It has become the norm for big South African brands to get in on 16 Days of Activism by launching fun runs and fundraisers. But these very same companies, who proclaim commitment to women’s empowerment, rarely pay any attention to how their business models create the conditions for pandemic levels of gender based violence (GBV) to prevail.Edgars, one of the biggest clothing retailers in South Africa, organised the Orange Run on 2 December to “Break the Silence and say NO to violence against women and girls”. Besides the fact that these sorts of events are once-off, they often use the same trite marketing techniques that almost trivialise the very serious crisis of violence against women.
We all already know the horrific stats:
Half of the women in South Africa have experienced some form of gender violence in their lifetime; 49% experience intimate partner violence, and a woman still dies every four hours at the hands of her partner (which can be a (ex) husband or (ex) boyfriend). It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime and that only one in four rapes are reported. It is also estimated that 14% of perpetrators of rape are convicted in South Africa. The South African Police Service annual report for the 2015/16 financial year indicated that 74% of overall crimes were against women. South Africa also just scored the lowest rating in ActionAid’s latest report detailing women’s experience of violence in public spaces and while accessing public services.
GBV is only possible at its current scale, not only because individual men are guilty of perpetrating violence against women, but because as an entire society, we are all in some way perpetuating the values that make it possible. South African businesses are no exception. If Edgars really wanted to do something about GBV, they would do much better by paying its legion of mostly women casual workers a decent wage with benefits, so that when she finds herself facing violence or the threat thereof, she could exercise practical options to secure herself and her children. That is almost impossible for an Edgars cashier who earns about R2500 a month through a tenuous contract, often via a labour broker.
The same is true for Shoprite. In 2016, mostly women workers’ labour made it possible to pay former Shoprite CEO Whity Basson R50 million plus another R50 million bonus, while they had to feed their families on about R600 per week. The current CEO isn’t earning much less. Shoprite’s turn-over for the past financial year was R141 Billion. Let that sink in: Shoprite actually makes enough to give each of its 144,000 employees a million rand each, and still have a decent profit to return to shareholders. Beyond the obvious economic exploitation of women, on which these profits are premised, the current business model also plays a key role in perpetuating a fatal societal value system that devalues women and the significant unpaid and underpaid contributions we make to society and the economy. This prevailing value system is a dangerous one, making GBV so prevalent in our country, inducing life and death consequences for women and children.
The famous annual CEO sleep-out represents another ostensible act of charity that in fact perpetuates a discourse in which extreme wealth and abject poverty are deemed unrelated, in which CEOs can glamorously obscure their own culpability in deepening poverty and keeping women workers locked into exploitation and vulnerability.These CEOs need to have the moral courage to challenge their own business practices which remain fundamentally premised on the exploitation of poor people, almost a quarter century into a post-apartheid South Africa.
If South African businesses are truly serious about making a real contribution to ending the war on women and children in our country, they should start by treating and paying their workers, particularly black women workers, better. These are the people concentrated in big numbers at the lower income levels of these companies, and who bear the brunt of inequality and violence. What happens in management and the board room matters too, but we know the sheer numbers of vulnerable black women in South African businesses could make a massive contribution towards women’s empowerment, if companies were really serious about it.
If companies really feel compelled in have their names up on billboards during 16 Days, why not partner with one of the many local women’s rights organisations? This would ensure that they are not engaging in once-off promotional events, but invested in a grounded campaign that is well located within sustainable efforts at combatting GBV. Until South African businesses are truly willing to examine their own culpability in our GBV pandemic, I am afraid that their 16 Days of Activism events are no more than marketing gimmicks.
Fatima Shabodien is the Director at ActionAid South Africa. Follow ActionAid South Africa (AASA) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. AASA is a member of ActionAid International, a global movement of people working together to further human rights and eradicate poverty.