By Samina Anwary

It’s not often we get to explore “out there” solutions to entrenched socio-cultural problems to the extent that it becomes a formal debate with well researched arguments and rebuttals. But this is exactly what happens when young people are given the platform to find creative solutions to seemingly intractable challenges.

“The government is required to provide protection and safety under our constitutional framework. Therefore, they are complicit in perpetuating GBV. This is why a class action law-suit is needed.”

This was the strong statement made by Rhodes University debater Khanyisa Mqotyana during a debate on whether the women of South Africa should sue their government for lack of protection against gender-based violence.

The debate was part of a series of various dialogues hosted by Accountability Lab South Africa (ALSA) and supported by the Danish Embassy in SA to bring awareness to integrity and accountability in the public service. The Online University Debate series is one component of these efforts that gets our future leaders talking about their views and solutions to the problems they face – as well as inspiring them to pursue a calling in the civil service. 

This event (watch a recording here) did plenty to generate conversation and enthusiasm for the students present, and those streaming in. The “motion” – which is formal debating speak for the statement made by Mqotyana – was drawn from a linked event within ongoing ALSA dialogues, called the Conversation Lab, held several weeks prior. In that discussion, a top panel of activists and leaders in this area discussed what better policies for women would look like during COVID-19 and beyond. Panellist Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng half-joked that the women of South Africa should sue the government for the circumstances they live under as women in the country. 

Using the fruits of this discussion to take the conversation into a student space, AL South Africa invited the student leaders to choose their topic. After watching the panel discussion, Rhodes Debating Society’s chairperson and student debater Zuko Cawe thought Mofokeng’s idea should be explored further. So, the motion was born and a team of four student debaters began building their arguments for and against it.

The formal university debate structure offered a wonderful way to interact between opposing perspectives, which led to a robust conversation on the larger issues. Each side was given an opportunity to present their side of the debate, and after each presentation the opposing side could ask questions, or “points of information” as per the international debating rules for universities. Towards the end, each side wraps up their argument to simultaneously rebut the opposition and reinforce their own point of view. It was the perfect platform to get people talking and engaged. 

The event was chaired by well-known eNCA presenter Shahan Ramkissoon, a young leader in his own right, who brought a smooth running to the proceedings.  

The proposition bench (Lerato Motaung and Khanyisa Mqotyana) argued that suing the government would be an effective way to draw attention to the scale of the problem. During the ensuing court case, parallels could be drawn between the government’s response to other crises the country has faced such as HIV and Aids, and how resources were set aside to address it, while GBV remains woefully sidelined.

“When HIV was a problem, the government managed to find solution after solution and we now have the most effective ARV rollout in the world, when only a couple of years ago we had one of the worst rates,” said Motaung. “Insofar as a government exists under a constitutional framework, when it can no longer hold itself accountable, it is only fair that women look out for a higher power”. 

The opposition, Zuko Cawe and Nwabisa Joba, counterargued that GBV is not just a government problem but a socio-cultural one that would benefit from a different approach, and also that losing a class-action lawsuit of this kind could put women even further on the backfoot as it would delegitimise the cause.

“You’ll have more men thinking that GBV and feminism is a ‘women problem’, more men thinking that it’s okay to do whatever they do to women because a lawsuit was lost, which says that government doesn’t think that GBV is as big a problem as women say it is,” said Joba.

While the motion may seem unlikely, or rather radical, it was the perfect vehicle to get the students thinking hard about real solutions and government responsibility in the area of GBV. 

As Ramkissoon said:  “We have a collective responsibility to fight gender-based violence. We need to make every man know that lifting a hand against a woman means he is lifting a hand against this nation.”

Keep an eye out for AL South Africa’s next Online University Debate topic by following us on Twitter. Once again, it will be drawn from the upcoming Conversation Lab event. This time we’ll be tackling how citizens can leverage their vote effectively during local government elections. You don’t want to miss it!