From the ruins of a society rotten with gender-based violence, new legislation is welcomed but change is in our hands
MR President, I am in pain. It’s an old wound that festers. I am a broken man, born from a broken family and living in a broken society. I see that this week you patted yourself on the back for the progress that you have made as head of state in strengthening the legislative framework dealing with the ever-rising incidence of gender-based violence (GBV). There’s nowhere in the legislative amendments that you refer to the psychosocial services urgently needed for children growing up in violent homes. There’s nothing about sheltering children while their fathers are being refused bail and their mother is in a shelter somewhere. I can tell you for free that the children witnessing today’s surge in GBV are tomorrow’s perpetrators of the same crimes, including assault, murder and rape. It’s not rocket science that children from broken homes are more likely to end up behind bars than in varsity dorms. I am an exception, not the norm.
My story illustrates a generational curse that must be broken. My father was a violent man. I write about him in the past tense because I consider myself a man without a father. He treated my mother like a piece of rubbish. I recall once he threw money into my mother’s face while shouting: “that’s money for the toilet” (meaning food), and another batch of money: “that’s money for schooling”, so it went. I remember the time when he beat my late big brother so badly, using an assortment of weapons including sticks, in front of all of us. He only stopped when my mother threw herself between them as a human shield to save my brother’s life. I could have been 10 years old at the time, young and powerless, but I knew that there was a monster in the house. I witnessed my father bringing his girlfriend to our supposed home.
But the cherry on top was when he instructed me to take a bus from Eshowe to his workplace in Ulundi. I haven’t recovered from what I saw: a fully-fledged alternative family. My father’s new family had a 19-year-old woman already with two children. One belonged to my father, I was told. Strangers filled in the missing details, telling me that my father had paid lobola in full, not just for the 19-year-old woman, but for another woman as well. I had to call a 19-year-old, “mom”, and I was 13. It became crystal clear to me that my father lived a double life.
As a result of growing up under these circumstances, I became a victim of gender-based violence myself. Yes, I was molested at home by one of my living brothers. I kept it a secret until two years ago. In the meantime, at the tender age of 16, I kidnapped, at knifepoint, my very first girlfriend. I took her against her will to my home for my sexual pleasure. It never occurred to me that something didn’t gel: love and violence in one sentence. My second major case of woman abuse occurred inside my high school premises. I was 18 years old. It was a combo of verbal and physical abuse. As an adult (post-episodes of GBV), I battle major depressive disorder. According to my psychologist, my depression is genetic. It originates from a family history of violence, fear and anxiety. My sister was diagnosed with the same disease two years ago. My brother (the molester) refuses to take psychiatric medication despite having had three episodes of psychosis. My son was forced to withdraw from university four years ago after he started self-harming.
Mr President, I appreciate that in terms of the new amendments, I will be guilty of an offence if I don’t report my neighbour or friend if they are involved in GBV. I like the idea of a publicly available National Register for Sex Offenders. I support the idea of expanding the category of GBV offences for which minimum sentences must be imposed. All well and good, but what this country needs is a new value system that puts respect for women’s dignity and sanctity of life above everything else. On the ruins of the heightened GBV incidents that occurred during the Covid-19 lockdown, a new man must emerge. He must never raise his hand and voice against any woman or child. He must never lower his pants in front of his children. Unfortunately, no piece of legislative amendments will give us this new society we seek to build. It is truly in our hands as GBV activists, victims, perpetrators and survivors. Well done, Mr President, on keeping yet another promise. It all adds up in the end.
This Letter to Mahlamba Ndlopfu is written by Bhekisisa Mncube. Mncube is a loving husband and father of two adult children. He is a GBV survivor. He has been in therapy but still yearns for a proper childhood without drama.
This opinion piece was first published in the Witness.