Sinesipho Tom reports from Cape Town on the alarming rise in anti-female violence that swept lockdown South Africa.

Even by South African standards, the headlines have been chilling: ‘You left me no choice but to kill you,’ read one.

‘KwaZulu-Natal resident living in the shadow of a serial killer,’ screamed another.

‘Manhunt launched after elderly woman, daughter murdered.’

But while violent crime has become part of everyday life in South Africa, and rape something many women expect to happen to them at some point in their lives – four in every 10 South African women will be raped at least once in their life – the scale and brutality of the attacks during lockdown have caused shock. 

In the first three weeks after the stay-at-home order was announced, there were 120,000 anti-female crimes in the country, according to the government agency tasked with recording gender-based violence and femicide.

It cited ‘economic vulnerability’ as one of the key factors driving the rise. 

Elaine Pypers, ambassador for the anti-gender-based violence (GBV) group SA Women Fight Back, described the recent statistics as ‘shocking’.  

‘Gender-based violence statistics have always been quite high and higher than the global average. I think it’s quite evident right now that our government still doesn’t know how to deal with it.’ 

The campaigner, who has written numerous articles on gender-based violence, commended the government for a recent legal amendment to address crimes against women, but said it didn’t go far enough.  

‘Their response when it comes to gender-based violence is lacking and the police response is also lacking.’ 

A victim of rape and domestic abuse herself, Pypers said that the government needed to address the increasingly low conviction rates of gender-based violence and added that children should be taught about consent from a very young age. 

‘[The fact that] only three per cent of perpetrators are actually prosecuted is worrying,’ said Pypers, referring to arrest reports on the period in question.

'Before the lockdown, the conviction rate for rape was around 14 per cent.

‘We need to educate young boys and girls in the country on consent and what gender-based violence is and to teach them that love is not harmful.

'Love does not hurt, being in a relationship does not hurt. A lot of the survivors of gender-based violence are attacked by people they know.  

‘We tend to believe that gender-based violence or rape is done by someone you don’t know, by an unknown monster, but instead over 50 per cent of gender-based violence perpetrators are people you already know.’ 

The familiarity between victim and attacker may go some way to explaining the country’s low conviction rate for gender-based violence. 

Only 130 of the 4,058 people arrested for alleged gender-based violence since the announcement of the lockdown in March have been convicted, according to police minister Bheki Cele in parliament.  

Cele said 2,234 GBV cases were reported countrywide.

The province of Gauteng, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, record the most at 743 (1,173 arrests), followed by the Western Cape with 534 cases and 1,093 arrests, the Eastern Cape with 243 cases and 488 arrests, and KwaZulu-Natal with 230 cases and 375 arrests. 

Colette Solomon, director of the Women on Farms Project (WFP), said that the low conviction numbers reflect the general trend in the country, where rape is generally under-reported, and arrests and convictions are unacceptably low. 

Solomon believes that while more women are reporting rape, this is still only a fraction of the actual number. 

‘Women are discouraged from reporting rape because of systemic failures of the criminal justice system, which arrests and convicts only a small proportion of perpetrators,’ said Solomon, whose NGO has been studying recent and historical attacks of women in the country.   

She believes that the problem is particularly bad in rural areas. 

‘In farming communities, women face additional, specific barriers, including distance to police stations.

'Police are usually unable or unwilling to drive out to farms.

'There are also poorly trained police officers, including often a shortage of women police officers. And most rural police stations don’t have private and safe rooms for victims reporting rape,’ said the WFP director. 

Solomon also identified a lack of support services, such as counselling in rural communities, and said rape cases are routinely postponed which makes it expensive and difficult for women to travel repeatedly from farms to courts. (Most rural courts don’t have specialised Sexual Offences Courts.) 

Speaking in parliament, the police minister acknowledged that some members in the police force do not take rape seriously. 

‘One thing we accepted is that sometimes our own police do shoddy work, but that is an improvement we are trying to do,’ said Cele. 

He said that cases are often opened, and then withdrawn. ‘You find that families and friends put pressure on the abused women, especially if the perpetrator is a relative or a father, uncle or known boyfriend.

'Families tend to tell the victim that ‘you are bringing embarrassment to this house’ or ‘who is going to take care of us if the uncle or father gets arrested’.’ 

Cele encouraged the public to report police members who failed to execute their job.

He also promised that disciplinary actions would be taken against officers where necessary. 

Such assurances from the police have done little to tamper public frustration, with protesters taking to social media sites to campaign against the issue. 

Not everyone is convinced the lockdown has exacerbated the problem to the extent the figures suggest.

GBV and femicide psychologist Dr Karin Walton said the violence is ‘not something new’ although she welcomed the fact that both the authorities and campaigners were raising ‘a lot of awareness’.

In 2019, more than 52,000 sexual offenses and almost 42,000 rapes were reported to the police, according to official statistics. 

‘I think it is actually just consciousness raising because these are things that have been happening for a very long time,’ said the psychologist.

‘Women and girls have always disproportionately been kind of the victims.

'So, I don’t necessarily believe we are under attack as such now, it is just that we are much more aware of incidences and that has a lot to do with how we have the ability to now quickly communicate with one another and share experiences on social media.’  

She argues that the violence is driven by power relations that have been in the country for a very long time and cited increased competition for jobs as one of the main reasons for South Africa’s gender violence problem. 

