Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Opinion article: Violence against women: the problem lies deep
Author: Prof Michael le Cordeur
Published: 16/09/2019

​​​Those who wish to dismiss the wave of violence against women and children as the result of insufficient policing must think again. According to Michael le Cordeur, the problem lies much deeper: it is an educational problem which requires a national intervention strategy.

The wave of violence against women and children which is afflicting our country is a national crisis similar to what was last seen when PW Botha announced a national emergency. Just three days ago Minister Beki Cele announced that for the period March 2018 till April 2019 the number of rape cases and sex related crime increased with 4,6% in a country who already has a reputation of having one of the highest crime rates in the world. This sent shock waves through the country. Officially 52 420 cases has been reported last year which means a woman is raped every eight hours in South Africa. 

Over the past week end we saw marches and various riots portraying South Africans demonstrating their anger. We are experiencing a revolt, but this time the conflict extends over all boundaries.  The enemy is men, specifically men who treat women with disrespect.

This group of men does not consist of those who hide in dark places and await their prey like predators. It goes much deeper. From the most esteemed workplaces to households which appear normal. In actual fact an evil system is still maintained by men who abuse their positions of power in society.

The disrespect towards women is visible in many domains in South  African society. From woman abuse to boys who grow up with a distorted image of girls, to adult men who see women only as a possession, a trophy with which they can boast, and an object to ensure their progeny.

Disabled persons

As serious as the crisis is, we ought to react to it in a meaningful way by making suitable adjustments. The American politician Rahm Emanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste". President Ramaphosa's response was thus required and a first step in the right direction so that women can once again feel safe in their houses and workplaces. Unfortunately, it left a bitter taste because the president (or his communications minister) did not go to the trouble of communicating with deaf women. This led Marlene le Roux – an activist for the disabled – to remark, “So disabled women do not run the risk of rape?"

It must now also be clear that it is not a simple problem with a simple solution. There are four aspects which in my view should be addressed: policing, the patriarchal attitudes of men, the absent father syndrome, and education.

Patriarchal attitudes

A number of female pastors of the NG Church have made an urgent appeal to the church to take the lead in acting against the causes and practices of patriarchy which lead to violence against women and children. According to this group, patriarchy is a disease which causes some people (men) to have a superior attitude and consider others (women) inferior (DB 10.9.19).

This attitude is deeply rooted in the minds of some men who have grown up with this attitude. Whether it is due to religion or culture, some men still consider themselves to be the head of the house, to whom women must submit.

If you take into account that only one out of nine rapes is reported, the number that was announced on Friday should actually be multiplied by nine. This is partly because policemen are unwilling to take these complaints seriously: a classic example of this superior attitude. Many women are sent home with the absurd instruction to “sort the matter out" with the husband.

Men will have to learn to give up the dominant position which they have built up through the centuries and which still continues in some societies. It is not going to be easy, but it is certainly an educational task.

​Absent father

Family structures are certainly no longer like they were when I was one of six children growing up with a father and a mother. I was privileged. More and more children grow up nowadays in a large family where only one parent – usually the mother – is present. According to the HSRC, 60% of all children in our country grow up with absent fathers. This paints a sombre picture in a time where our children and especially our daughters are increasingly the prey of criminals, abductors and rapists. Everywhere there is damning evidence that the absent father syndrome has a destructive influence on our society.

A boy who grows up without a father longs for a father figure. If he does not get it in his own home, he will seek this figure outside the home. Eventually they end up in gangs because they identify with the wrong role model. As hard as it is to admit this, we must begin to accept that the nuclear family as we knew it is a thing of the past. As a society we must start to put new structures in the place of the absent father. This is where the male teacher has an important role to fulfil as replacement father figure.

Teachers already have a lot of hay on their forks: I know this only too well. I can, however, not think of any other solution which makes sense and is sustainable.


The clarion call to reinstate the death penalty for the murder of women is understandable, given the emotional nature and scope of the crisis. It is, however, doubtful if the situation will improve in any way. On the contrary, I am of the opinion that it will endanger the lives of the rape victims even further because the rapist will ensure that his victim is killed to decrease the likelihood of his being captured. The dead cannot testify.

The president's promise that he will request the maximum prison sentence for rapists indicates that he is poorly informed (by the communications minister?) because the minimum sentence for rape with the intention to cause serious harm, or the rape of a child, or group/gang rape, is already life imprisonment. And it has had no effect on current victim statistics.

What is indeed needed is that the current police service should be better managed, that crime intelligence is improved, that minister Cele will talk less and do more, and that the police do their work when they are on duty. The fact is: We can't police ourselves out of this crisis.


South Africa requires a paradigm shift which will fundamentally change boys' attitude towards girls. It requires a national intervention project. Boys must learn from childhood to treat girls with respect. In a time when most boys grow up without a father, and the necessary discussions requiring sex education do not take place at home, it becomes the responsibility of the school.

To work out the lessons for teachers so that everyone can obtain the same content is also not the solution. The reality is that schools do not have specialised Life Orientation teachers. LO has become a fragmented subject which is presented by any teacher who still has space on their time table to present a class or two. There is no coordination, no subject guidance, and it is no longer an examination subject. As a result, no-one takes the subject seriously. In fact, as recently as last year, the Minister wanted to get rid of the subject in favour of History. It is not clear why the Department cannot handle the problem. Prescribed lessons will not really help when offered by an ignorant, awkward, unwilling and negative teacher.  Last year in these pages I begged that the subject should not only be retained, but should be offered by specialised LO teachers who are thoroughly assessed and monitored.

Too deeply rooted

The death sentence and more policing will not solve this crisis. There is also no quick fix. The problem is too deeply rooted. We require better preventative planning which offers solutions in the long term.

In this respect, education is of critical importance.

 (Prof Le Cordeur is the chairperson of the Department of Curriculum Studies in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch.)