By Jen Thorpe
Last night President Zuma gave his 2011 State of the Nation address to much applause and sometimes laughter as well. If I had been playing a drinking game, these would have been the rules:
- When the President mentions specific deliverables have one shot
- When the President mentions the rights of victims of crime have one shot
- When the President says the word ‘rape’ have one shot.
Unfortunately, I would have remained depressingly sober.
My hope when he began was that he would mention one word that would indicate that he understands just how severe the incidence of violence against women is in South Africa. In fact, to voice the word and say it out aloud would have been acknowledgement that it in fact exists, is a crime and cannot be tolerated. The word I was looking for? Rape
When political leaders mention violence against women and children in public speeches they create a vague and diffuse sense of what they are talking about. It doesn’t allow you to understand the complexities of this violence, or the different forms that it takes. It doesn’t allow you to begin to think of preventative measures or multi-pronged (to use a bit of government lingo) solutions. It doesn’t allow you to see that when there is violence against women, there is often violence against children as well. Most importantly it doesn’t say anything about the perpetrators of this violence.
Perhaps I wasn’t only looking for the word ‘rape’ in the SONA, perhaps I was looking for a specific statement. Only four short words that could have made more impact than all the rhetoric around job creation. I wanted to hear our President say, without shame or irony, ‘real men don’t rape’. Having an h0noured guest who was also accused of rape, and having been accused of rape himself, it was the perfect platform to condemn this type of violence and to urge survivor to report.
When he mentioned that our courts were performing better, my thoughts were ‘than what?’ and ‘for who?’ Victims of sexual offences do not get the support they need from the court, or from the SAPS or from the Department of Health. The state does continue to provide support via the Thuthuzela centres, but it is sickening that a government that wants to provide for its people focusses only on dealing with the mess after a rape rather than working on preventing them. Yes women need sanitary towels so that they can go to school and work (and yes economic empowerment and education are enabling mechanisms that mean that women are more able to leave a violent home) but women need freedom from violence first and foremost.
Instead, what remained was a deafening silence that shows just how completely the President ignores the fact that over 68000 reported cases of sexual offences are a better indication of the state of the nation than any speech he will ever give.