Freedom in a Time of Femicide


Freedom is still an unreachable destination from the peripheries. It is an ideal that easily slips out of our mouths as South Africans, but with little to show for women and gender minorities. Twenty-eight years into South Africa’s democracy and we are still left wanting. What is freedom in a time of femicide?

Through people coming together, we break the silence of the past

South Africa has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, with the Medical Research Council finding that “three woman were killed by a intimate partner per day in South Africa in 2009”, a figure that was likely underestimated since perpetrators were unidentified in 20 per cent of murders. Femicide is “the killing of a female, or perceived female person on the basis of gender identity, whether committed within the domestic relationship or by any other person, or whether perpetrated or tolerated by the State or its agents, and private sources”. This term is used to recognise the gendered power dynamics that exist between men and women and a culture of violence in South Africa that stems from our violent history. Violence is embedded in the fabric of South African society and the killing of women by their intimate partners occurs as a method of control or to resolve disputes in the domestic space. Intimate femicide, the killing of women by their intimate partners, is the most common form of femicide in South African households.

The domestic space is often seen as a private terrain that should not be open to external influence or public interference. However, this is where socialisation happens and where what is private connects with the public space. Socialisation is a process led by the home, educational, religious and socio-political institutions and influential actors such as families and community, traditional and religious leaders. Socialisation frames masculinities and femininities: the socially constructed roles ascribed to men and women. It teaches behaviours and roles for men and women. These teachings become the “normal” way of life and, without intervention, their consequences are felt by those who are marginalised.

Patriarchal violence in South Africa comes from a history of war and conflict that affiliates manhood with the control and domination of women. Women are seen as subordinate and as the property of men and male desire. Gender was an integral aspect of organising life and policing behaviour under apartheid’s violent system. The history of apartheid affected the socialisation of men and women and left remnants of patriarchal violence in families and society. Masculinities that emerged from apartheid gain power from the control of the bodies and lifelines of women, what human rights discourse refers to as women’s rights to life, dignity and bodily integrity. These are all protected under the Bill of Rights in the 1996 Constitution of South Africa. Enshrining the rights, roles and responsibilities allocated to citizens was meant to eliminate the detrimental effects of violent masculinities and gendered discrimination, but the country needs to reflect on the realities that still face us.

According to the World Health Organisation, femicide in South Africa is five times higher than the global average. This is an alarming statistic, as many women die at the hands of their romantic partners behind closed doors. A racial analysis of femicide shows that women of colour are disproportionately affected by such violence as they are at the intersection of inequality, unemployment, patriarchy, poverty and racism. The brutality faced by Black women and gender minorities is systemic and a product of the emasculation and oppression of Black men during apartheid. In this post-apartheid era, these masculinities exist and need to be unlearned and addressed with urgency. They are a threat to women’s safety.

Can we even begin to speak about freedom without dealing with women’s safety in South African society? Femicide is the most extreme outcome of gender-based violence (GBV), yet it is the most prevalent form in South Africa, taking the lives of many young women. According to the South African Police Service, 13 815 women over the age of 18 were murdered between 2015 and 2020. That is an average of 2 763 murders per year and seven women per day in 2017/18. This shows that there is a social ill that needs to be reckoned with. Although these statistics do not give the motive behind these murders, they indicate the risk and vulnerability of women in South Africa.

Total Shutdown and the Presidential Summit

Women in South Africa have been calling for strong measures to stop the increasing rates of violence against women and to get justice for survivors where the police and judiciary fall short. Those who have been subjected to such violence are not faceless or without names. They are people with families, dreams and potential. Femicide is a direct attack on these and leaves families broken and lost. The media does not report all cases, but movements like #TotalShutdown have put GBV and femicide into public discourse and successfully pressured the government to face the problem with the urgency and political will that it needs.

On 1 August 2018, thousands of women across South Africa marched against GBV and demonstrated their frustration with the status quo and the lack of effective response from the criminal justice system. Protesters shared their experiences of sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and gave visibility to victims and survivors in South Africa, saying the names of victims such as Anene Booysen, Reeva Steenkamp and Karabo Mokoena as part of the rallying call.