‘You know when World War II came along, sometimes there were no men to work in the factories and women needed to work in the factories. After that women discovered that they wanted to work, too, to a large extent and they didn’t necessarily want to stay home.’ 

This increased competition for work resulted not just in many of the country’s racial problems – the apartheid government was famously elected over poor whites’ fears over ‘cheap’ black labour – but also its long history of gender violence, according to Walton. 

‘If I am living in poverty and I lose my job and things are not going my way,’ said Walton, channelling the rationale of resentful unemployed men, ‘it’s not necessarily that I am looking for someone to blame for it, although sometimes I can, especially when I lost it to a woman. 

‘I can say ‘it’s her fault, that’s why I lost my job’. So that can be one of the drivers.’ 

Job insecurity has increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than 2.2 million jobs lost during the second financial quarter thanks to the country’s lockdown, tourist ban and prohibition on alcohol and cigarette sales.

GDP, meanwhile, more than halved in the same period, and many of the country’s restrictions have yet to be fully lifted. 

Donald Paul reports from South Africa on the street protests and anti-migrant laws targeting Nigerians and other foreigners.

Back in May 2008, South Africa’s status as the so-called Rainbow Nation was hanging by a thread.

The townships were ablaze, foreign-owned businesses had been looted and thousands of migrants – specifically those from other African countries, as well as people from Pakistan and Bangladesh – had been forced to flee their homes.

The xenophobic violence spread to Cape Town, and the world watched in horror as clouds of thick black smoke rose against the iconic Table Mountain.

Gangs of South African youths rounded on migrants from Zimbabwe, Somalia and Nigeria, among others, for ‘taking jobs’ and being ‘responsible’ for the rise in crime. Sixty-two people were killed, of which 41 were immigrants.

The repeated official line from law enforcement that the violence was criminal-driven and not xenophobic implied that the government was not taking it seriously.

The year ended with the then president Thabo Mbeki being recalled by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the country collectively shrugged its shoulders and carried on as before.

Life did not get any easier for foreigners (or locals, for that matter).

By 2019, with an estimated four million immigrants, South Africa was the largest home for immigrants on the continent.

In September last year, the simmering xenophobia flared again, with more deaths, looting and destruction, fuelled by the government’s increasingly disastrous economic and social delivery programmes.

True to form, the government launched what it called a ‘National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance’.

Like most government projects, it was soon bogged down with endemic bureaucratic malaise.

According to a report released last month by Human Rights Watch, the xenophobia never went away.

It linked attacks on truckers between 2018 and 2019 with the problem.

Almost 200 truckers were killed during the period and numerous vehicles torched.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called for calm.

But critics have claimed that the president played up to ‘xenophobic populism’ during his 2019 election campaign.

The non-profit organisation Right2Know, launched in 2010, even went so far as to blame the South African government explicitly for the xenophobia.

Fast forward to today, and once again xenophobia has surfaced, this time with the added value of social media.

Over the past six months, a concerted campaign – mostly conducted on Twitter and Facebook – began amplifying the xenophobic populism.

The most prominent on this was an incendiary anti-immigrant Twitter account, @uLerato_pillay.

The messaging taps into one of the country’s most critical socio-economic problems: unemployment.

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey released in June stated unemployment in South Africa increased to 30.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2020.

The demographic most affected are young people aged 15–34 years – more than 63 per cent are unemployed.

The messages from @uLerato_pillay are regularly re-tweeted by the African Transformation Movement (ATM), whose head of policy and strategy, Mzwanele Manyi, is a former ANC government spin doctor.

ATM, a fringe political party whose manifesto is ‘Put South Africans First’, along with a group calling itself ‘Action For Change’ was behind the protests in September outside the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria and the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg.

Nigeria recalled its high commissioner to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, in response to the violence and wild accusations levelled during the protest, accusing Nigerians of being ‘drug lords and rapists’.

Jean le Roux, a research associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, who is based in South Africa, has tracked the anonymous @uLerato_pillay Twitter account for two months

He wrote in a report that the Twitter account ‘belongs to Sifiso Jeffrey Gwala, a former lance corporal with the 121st SA Infantry Battalion, in KwaZulu-Natal.’

Le Roux pointed out, the Tweets ‘bubbled to the surface of mainstream media outlets’ and amounted to ‘reckless political opportunism’.

The ATM and Action for Change distanced themselves from the account.

Ramaphosa, hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa at the beginning of September, said the nation was committed to stopping the attacks.

Nevertheless, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Malawi pulled out of the conference and talks about developing intra-African trade seem to have stalled.

To add fuel to the fire, the province of Gauteng, which is home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, proposed a new law that would reserve certain economic activities in townships for South African citizens.

Drawn up by the provincial premier David Makhura’s office, the draft Gauteng Township Economic Development Bill does not specify which economic activities, but critics argue it plays into the xenophobic populism and fits in with Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola’s call last year for ‘tough legislation’ against foreign nationals operating in the townships.

Foreigners are reluctant to comment for fear of being singled-out.

Most told NewsAfrica, however, that the mood in the country was tense, and that they did not expect the government to provide much relief in the foreseeable future.

And with the municipal elections scheduled for 2021, fears are that politicians are likely to ramp up the xenophobic populism.