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Op-eds

The power of one to effect change for the many

  • CharisseZeifert
I found a news article in The Star newspaper last week particularly eye-catching. It related how 21-year-old Antoinette Nthabiseng Thabapelo has initiated a programme, Adopt a Son. Her aim is to change the patriarchal narrative around boys in her community of Bekkersdal, west of Joburg.
by CHARISSE ZEIFERT | Sep 26, 2019

The programme involves providing mentors for serious, hard-working boys from underprivileged backgrounds between Grades 1 and 12. Thabapelo hopes that it will help the boys become better men by ensuring that they have the means to complete their education.

Thabapelo identified a problem, and set about seeing how she could fix it. For me, she exemplifies the “power of one”. Given the frighteningly high murder statistics in this country (with 58 people killed, as well as 114 rapes reported daily this year to date), there is an urgent need for a lot of change.

The brutal rape and murder of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana was yet another catalyst for change. My colleague, Yanir Grindler, was moved by that tragedy. He felt it was time for men to, in his words, “join a circle … and discuss our role in combatting gender-based violence”. Under the banner of BE A MENsch, a group of men from across the religious and ethnic divide met at Beyachad in Raedene, Joburg, last week to share experiences and discuss solutions.

I was privileged to be a part of this circle, having been invited to offer a “woman’s voice”. The discussions centred on patriarchy, the rules of engagement between the sexes, and to what extent words lead to violence. It was clear that gender, culture, religion, and class all have an impact on how we see gender relations.

A spectrum of patriarchy was identified, which inter alia highlighted undermining and patronising women (often done subconsciously); holding women up to different standards; pigeon-holing them into certain roles; excluding them from certain spheres; and ignoring or diminishing their contributions.

Next, inappropriate words used to describe women were identified. Participants identified a spectrum of abuse – intrusive and abusive actions on the part of men including inappropriate touching, man-handling, violence, rape, and ultimately femicide. Compounding matters is the fact that all this is happening in a society already racked with every kind of imaginable social ill. No-one can doubt that the problems are multifaceted and complex.

The challenge of gender abuse seems almost insurmountable at times, yet there is hope. For one thing, at least we are talking about the problem. Women have overwhelmingly and publically said that enough is enough. But overwhelmingly, women are not the ones committing these crimes.

We are essentially the victims, and accordingly, must recognise that we are unable to fight this by ourselves. We need allies. This is what the circle of men contributed.

It’s the first time in the Jewish community that such a gathering has been convened by men who recognise that they, too, have a role to play. The very existence of that circle allows like-minded men to connect, become sensitive to inequalities in our society, and call out injustice where it occurs. It has already created a ripple effect, with many of the participants wanting to take the initiative and create their own circles in their own communities. Initiatives like these grow. The men have also agreed to reconvene at a later date to discuss further initiatives.

Iris Chang, an American journalist, author of historical books, and political activist, best known for her best-selling 1997 account of the Nanking Massacre or Rape of Nanking, commented, “Please believe in the power of one. One person can make an enormous difference in the world. One person – actually, one idea – can start a war, or end one, or subvert an entire power structure. One discovery can cure a disease, or spawn new technology to benefit or annihilate the human race. You as one individual can change millions of lives. Think big. Don’t limit your vision, and don’t ever compromise your dreams or ideals.”

Thabapelo identified a problem, and came up with a solution to help solve it. We need not all start our own non-governmental organisations, but we all can and should play our part. We can support the initiatives taken by others that help women. We can also be responsible citizens, and be aware of and sensitive to offensive comments and actions directed against women. We can shun derogatory talk against women. We can support the initiatives undertaken by others. The opportunities are limitless.

For me, it started with a circle of men, and every one of them who joined that circle should be commended.

  • Charisse Zeifert is the head of communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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