BY MICHAL VISSER
*Michal Visser studies Economics.
A response to “Let’s get real about the Anti-GBV”
Since late August, South African campus communities have engaged in protests and discussions regarding a national crisis of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The rape and murder of varsity women in particular, such as Uyinene Mrwetyana, has served to galvanise a movement that is long overdue. For many years, South Africa has had among the highest rates of GBV in the world. The severity and brutality of GBV in South Africa deserves assertive opposition. Fortunately, activists have started to engage in resistance against GBV.
In response to growing anti-GBV activism, Die Matie opinion columnist, Tian Alberts, asserts that we need to “get real about the Anti-GBV” [emphasis my own]. This column is a response to Alberts’s opinion piece. This column is neither a defence of every manifestation of Anti-GBV activism, nor is it a defence of the particular demands of the three-page memorandum that was handed to men’s and mixed residences. It is not aimed at Alberts in particular, but he has provided a convenient summary of poor arguments lodged against Anti-GBV activism. As a testament to the impersonal nature of my response, I will henceforth refer to Alberts’s piece as LGR (short for “Let’s get real…”) and avoid invoking his name any further.
I suggest that readers first read his opinion piece to see whether this response misrepresents any of the arguments in LGR (available in the 25 September edition of Die Matie and online).
Firstly, I agree that any movement may be critiqued. However, the critiques should be valid and (preferably) constructive. LGR does not satisfy these rudimentary criteria and thus deserves a critical response.
Secondly, LGR constructs a theatrical narrative of oppressed dissidents fighting against an overbearing social movement. I contend that this narrative is self-imposed by those who feel victimised by the Anti-GBV movement – an actual “victim mentality”. If people demand that you take certain actions, you can disagree. If people call you names, you can disagree. Importantly, you can disagree without having a martyr complex.
Thirdly, LGR vaguely suggests that the Anti-GBV movement aims to “prescribe acceptable culture” and to “impose” this by using University structures. For this strong claim, the author provides no specific examples of prescriptions. This is a critical deception because the reader is left to imagine any degree of draconian regulation without being able to judge the merits of the author’s argument. In fact, it is hard to discern exactly where the author disagrees with particular prescriptions made by the movement that he implies we should rebuke.
I hypothesise that many of the pitfalls of LGR are due to fundamental misconceptions about the Anti-GBV movement. Despite the impression given by LGR, Anti-GBV activism is not monolithic. The movement does not have a “leader”. It is simply a broad-based and diverse civil society movement that is united in one cause: opposition to Gender-Based Violence. Sure, some bad actors may use the movement as a means to consolidate power, but this is not a sufficient reason to broadly lambast a whole movement.
Furthermore, the author asserts that the Anti-GBV movement demands adherence to “every ideological disposition”. This demand is, of course, an extrapolation of the author’s own nightmares. If certain demands are unreasonable, you can oppose them specifically without eschewing an entire movement.
In the latter half of his article, the author reveals a fundamental grievance he has against the movement: he doesn’t like it that Anti-GBV activists are telling men’s residences what to do. He doesn’t like the language they use. He doesn’t like criticism from the outsiders. Altogether, LGR’s opposition to the Anti-GBV movement seems rather petulant.
I imagine that, in the author’s utopia, the outsiders would desist from saying mean things about men’s residences and stop telling them what they should do. The author has chosen to experience critiques of his “constructive criticism” as a public persecution enacted by “the mob and social media hunting packs”. It appears that dissidence is only courageous when it is voiced by the author.
LGR is based on the premise that the act of making suggestions to men’s residences is necessarily undermining the autonomy of men’s residences. For example, the author contends that “if men’s residences were really adamant to effect (sic) these changes in the first place, they would have done so on their own terms in the absence of the social coercion that they now face”. However, it is not at all obvious that men’s residences will propose and enforce solutions to GBV independently. It could be that they are either complicit or indifferent to GBV issues.
Clearly, a superior method would be for men’s residences to receive the suggestions formulated by Anti-GBV activists (from the outside) and discern which suggestions are beneficial and which are unreasonable. Learning from outsiders is astute. It is not “caving”.
How would constructive criticism of a movement look like? Firstly, dissidents need to make valid arguments against specific points of contention. My stylistic preference is that authors should avoid painting themselves as martyrs when they are criticised for their critiques. When the discussion stays centred on the arguments it is much less likely to devolve into wasteful melodrama. Secondly, authors should avoid conflating the actions of some bad actors as being representative of an entire movement. Rather, state explicitly which denomination or individuals are committing the specific transgressions.
Constructive criticism needs to suggest better alternatives. Let’s get real avoids suggesting any tangible policies in response to GBV, and thus does not contribute whatsoever to addressing the crisis.