our democracy and celebrate the diversity of people who inhabit it.

Equally important is leadership – big and small – that can break with the past by demonstrating practices of power that are dignified, humble and inclusive. This is the kind of leadership that Mandela personified.

Finally, in our mediations today let us be mindful of the humanity of others – particularly those from whom we feel different or even discomforted by.

Both during his life and in his death, Mandela’s humanity gives us the possibility to be more human.

It is the focus on the humanity of others – as an ethic and as a social practice – that makes reconciliation possible. As only then will we dare to defend the humanity of others and, by doing so, restore our own.

This is an edited version of a presentation made at the Auwal Mosque as part of the Reconciliation Day Interfaith Walk on 16 December 2013.



  1. bernpm bernpm 25 December 2013

    “Mandela’s lesson of reconciliation applies to gender divides…..”
    Seems a little far fetched. Seems in fashion to connect a wide array of social ills with Mandela and an inspiration to his legacy.

  2. francois williams francois williams 25 December 2013

    While you have the white-western-christian-male-capitalist society, you will ahve this problem inperpetuity…we need to return to African roots infused with a new religion…

  3. J.J. J.J. 26 December 2013

    This is a long article with many points, not dissimilar to many others. I understand the sentiment, but it’s very generic and general.

    The problem is that nobody wants to truly look at some of the real reasons and solutions. We self-censor to such an extent that we don’t even bring it up. On the other hand, due to political correctness some these points don’t often see the light of day in online debates.

    I’ll try to allude to it here:

    We (both genders) tend to make the wrong choices. Whether subconsciously (biologically driven), or consciously (the stereotypes we believe to be “ideal”) due to social conditioning. There are good men and good women, but we (both genders) find the “bad” types more exciting and interesting. We then blame the subsequent consequences for our bad choices on the entire other gender. Maybe we should learn from a young age to choose better – and maybe that is what we should all encourage each other to do? That’s not at all the case right now. Quite the opposite. Yet, we don’t dare bring this up – we don’t care to talk about root causes and trying to step over inherent (*biological) weaknesses. (*related to the instinctual choices we make which can actually put us at risk).

    I’ll also leave you with this thought: Those who are (too) comfortable (whoever they may be) have no incentive to “work hard” towards anything – they are already in their comfort zone/s. This goes for both genders.

  4. Cam Cameron Cam Cameron 26 December 2013

    If Pistorius isn’t lying when he says he shot through the door at an intruder in the dark, then the chances are he thought that intruder was a male. Reeva Steenkamp’s female gender really isn’t a factor in the fatal firing of his handgun. Indeed, the contrary.

    It would seem as if you have prejudged Pistorius’s guilt as the premeditated, deliberate shooting of a person whom he knew to be a woman.

  5. Rory Short Rory Short 26 December 2013

    @melanie in my own experience I have found that I need to strive to see the other as first and foremost a human being just like myself. This is not easy for those of us who grew up in South Africa because our society is permeated with all sorts of subtle, and not so subtle, conditioning, that unconsciously lessens the humanity of others in the eyes of the conditioned person.

  6. Brianb Brianb 27 December 2013

    In order to allow people to fulfill their individuality there needs to be law and order.

    We can theorize, philosophize and pontificate until the cows come home however if the police are ineffective and the legal system dysfunctional , no amount of intellectual dissection and analysis will solve the problem.

  7. bernpm bernpm 27 December 2013

    @Francois: “While you have the white-western-christian-male-capitalist society, you will ahve this problem inperpetuity…we need to return to African roots infused with a new religion…”

    Please Sir, the first part of your argument is pure racist and full of prejudices against other religions, social structures and gender, all in one sentence.

    The second part suggest that we should go to “African roots” for the solution to the lack of reconciliation. Reading the daily news on Africa, I have some difficulties to read many cases of reconciliation between countries, tribes and other population groups.
    Even Mr Mandela needed some time and unpleasant experiences to come to the idea of “reconciliation” in his life.
    And a new religion???? The big religious war between fanatic Muslims and the rest of the world tells us enough.

  8. Baz Baz 30 December 2013

    @ Bernpm refer:@francois, yes, I see where your valid point is coming from. Keep religion out of the equation. Our local disadvantaged NEED to be trained and have some decent form of accommadation and so forth.THEN poverty can be eventually eradicated and ABOVE ALL, educate them to become self-reliant so they too, can enjoy the fruits of their well earned income. There are lots of opportunities for them. Then we will have proper reconciliation in this country. It want hapopen overnight, but
    starting in the 2014 would accomplish part of the late Nelson Madela’s vision.

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