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The ‘invisible violence’ we don’t want to see




These were the words of Professor Bonita Meyersfeld as she began the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue’s 15th Annual Franz Auerbach Interfaith Memorial lecture last Thursday evening.

You could hear a pin drop as Meyersfeld, the director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, offered three compelling stories to illustrate her topic: “Violence and social justice” at Beit Emanuel in Parktown.

A recent recipient of the Knight of the National Order of Merit of France for her work in gender-based violence and the 2018 Absa Jewish Achiever Women in Leadership Award winner, Meyersfeld gave an account of how the cycle of poverty and violence begets more poverty and violence. She introduced a new concept for many in the audience: invisible violence.

Story 1: Johannes

“Like his forefathers, Johannes went to work on the mines in the North West. When he got sick, the mine’s medical doctor determined his breathing problems weren’t caused by his occupation. He was discharged with no compensation, and Johannes went home to the Eastern Cape. There were no savings. Any salary had been sent back home to assist about 15 members of his family. His son, a gardener, saved up enough money for Johannes to travel to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. There, the doctor diagnosed a respiratory illness for which he needed hospital equipment – but it wasn’t working. Two weeks later, Johannes died of a curable disease.”

The moment of violence was not, said Meyersfeld, Johannes’ death. “It was the moment he was conceived. Because for a thousand days after, the nutrition you ingest determines your ability to achieve intellectually and physically later in life. If you’re denied rich nutrition, you are starting the race from further back.”

She said as most people who live in poverty can’t afford school fees, the chances are their education won’t be complete and they’ll have to go into a job in a mining community. Then, the chances are that they will have insufficient money to save for their children’s education. “So the next generation is born with minimal nutrition and education.” That’s the cycle of poverty.

“And that cycle is itself an act of violence – an invisible violence.”

Story 2: Ferreira

Meyersfeld relayed the story of Ferreira. “Born into an abusive family, she married young, had children, and left her abusive husband. With no source of income or training, she put her children into foster care believing it was for the best.”

She found a housekeeping job on a farm, said Meyersfeld, for a man called Pat. They began a romantic relationship. Soon, Pat began insulting her, calling her “stupid” and a bad mother. “He stopped paying her.” The beatings started. Bones were broken. Ferreira suffered internal bleeding. He raped her. “When Pat did allow her access to a doctor, she wasn’t allowed to speak. But also, nobody asked.” The police were no better. She was utterly alone.

“Her choices were limited to killing herself or Pat. She hired two men to kill him.

“Ferreira received a life sentence. But in appealing that sentence, the Supreme Court of Appeal recognised that her psychological position at the time was one of self-defence.” While the judges agreed the murder was premeditated, they said that in her mind, the danger was ever imminent. “They reduced the sentence to six years, three of which were suspended.” A dissenting judge disagreed, saying she could have left or sought help. “The point is that one of the highest justices of the country was blind and deaf to the invisible violence that characterised this case.”

Meyersfeld said gender-based violence originates from a notion that women are inferior. It can start, she said, in the most benign, insidious way, even with words like, “Don’t throw like a girl.”

“There’s a belief that inferiority justifies treating a person violently. This is a cycle of violence.”

Meyersfeld believes there is a low-level civil war being conducted against women. “We don’t see it, but the result is an act of overt violence, the type we see in criminal statistics.”

Story 3: 90 billion chickens

“Annually, 90 billion chickens are slaughtered in the food industry.” But the really bad part, said Meyersfeld, is how they live. “As soon as an egg is hatched, the chickens are diverted into crammed battery cages. Injected with antibiotics and growth hormones, the artificial development of the chickens means they start to fight so they’re debeaked.” Chickens experience a lifetime of imprisonment. They’re eventually shipped off to brutal slaughter. “This is a horror. A horror eventually wrapped in plastic, and put on our shelves.”

But that’s just one part of the violence. “The mass consumption of meat is one of the leading contributors to environmental degradation and food insecurity in the world. One third of the farmed land worldwide is used for the production of grain, fed to animals for the production of meat, creating a shortage of food. And food and water shortage are two of the fundamental bases of conflict.

“In all three stories, we can see that which is invisible to us, that we don’t see, or choose not to see, has an impact on the public violence we do see. It’s inextricably linked.”

The only way to respond to this is with structural change. Regarding the meat industry, consumers can opt for veganism, or to “stop buying meat from large-scale retailers to show them consumption can be curtailed. If there’s no profit to be made, things will change.”

We have alternative ways of reconstructing reality. “It’s not simply to cradle our hearts in despair, but to identify a way – even if miniscule – we can stop this violence.”

What about poverty? ‘We can start thinking seriously about how we pay the people who look after our children. They’re doing the more important jobs in the world, looking after the most important people in our lives, and we’re paying indigent salaries. As a community, is that acceptable? Should we not be paying salaries that are commensurate with the value being given?’

“The salary we pay to one person is used by 10. What’s our role in perpetuating that?”

She said there’s a basic step each of us can take regarding gender-based violence. It’s to believe. If a person comes to you and says, “I’ve been hurt,” believe them. Don’t say, “but your husband’s such a great guy”. Or “what were you wearing”?

“Violence against women is moored in gender-based discrimination. That’s the seed from which violence grows.”

But Meyersfeld is cautiously optimistic. ‘We’re not going backwards. In fact, the reason we know so much today is because we’re going forward. We’re hearing more. The veil is falling.”

While violence is as old as history itself, “we can change how we respond to it. Do we allow it to be invisible or not? Do we worry ourselves only about the violence perpetrated in public? Or equally about the violence in private?” She urged us to remain “aspirational, hopeful, and committed”.

“Let’s move away from this violence. We can do it moment by moment.”

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