You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock: Gender-Based Violence and Xenophobia in South Africa

A blueish light shines on the face of a dark-skinned black woman with black locks, so that have of her face reflects the light, and half is cast in shadow. She looks out towards an empty space, looking serious and thoughtful.

Many of the issues featured on this blog are discussed in terms of how they manifest in the United States, primarily because that is where most of my audience is located, and I have the most specific knowledge about the social patterns that occur here. However, very few social justice issues are unique to the US and our American-centric news system means that we’re frequently unaware the extent which issues like rape culture and hostility towards immigrants impact countries other than our own, or how those manifestations are different from how they are here. In today’s guest post, Thandiwe Ntshinga gives us a crystal-clear run-down of the activism in South Africa in which they are tackling the severe levels of gender-based violence, sexual assault, and the overlapping issue of xenophobia toward foreign African nationals.

Note: The term “Womxn” is an alternative to the word “women,” that some activists use intended to explicitly include transgender women and women of color.

CN: in depth discussion of rape culture, sexual assault, gender-based violence, xenophobic violence, government-sanctioned oppression in South Africa. Brief discussion of corrective sexual assault and apartheid.

On 13 September 2019, demonstrators gathered in front of South Africa’s economic hub, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to participate in the #SandtonShutdown. Beginning at 3:00 a.m., #SandtonShutdown was a march attended by protestors from all over South Africa’s smallest and most populous province, Gauteng, to demand that the private sector also respond to the events of the first week of September. Events, labeled by President Cyril Ramaphosa as “the cancers of gender-based violence and xenophobia”, which caused national concern: the rape and murder of a 19-year-old first-year student in Cape Town* and the xenophobic violence employed as a response to the murder of a South African taxi driver who prevented the sale of drugs to children by a foreign national.

These two deaths had a disheartening effect on the South African social consciousness and served as a somber reminder of the prevalence of gender-based violence and xenophobia in the country.

These issues are not new in South Africa. Last year approximately 3000 womxn, one every three hours, were killed in South Africa. Additionally, between 1994 and 2018, 309 deaths have been recorded as a result of xenophobic violence.

That said, one could not escape the frenzy of national and international protests during that time. South Africans, under the leadership of civil organizations, focused on gender-based violence and women’s rights, marched in solidarity against the senseless killings of womxn and children. Additionally, African leaders, also, refused to continue to turn a blind eye to the killings of their citizens residing in South Africa. The message was simple; enough is enough.

Nationally and internationally, womxn— and allies— mobilized against the persistence of gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa to confront government’s lack of intervention under the #AmINext movement that occupied online and physical domains. Social media activism under the #AmINext hashtag highlighted the reality of daily life as a womxn. Womxn took to naming and shaming sexual perpetrators online. Womxn shared in the experiences of the constant fear that polices what we -as womxn in the country- wear, where we are, what we say and who we are with. Danielle Hoffmeester articulates this constant fear in an article for Voices 360 where she writes:

South African women know how to form a weapon with their fist and keys; in fact, we know that it is more effective to add a little lock to the keychain and swing it around as a sign that we are ready and able to fight back. We know that it is wise to switch our routes to work every few days because a man might be tracking us and readying himself to strike. We know not to venture out at night or where the street lights do not shine. Or when the streets are quiet. We know not to leave our drinks unattended. We know not to go the lavatory alone. And acutely we know that none of the above has ever helped or saved us. To do all the “right things” may make us feel safer, but it does not make us safe. It does not matter what preventative or avoidance strategies we put into place and adhere to we are still vulnerable to violence because the society that we inhabit is founded and sustained through hetero-patriarchal violence.”

A large group of black women wearing only black or white walk down a paved road holding protest signs: Demonstrators during the #SandtonShutdown march in Johannesburg on September 13th, 2019.

The thousands of womxn who participated in online activism brought home the extent to which living in South Africa is an everyday threat to the safety of womxn. On the streets, on top of the #SandtonShutdown protest, #AmInext saw scores of protestors picket in front of Parliament and attempt to storm the first session of the World Economic Forum held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on September 4th, 2019.

Throughout the country, online and on the streets, South Africans were challenging the ‘business as usual’ stance towards the loss of female lives from government and business alike. Many proposed that South Africa follow the examples of countries like Burkina Faso and France by declaring a state of emergency. While others have suggested reinstating the death penalty for femicide perpetrators.

Albeit to a lesser degree, alongside the activism against gender-based violence and femicide were protests against xenophobic violence in the country. Xenophobic rhetoric in South Africa is not unique. Similar to many countries, migrants are blamed for crime, “taking our women” and draining state resources. In the South African context, however, this hostile attitude towards foreigners only applies to foreign African nationals. Many refer to the South African version of xenophobia as ‘Afrophobia’ as it excludes non-African immigrants.

Since the May 2008 xenophobic attacks that resulted in 62 deaths of South African citizens as well as migrants, widespread xenophobic attacks on foreign African nationals in South Africa are an annual expectation. Government has regularly suggested that violence targeted at foreign African nationals is not due to an intolerance towards foreigners but rather a consequence of African migrants’ close proximity to poor South Africans and the resultant competition over limited resources. To reverse the perceived wrongdoings of African migrants, South Africans take to burning down foreign-owned stores, physical assault, and murder in their communities.

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This year’s xenophobic attacks were different as they could not be dismissed by government’s denialism. For the first time, African states, led by Nigeria, retaliated against South Africa for the way their nationals are treated by South Africans. On top of kicking South African business out of their countries, the African community has reminded South Africa of the help they provided us during our time of need under the apartheid regime. During a subsequent state visit to South Africa to discuss the issue of xenophobia, President Ramaphosa assured Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari that plans were being made to prevent future episodes of xenophobic violence.

