‘Am I Next’ protests: South Africans push to renew fight against rape

Why We Wrote This

Amid a wave of outrage over the murder of a young woman, South Africans wonder if their country is finally ready to reckon with its history of gender-based violence. Or will the nation’s women continue to ask, “Am I next?”

Ryan Lenora Brown/Christian Science Monitor
Johane Gumede, a university student, carries a placard of Uyinene Mrwetyana, whose rape and murder in August spurred a wave of protests, during a demonstration at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange Sept. 13, 2019.

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Over the past few weeks, South African women have marched to Parliament. They marched to the World Economic Forum. They marched across campuses and to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. 

In a country where a woman is murdered every three hours, gender-based violence is often too ordinary to make headlines. But the rape and murder of a 19-year-old University of Cape Town student, who went to the post office in August and never came back, have struck a chord. Her name, Uyinene Mrwetyana, became a hashtag. And then that hashtag became a question, #AmINext?

Yet the energy around Ms. Mrwetyana’s death is beginning to flag. Protesters are faced with the possibility that the ache will simply grow duller, that they will still be here, protesting more rapes and murders, in years to come. 

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the Mrwetyanas’ home and promised their daughter would be the catalyst for change. But it all sounds familiar to some activists. High unemployment, poverty, poor policing, and legacies of apartheid have all entrenched gender-based violence, creating a problem that resists easy solutions.

“In South Africa they say we are free, but maybe it’s only the men who are free,” says Louisa Bembe, a retired domestic worker and cashier who attended a Johannesburg protest. “Women still have to fight.”

Before she was a hashtag, before she was a rallying cry, before she was the reason for candlelight vigils and presidential promises and protesters facing down tear gas, the most striking thing about Uyinene Mrwetyana was just how ordinary she seemed.

In the days after the brutal rape and murder of the 19-year-old University of Cape Town student inside a suburban post office in late August, photos and videos of Ms. Mrwetyana circulated widely on social media. They captured an effervescent teenager, flashing a wide-brimmed smile as she posed at the beach, on mountaintops, and behind her smartphone in the glint of her bedroom mirror.

In South Africa, where a woman is murdered every three hours, violence against women is often too ordinary to make headlines. Even when it does, the stories are so many that they often wash together, quickly forgotten. 

But Ms. Mrwetyana’s struck a chord. After her confessed killer, a post office employee, was arrested in late August, her name became a hashtag. And then that hashtag became a question, #AmINext? Women flooded their Facebooks and Twitters and WhatsApp groups with their own memories of violence they had faced at the hands of men.

And then they flooded the streets.

Demonstrators marched in front of Parliament. They marched to the World Economic Forum, pounding their fists against the glass windows of the Cape Town convention center where the continent’s leaders had gathered. They marched across campuses, to the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, up and down the country’s main streets and beachfronts and suburban thoroughfares.

Their grief was collective, and it was loud. It was as though, many women said, an outrage they had long been forced to bear quietly suddenly had a megaphone.

“This kind of crime is global,” says Masego Mokgatlha, who joined a sit-in in front of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last Friday. “But our silence was local. I am here now because I refuse to be an onlooker.”

But by last week, it was also clear the energy around Ms. Mrwetyana’s death was beginning to flag. The protest at the stock exchange had been far smaller than anticipated. On social media, #AmINext fought for attention alongside fresh news of political corruption, the death of Robert Mugabe, and xenophobic attacks.

The hope had been that this would be South Africa’s #MeToo moment. But now there was another possibility. That the ache would simply grow duller. That South African women would be once again forced to bear their anger quietly, out of the headlines. 

“In South Africa they say we are free, but maybe it’s only the men who are free. Women still have to fight,” says Louisa Bembe, a retired domestic worker and cashier at the Johannesburg protest. Like many South Africans, she has been coming to protests all her life, from demonstrations against apartheid to marches demanding universal access to anti-retroviral therapy for HIV. But even as they’d won those fights, violence against women had persisted. 

“I’m old and I am tired,” she says. 

The South Africa in which Ms. Mrwetyana lived and died was a deeply complicated place to be a woman. Only three countries in the world have a higher murder rate for women, according to the World Health Organization. Rape and partner violence are common – legacies, in part, of colonial and apartheid systems that dislocated families and where power was expressed most easily through violence. Today, high unemployment and poverty, along with poor policing, have further entrenched abuse, creating a problem that resists easy solutions.

But Ms. Mrwetyana’s world was also full of strong women, from the head of her university, the mathematician Mamokgethi Phakeng, to her own mother, Nomangwane Mrwetyana, a popular university administrator in another city. A private school graduate studying at the best university in the country, Ms. Mrwetyana was emblematic of the hopes that many South African families like hers had for the generation raised after apartheid.

“I will miss your outspokenness. You were the one that forced me to speak. [You] would say ‘Thetha Mama, vula umlomo wakho, uthulele ntoni (speak Mom, why are you quiet?),” her mother wrote in a eulogy read at a Sept. 7 memorial for her daughter, which was carried live on national television. “You were an explorer, very different from me.”

The day before, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had visited the Mrwetyanas’ home in the city of East London, and promised that their daughter would be the catalyst for a societal reckoning.

"The death of your daughter and other women in the country is something that has gotten us to look at gender-based violence in a way that [makes it clear] we have reached a watershed moment,” he said. “Men must take responsibility and stop treating women as objects.”

The president vowed to reform laws on domestic violence and sexual assault, making punishments harsher, and to make more resources available for survivors.  

“The street protests will end as they always do, and maybe we will see them again in a year or two from now, but that doesn’t mean that the activism has stopped or the concern around these issues has stopped,” says Narnia Bohler-Muller, executive director for democracy, governance, and service delivery at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria, and an expert on gender-based violence in South Africa. “There are many organizations working on the ground trying to create awareness around violence and instill better values within communities.”

But many of those same activists said they were exhausted.

“I’ve been coming to these marches for 20 years,” says Nhlanhla Mokwena, a social worker and activist at the Johannesburg protest. “It’s incredible that this is still happening.”

Around her, demonstrators sang old anti-apartheid struggle songs, waving portraits of Ms. Mrwetyana, alongside signs scrawled with handwritten messages of rage and solidarity.

She is us, and we are her

I am not next

We’re drowning

“We are tired of watching women die,” says Eunice Pula, a university student who came to the protest with friends. “We want to stand on our toes and be heard.”

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