In Pretoria, thousands marched to the Union Buildings, where they handed over a memorandum to President Cyril Ramaphosa that outlined 24 demands. In response, Ramaphosa convened a Presidential Summit Against Gender-based Violence and Femicide (GBVF) on 1–2 November 2018, demonstrating the political will to address this systemic issue. The Summit brought together civil society, the judiciary, activists, academics and different government departments to discuss ways in which to ensure better protection, rights and services for victims of GBVF in South Africa. The Summit concluded that an effective national strategic plan was needed, including more funding for GBVF response and prevention mechanisms.

In 2019, there were again widespread protests when University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana was killed in a post office in Claremont, Cape Town. Gender activists called for a national state of emergency as the list of names began to lengthen, including those of Leighandre Jegels, Zodwa Tyoloda and Jesse Hess. These murders brought international attention to the problem of GBVF as vigils took place across the country.

Political will is the first step towards rectifying the problem. The government has successfully formulated national policies, plans and frameworks. However, much like our Constitution, it has not been able to successfully implement them, which means that our freedom is in careless hands.

Femicide During the Pandemic

In March 2020, the government responded to the gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic by imposing strict lockdown measures. These limited mobility and imposed curfews, which had unintended consequences for women in abusive relationships. Not only were they forced to spend increased time at home with their partners but their safety nets were inaccessible, leaving them at greater risk of experiencing violence. The government set out plans to respond to domestic violence. Based on research done in the UK, a surge in such cases was anticipated. But it was much worse.

The hard lockdown included a ban on alcohol sales. When this was lifted on June 1, the country saw a surge in GBV and murder cases, demonstrating the strong relationship between substance abuse and violence in the country. On 5 June 2020, Tshegofatso Pule, a 28-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant was found hanging from a tree in Johannesburg. In March 2022, her boyfriend was convicted of her death. She was a victim of premeditated murder, one of eight women who were brutally killed in South Africa that day. On June 12, Altecia Kortjie and her 7-year-old daughter were found dead in their home in Cape Town and the perpetrator was known to her family. In a speech broadcast nationally on June 17, President Ramaphosa named GBV as “another pandemic”, with 21 women and children murdered in the previous two weeks.

New and additional vulnerabilities were created during the lockdown, including job losses, a tight job market and food insecurity, while the military and police were used to enforce the strict regulations. Such an environment is not conducive to reporting violence. Also, with policing focused on enforcing lockdown measures, other services may have not had the time and capacity for effective responses to GBV.

This situation led to a public outcry and the strategic organising of women in the #StopKillingWomen, #AmINext and #TotalShutdown movements. They used online and offline methods to protest and to connect the stories, experiences and lives of women all over the country. Women rallied across communities, races and faiths to apply pressure on the government to implement, monitor, and evaluate the impact of its laws on South African life.

Year after year, women take to the streets to fight for their lives, but is this all falling on deaf ears – or is our government ill-equipped to effectively implement its laws?

New Gender-Based Violence Laws

South Africa has signed into law three new pieces of legislation related to gender-based violence:

Among other measures, the first aims to expand the scope of the National Register for Sex Offenders to include all details of convicted sex offenders. This registry will be made public. The second directly addresses the high incidence of those accused of sexual offences being easily granted bail and, on conviction, given minimum sentences. With its implementation, bail will only be granted under exceptional circumstances. The third makes provision for online applications for protection orders and for such orders to be stored on a central repository for easier access. Kerryn Rehse of the Mosaic Training, Service and Healing Centre said, “The changes coming into effect through the new Act usher in a strengthened protection order system that removes some of the earlier administrative hurdles and gaps that made it difficult for victims to access protection and justice from the system.”

The protection order system is now online, available 24 hours a day and does not need applicants to take leave to attend court proceedings. NGOs like Mosaic are able to play their pivotal role in assisting victims with their applications. Additionally, the new legislation enables courts to provide safety monitoring notices that order the police to monitor the safety of those who are awarded protection orders.

These new anti-GBV laws are progressive, showing political will and the coordinated work of civil society, the police, judiciary and activists around the issue of GBVF. These advances indicate that access to justice mechanisms is being strengthened, but they can only be as effective as their implementers. Also, without addressing the social norms that exist in South African society, violence will reoccur and affect those at the margins. Without effective change, freedom will remain but a pipe dream.