With overlapping media attention on gender-based violence and xenophobia, images of female African migrant protesters began to circulate in media coverage. Joining South Africans in calling for government to intervene in the prevalence of gender-based violence and xenophobia, African migrants were seen with signs with the message: I am a foreigner and a woman, am I next?

Where these issues are often understood as distinct and mutually exclusive, this was when I first began to notice attention towards the double oppression in the intersection between gender-based violence and xenophobia. For the first time, I realized that foreign African womxn have been overlooked in commentary on gender-based violence and xenophobia. This was also a time where South Africans have been called not to “be lazy in our analysis” by civil organizations and activists. Listening to the lived experience of a Zimbabwean gang-rape and multiple stabbing survivor and activist Nobule Ajitib revealed to me just how lazy my own analysis of gender-based violence and xenophobia has been.

The Intersection Between Gender-Based Violence and Xenophobia

Over the last year, sexual assault and violence in South Africa have increased from 88.3 per 100,000 in 2017/18 to 90.9 in 2018/19. Rape also increased with an average of 114 cases reported per day. To understand gender-based violence in South Africa requires an understanding of the imposition of patriarchal systems during colonialization then later solidified by apartheid.

Colonization brought with it western gendered hierarchies that diminished pre-colonial female power. The apartheid-era later strengthened this and the oppression of womxn in the implemented laws and policies influenced by Afrikaner masculinity. Rape was used as a weapon for control. Additionally, sexual violence served as a psychological weapon for control and domination.

“Attesting to having survived gender-based violence and sexual assault yet questioning whether she will survive xenophobia, Nobuhle Ajitib asked, ‘What does my nationality have to do with my perpetrator?’ ”

Today, gender-based violence and sexual assault have steered away from state-mandated practices to defensive and reactive responses to the return of empowered femininity and the realigning of gender roles. Gender-based violence is used to coerce and/or punish.

For example, ‘Corrective’, curative or homophobic rape is a hate crime consisting of the rape of homosexual persons with the intended consequence of enforcing gender stereotypes and to turn queer-identifying individuals heterosexual. The corrective rape of lesbian womxn presents a prime example of the twisted patriarchal logic that permits male perpetrators to believe it their responsibility to both coerce and punish womxn for not conforming to gendered social norms in their sexual disinterest in cis-gender men. Be it the corrective rape of lesbian womxn or the rape of heterosexual womxn for “asking for it”, patriarchal systems in South Africa misplace blame and responsibility on womxn for sexual violence and assault.

Female African migrants face a double jeopardy in reporting their assaults to corrupt police officers who are dismissive of their reports. In her sobering testimony, Zimbabwean activist Nobuhle Ajiti highlighted the issue of victim-blaming at police stations which prevent survivors of gender-based violence and sexual assault from reporting these crimes, regardless of nationality. However, the reality is that while female African migrants are vulnerable and displaced as a result of xenophobic attacks, rape is also used as a weapon to humiliate and control womxn of different nationalities. This vulnerability to sexual assault is not only evident in times of heightened xenophobic violence. Attesting to having survived gender-based violence and sexual assault yet questioning whether she will survive xenophobia, Nobuhle Ajitib asked, “What does my nationality have to do with my perpetrator?”

Two African women with short natural hair and brightly colored dresses sit back to back on a large boulder, holding their faces in their hands, looking at the ground in opposite directions.

The Problem With, “You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock”

There is a worn-out South African mantra that comes from a resistance song during the struggle for freedom during the apartheid era. The saying; wathint’abafazi, wathinta’imbokodo, meaning ‘you strike a woman, you strike a rock’ symbolizes the historic strength and courage of South African womxn.

This symbol of Black femininity has had detrimental effects on Black womxn in South Africa. Playwright, theatre director, and performer Tiisetso Mashifane wa Noni represents this resistance to this detrimental symbolism well by stating “I am not of the persuasion that a Black woman must be a symbol of suffering. The manner in which this is perceived reeks of a desensitization of dignity”.

Although I have both participated in activism on gender-based violence and written on the issue of xenophobia, the focus has never been on the intersectional positionality of female African migrants in South Africa. The dignity of foreign African womxn residing in South Africa has never been collectively centered as a pressing concern. These African womxn are no different from South African womxn who are struck time and time again. The only difference is that African womxn without South African citizenship have the added burden of also being ignored because of their nationality. Putting an end to Black womxn as a symbol of suffering in South Africa should not continue to exclude foreign African nationals.

Truthfully, female African migrants are not faceless to me. I have spent many hours with a number of them as they have done my hair over the years. We have chatted about life and shared experiences on how it is like being a womxn in South Africa and yet I have been ignorant to the overlapping of gender-based violence and xenophobia. This is a blindspot that is also evident in research on gender-based violence as well as xenophobia.

What I learned from female African migrant activism and their brief representation, is that South Africans need to remember that there are those who are subject to the double oppression of gender-based violence and xenophobia. We must remember that all womxn, regardless of nationality and citizenship, deserve dignity within the country’s border.

*Media reports state that the victim’s family requests that her name be respected.

A dark-skinned woman with black natural hair parted down the middle smiles widely at the camera. She wears a black longsleeve shirt with gold buttons, gold hoops around her neck, and long strings of brightly colored beads attached to her earrings.

About the guest blogger: Thandiwe Ntshinga is a South African freelance writer. Her work employs intersectional analysis on social issues with a particular focus on race and racism. More on Thandiwe can be found on her website, or follow her on Instagram @blackwomxnrants.


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