For the last three years, the South African State Of The Nation Address (SONA) has been marked by disruptions and, more recently, the violent removal of dissenting members of parliament. The 2017 SONA was no different as members of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) were forced out of the national assembly chambers by security officials last night. In a blur of bodies, footage from the chamber shows how fists were flung in all directions -- by both male and female members of the party and the security forces.
I covered this year's Sona along with other journalists. As we watched the proceedings on a screen in Parliament Street, public order police in riot gear took up position behind us. By the time EFF leader Julius Malema had made his way onto a podium in Parliament Street to address the media, EFF MPs were rallying around each other, making sure everyone was okay and there were no serious injuries. A crying female MP who was being tended to by her party colleagues told the media that she had struck in the face with a fist by "a guy" and was dizzy and in pain.
So I recorded a quick video and tweeted it as part of the reporting I was doing on what was happening outside parliament.
— Sarah Koopman (@sarah_koopman) February 9, 2017
What followed was an eye-opener into how some South Africans view violence -- and violence against women -- that I would rather have avoided. In the same week that Russia decriminalised domestic violence where "beatings of spouses or children that result in bruising or bleeding but not broken bones are punishable by 15 days in prison or a fine", I was faced with tweets from South Africans who not only believed this MP "deserved what she got" but, in some cases, that she should have received a more violent beating. The overall sentiment of the people who have retweeted and responded to the video is that because the EFF apparently "threw the first punches", the violence inflicted on the party's MPs was justified.
In this stellar depiction of misogyny, one John McLaren seems to condone the violence because there were men who were assaulted as well, so why not women too?
It is stomach-churning stuff. In a since-deleted tweet, former ANC Women's League spokesperson Troy Martens, who is now the spokesperson for the Department of Basic Education, responded saying:
The Huffington Post South Africa reached out to Martens with regards to this tweet and she said she refuses to make any official comment on what she had said. According to Martens she is an advocate against gender-based violence and does not condone violence in any form -- against or inflicted by men or women. Tweeting in her "personal capacity", Martens says that she was providing context about where the violence originated from (in her view, the EFF) and "would never" say that violence was in any way deserved.
Reading these tweets has been difficult, seeing how strongly people feel about the violence being justified or being unable to see beyond the red overalls this woman was wearing. According to some people on Twitter, the EFF's disruption of parliamentary proceedings was enough of a reason for their MPs to be assaulted.
Here is why it does not serve anyone right for this kind of action -- and response -- to be condoned. In a country where one in two women are murdered by their partners, finding any justification for violence inflicted on women is dire and deadly. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organisation in 2012, 65% of South African women "had experienced spousal abuse a year before the research was conducted", said City Press. For as long as this remains the case, we cannot hope to turn our statistics around and foster a society that rejects gender-based violence in any form. What was even more troubling were the "she deserved it" responses to the video of the MP that came from women.
Of course, there were people who responded with shock and disgust, asking how the same government that advocates for the end of gender-based violence with campaigns like the 16 Days of Activism of No Violence Against Women and Children are condoning behaviour like this in parliament.
The blame game of who started first is moot. Violence -- and especially gender-based violence -- is deplorable and cannot be justified or condoned. If tweets in anticipation of this year's address are any indication, SONA has piqued our bloodlust instead of our civic interest. And if last night's violence was anything to go by, it's time to take stock and realign.