Intersectional Human Rights for Peace Education in post-Apartheid South Africa under COVID-19

This essay by Bernedette Muthien is based upon remarks given during the April 13, 2020 webinar, “Peace Education and the Pandemic: Global Perspectives.”  You can find a full video from the webinar here.  This essay is also part of our “Corona Connections: Learning for a Renewed World” series exploring the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways it relates to other peace education issues.

By Bernedette Muthien*, South Africa

South Africa’s democracy, carefully negotiated during the early 1990s, culminated in a Constitution founded on intersectionalities, which is just really the coming together of all forms of identities, areas for prejudice and/or privilege.

In its Equality Clause, the Constitution prohibits discrimination on an unprecedented 16 grounds including: race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. The Constitution is emphatic in that “no person may unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more [of these 16] grounds”.

The Preamble of the Constitution is clear,

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; — [within a] family of nations.

Prefaced by its coat of arms with its motto drawn from the First Peoples of Southern Africa, meaning “unity in diversity” or “diverse people unite”.

The Constitution is the supreme law of the country, a deliberately diverse society with a deliberately secular state.

Throughout curricula in schools and society are mainstreamed these Constitutional Values and its Bill of Rights with its 16 grounds of non-discrimination, the foundations of democracy, the values of compassion, peace and justice.

The Constitution is supported by institutions supporting democracy, including the Human Rights Commission and Commission for Gender Equality. However, the communities comprising the country are diverse, many of them deeply patriarchal, many of them wrestling with the legacies of 300 years of brutal colonialism, genocide and slavery, and 50 years of even worse Apartheid, in which not only people were destroyed, but consciousness or mindsets more so. This resulted in peoples’ insecurities manifesting in a number of particular ways, as individuals, but also as institutions, institutions in which patriarchy predominates, like the security cluster, the military and the police.

Whereas the President and many of his Cabinet have been exemplary in their maturity and compassion during the pandemic, our security cluster leaders have deployed the language of war, turning citizens into enemies, their foot soldiers routinely deploying violence when warnings would suffice, and beating humans to death in the confines of their front yards.

Even racism is deployed, against indigenous peoples called Coloured under Apartheid, with a major city mayor caught on video encouraging security officers to employ violence against what he called “Bushmen”. The mayor is a black man devoid of political conscience which all anti-apartheid activists like I were inculcated with since childhood, a broader and inclusive pan-African blackness against all intersectional oppressions. These apolitical patriarchal peoples are our worst enemies, if we must deploy othering as a society.

Gender violence, where perpetrators are locked up with vulnerable families, has skyrocketed. With increased militarism, bullying of media and community leaders, elements of violence and tyranny by some in the security cluster, we need even more courage as a society to be aware, to be resilient, to develop alternatives that draw on our historic interdependences.

We already have all the language, the laws, the tools. Whether and how we use these formidable resources is a challenge.

We are too silent on ostensible conflicts between patriarchy and its attendant violences and oppressions in some cultures and traditions, which directly contradict constitutional gender and other equalities. These are hangovers from Apartheid now being abused by entrepreneurial criminals against our own people.

We are too silent on over 70% Christians, some of who wish to impose their Old Testament onto the rest of us, including male supremacy and female subordination and the vilification and violences against LGBTQI peoples. Not unlike Margaret Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale.

Unlike the US, South Africa has Constitutional rights to non-discrimination which outweigh “free speech”: racist, sexist and homophobic speech are outlawed. Yet it is only anti-racism that we are obsessed with, neglecting widespread sexism and homophobia and its violences spouted from pulpits and boardrooms.

We need high-level political will. In the absence of our people being rescued from the leaders we elect, and being bullied by a majority of people suffering of internalized oppression from centuries of depredations, we the people have civic action. Actions founded on consciousness rooted in e.g. local grassroots community action networks that are compassionately supporting especially the vulnerable among us.

It is this triangulation of Consciousness or Awareness, Compassion and Justice that is helping local communities through the pandemic, and that will sustain us in co-creating a more humane, nonviolent world. Now more than ever we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

*About the Author

Bernedette Muthien has already established a local and international reputation for her work (writing and facilitation) on issues of gender equity, nonviolence, and gender-based violence in South Africa and further afield. She is the author of more than 160 publications and conference presentations on all 6 continents during the past 18 years. Her professional memberships include the Western Cape Network on Violence against Women; the pan-African gender network, Amanitare; the Women’s International Network on Gender & Human Security, the Association for Women in Development (AWID), as well as the International Peace Research Association, whose Global Political Economy she has convened since 2000. She serves on several international advisory boards, including Digital Universe – Human Rights Portal, as well as the international journals Human Security Studies.

Bernedette was the first Fullbright-Amy Biehl fellow at Stanford University (1994-1995), and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Cape Town (Dean’s Merit List), and Stellenbosch University (Andrew W Mellon Fellow, 2006-2007) in South Africa.

She is co-founder of an indigenous scholar-activist network, the KhoeSan Women’s Circle, in addition to convenor of an international listserv of Native scholar-activists, Gender Egalitarian. Her current research centres on the Egalitarian KhoeSan – Beyond Patriarchal Violence, in other words, how social and gender egalitarianism are coterminous with nonviolence, as well as showing that nonviolent and egalitarian societies have existed throughout time and continue to exist at present.

Bernedette is a South African woman of colour who has devoted her life to strategic interventions on the issues of violence and gender equality in order to bring about a better future in South Africa, and a model for other parts of the world.

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