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Brutal murder triggers S.Africa's wakeup to gender violence

Michelle GUMEDE
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Enough is enough: A protest march in Pretoria in September

Enough is enough: A protest march in Pretoria in September (AFP Photo/Phill Magakoe)

Johannesburg (AFP) - Eventually, it all became too much. Apathy became transformed into outrage. And little by little, a national campaign for change took hold.

For years, South Africa's awful reputation for the murder and rape of women had gone unchallenged by many of its citizens.

Consider this: Every three hours, a woman in South Africa is killed, a rate that is five times the world average. Half of all women murder victims are killed by men with whom they had a close relationship. And each day, more than a hundred women are raped -- an estimate as horrifying as it is conservative, experts say.

But the veil of indifference to this suffering was ripped aside last August, after the death of a 19-year-old student.

Her killer, a post office employee, lured Cape Town university student Uyinene Mrwetyana to his workplace and raped her before bludgeoning her to death with a measuring scale.

He then dumped her body in a shallow hole and burnt it.

Grief, then anger, ensued.

"The murder of Uyinene sparked much of the conversation we are seeing," said Cape Town student activist Zimasa Mpemnyama.

The killing was a turning point "regarding our collective responsibility to end violence, particularly against women," says the country's former ombudswoman, Thuli Madonsela.

- Protests -

Hashtags #AmInext and #MenAreTrash became the rallying point to voice anger about violence against women. Twitter accounts came digital support groups for survivors, with some even naming their alleged abusers.

Thousands took part in rallies. Blood-stained sheets and clothing were laid out in front of Johannesburg's stock exchange to demand for more support from businesses and banks.

On October 14, police, previously accused of indifferent handling of sexual assault cases, marched in their hundreds in the capital Pretoria to protest at violence against women.

Deputy National Commissioner Bonang Mgwenya called it a "state of emergency".

The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, visited a site dedicated to Mrwetyana and tied a yellow ribbon in solidarity with all victims of gender-based violence and femicide.

In a hard-hitting speech to parliament, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared South Africa was one of "the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman".

He named gender-based violence a "national crisis" and vowed to crack down on perpetrators. His cabinet has allocated 1.6 billion rand ($108 million/98 million euros) for a six-month plan.

Mrwetyana's murderer was last week given a record three life sentences after an unusually fast-tracked trial and conviction in a country where the legal system is sluggish and inefficient.

State broadcaster SABC two weeks ago launched a television talk show, "The Orange Couch", where it invites survivors to share their stories and to "inspire" women in tricky situations "to find their own strength to break the chains" of dangerous relationships.

Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, has invited men to send her messages of love for women.

She will then incorporate the messages in ribbons as part of her costume for the upcoming Miss Universe pageant, the goal being to encourage "conversation around gender-based violence."

- Seismic shift -

"We are starting to see also a very vocal new generation of activists who are expressing anger in ways that are distinct for this time," Pumla Gqola, an academic and author of "Rape: A South African Nightmare", told AFP.

Catherine Burns, a history professor at the University of Pretoria, said: "The problem has been with us for a while but there is a definite shift in response, particularly from young women."

"You see this shift... in the fear and the caution of some men in public, the slightly different way they feel they have to speak," added Burns.

Some wonder how far the rise against sexist violence will last in a country facing huge economic and social ills.

"There are moments of highs when everyone talks about it," Mpemnyama said.

"But there are also moments of lows where people don't, because other countless problems... also preoccupy people's minds."

Others, though, feel the anti-violence sentiment is here to stay.

"Because it's across so many sectors, it's hard for me to see that it can just melt back into the status quo of five years ago," Burns said.

"We are seeing this now... because of an impatience," Gqola said.

An abuse survivor and single mother of one boy told AFP that increased media coverage had encouraged many survivors to speak out.

Many had seen or experienced terrible abuse, and had had to carry that anger with them all their lives.

This was now changing.

"They are now opening up," she said.