By Asanda Benya | Amandla! Magazine Issue 60 | 02 November 2018
I want to start by saying that I was not a leader of the movement, nor was I in any of the structures that organised the march to parliament on 1st August 2018. I was, however, an “ally” of the movement and member of the various mobilisation groups: the Facebook group, #TheTotalShutDown; Intersectional Womxn’s March Against GBV, the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town WhatsApp group and the main Cape Town/ Western Cape WhatsApp group. These groups were set up to organise and facilitate logistics and donations leading up to the march.
This organic “movement”, as it has been called, was started by womxn and gender non-conforming persons (GNCPs). Those who initiated the call for the movement were not known to many initially. They became known after a few weeks, when the movement was already gaining momentum on the ground.
Numbers of womxn, LGBTIQA+ and gender-nonconforming (GNC) people dying at the hands of men both known and unknown to them, raped, kidnapped and abused, have long reached crisis levels. Yet very little if anything has been done, systematically, to put an end to this violence or send a strong message to perpetrators. Instead, for years we have watched men commit these heinous crimes with impunity and brazenly. The #TotalShutDown movement, then, grew out of a shared frustration at the South African state’s lack of urgency in dealing with violence affecting womxn, LGBTIQA+ and GNC people.
The movement’s mission was to cripple or affect in some way the economic activities of the country and bring to the attention of leaders, yet again, the scourge of violence affecting womxn, GNC and LGBTIQA+ people in South Africa.
The plan was to have a TotalShutDown of economic activities and the country on 1st August 2018 and to have womxn, LGBTIQA+ and GNC persons march, excluding those who identify as men. Marches were to proceed to centres of power nationally. The aim was to send a strong and insistent message to the government that the womxn of / in South Africa have had enough. In Cape Town for instance, womxn gathered and marched to parliament to deliver their memorandum of 24 demands.
The TotalShutDown movement started with a Facebook group on 6th June 2018 and it was after June 16 that the numbers of Facebook members started to rise exponentially. Within two weeks, the group had over 40,000 members. To date it has 101,954 members, with some having left after the 1st August marches . Beyond communicating the organising issues, logistics and other important information, the Facebook group quickly became a site where people were posting their personal experiences of abuse, some of which had taken place in homes, workplaces, communities and places of worship. No place was untouched and womxn from all backgrounds shared their most intimate stories.
While Facebook was the initial site of mobilisation and dissemination of important information, WhatsApp groups were later formed by different individuals to consolidate local mobilisation efforts. The WhatsApp groups first focused on major cities and then municipalities and ultimately suburbs, schools and institutions of higher learning. In these WhatsApp groups, more personal stories were shared, and in some cases womxn were able to seek help, in-real-time, about incidents of abuse that were occurring. Others were also able to respond in real-time, giving advice, suggestions and making offers as requested.
Besides sharing intimate stories with a group of people who could respond “in real-time” to urgent requests and who in some cases understood the context, WhatsApp groups were also spaces where ideological issues were thrashed out. People asked questions about parameters of exclusion and inclusion and the bases on which these processes happened or were hampered. People asked questions about the democracy of the movement, decision making structures and centralisation of power in what started off as a flat and organic movement. While WhatsApp groups can be limiting, robust discussions were held and sometimes these did not end well.
In these different groups, through the sharing of personal stories, people were recognising and appreciating their collective strength and power. In the stories shared, known trends were confirmed: that indeed our homes, workplaces and those of worship are not safe spaces, and that our partners, relatives, colleagues and male friends are our perpetrators.
Traditional methods of organising were also employed: face-to-face meetings were held and several pamphleteering sessions across neighborhoods, taxi ranks, bus and train stations and churches.
The movement was not without challenges or biases. The first challenge was ideological. It concerned the movement’s rationale for excluding men, especially those who form part of the LGBTIQA+ community. Some activists and organisations felt that to exclude men, especially transmen and to some extend gay men, is to ignore the “violences” they face as men who do not perform hegemonic masculinity and who reject heterosexuality. Others felt that the way in which some movements had been built recognises the role of men in ending violence. As such, they found it difficult, and to some extent impossible, to support a movement that did not embrace the inclusion of men. However, the dominant voice within the #TotalShutDown movement maintained that to include any men is to jeopardise its work of building a safe space for womxn.
The second issue was with the ANC young womxn’s desk which wanted to join the march but wear ANC regalia. This was disapproved by movement members as ANC uniform could be a trigger for many participants. The ANC had failed to lead in the area of protecting womxn. It has also failed to hold accountable many of its men who have been directly implicated in cases of violence, harassment, abuse and rape of womxn.
The third issue was around the class, urban and social media bias of the movement. Later into the planning, most middle-class participants and organisers learnt that the day scheduled for the march was the same day SASSA makes social grant payments to grant recipients, most of whom are working class womxn. That the march proceeded on this day, regardless of the impact the march was going to have on womxn grant recipients, was very telling of its class dimension.
While there were many challenges, much can be learnt about building responsive, democratic, feminist and pro working-class movements.
The“speaking-out” that womxn were doing both on #TheTotalShutDown Facebook and WhatsApp groups seemed to be a necessary part of the healing process for some. Mostly, it helped form some kind of solidarity and emboldened, to some extent, some womxn. It disrupted the culture of silence that contributes to its reproduction. This culture of silence needs to be done away with: no compromise, no bargaining, no negotiation with it or those who propagate it.
While the demands above have not yet been met and womxm, GNC and LBGTIQA+ people are still wading the patriarchal waters, some gains were made by the #TotalShutDown movement: the creation of a “safe” virtual space for womxn was important and continues to be so. Standing together in solidarity with others from all walks of life was significant. The awareness raising that happened through the WhatsApp groups was astounding. Womxn over and over again remarked on how much they learnt about gender and sexuality in the groups.
Womxn, through the space that the movement created, once again, as many others before us, reclaimed the public space as theirs, reclaimed their power, reclaimed their pussies, their bodies and the language. The placards that womxn held demonstrated clearly that womxn are tired of men and the state seeing their bodies as part of their property. The posters screamed, not in so many words, that we are not your womxn, you do not own us, these are our bodies, our bodies are not your crime scenes, Voetsek with your patriarchal bullshit!
What for progressive movements?
Perpetrators of violence are not only those who are directly involved with or in the act. They are also those who are complicit in building a culture of inequality and sexism, a culture that disempowers womxn while encouraging men and fortifying patriarchy and its toxic and dangerous foot soldiers.
For any movement to claim to be progressive and an ally with oppressed and exploited groups, it needs to live up to that label. The time for protecting and centering men and their interests at the expense of womxn is up. Movements that only focus on reported cases of violence and harassment against womxn, LGBTIQA+ and GNC people and claim to be clean are missing the point. The point is that before there is assault or harassment, there is normalisation of gender inequity, denial of sexism and male privilege, tolerance and excusing of behavior that breeds discrimination. It is this culture which tolerates sexism and gender inequity, rewards tokenism and paternalism and also facilitates the culture of abuse of womxn, GNC and LGBTIQA+people.