An instructor demonstrates how to use a concealed carry IWB holster to a group of South African women taking part in a training session, organised by the Girls on Fire, in Midrand on Sunday. Agence France-Presse
For the dozens of women training at a shooting range near Johannesburg, learning how to use a gun has become a means of protection in a country where a woman is murdered every three hours.
For the first time in her life, Ntando Mthembu holds a revolver in her hands. Without hesitating she fires 10 bullets towards a cardboard target.
Last November Mthembu’s cousin, left alone in a house for several hours, was gang-raped and murdered.
“Before it happens to me, I want to be prepared,” said 33-year-old Mthembu.
South Africa is among the most violent countries on Earth, and its homicide rates are constantly increasing.
In 2019-2020, the country suffered 21,325 murders, according to the latest annual police report — up 1.4 per cent on the previous year.
And the rate of femicide is five times higher than the global average.
“Women are targets in this country,” says Matsie Noge, another participant in the training organised by the Gun Owners of South Africa (GOSA) association.
She brought along her 24-year-old daughter to the session, reserved exclusively for women. “I should have done it way before, when she was 15,” Noge added.
“These trainings have a focus on young black women, statistically most impacted by crimes,” says Themba Kubheka, who organised the female-only training for GOSA.
“Every lady here knows a lady that has been raped, robbed, mugged. Each of them has a story about crime in this country.”
For Kubheka, the point of the training is to equip the women with immediate self-defence skills in a dangerous situation.
“Instead of waiting for help, they need to be able to first respond,” he says, noting that South African police take an average of 15 minutes to arrive when alerted to a case of assault.
Some 4.5 million guns are used legally in South Africa, with almost the same number again circulating on the black market, according to Gun Free SA, a group which campaigns for arms control.
After shooting three bullets, 32-year-old Nthabiseng Phele rests her revolver on the stand. Her hands are trembling and she is sweating; she is visibly shaken.
“Holding the gun reminded me of the position I was in, the time I wished I had one,” she says quietly.
Nine years ago, she was raped in her bedroom by a neighbour who climbed through the window into the house she shared with her parents in the Johannesburg suburbs.
She did not file a criminal complaint against her attacker or receive any support. Her parents admonished her for her own rape, accusing her of bringing shame on the family.
When Phele confided in a friend, he in turn raped her.
South African police receive 110 rape accusations every day. As with the murder rate, those numbers have been rising; 2019 saw a 1.7 percent increase in sexual assault cases, or 53,293 recorded attacks in total.
Comparing the levels of sexual violence seen in South Africa to those suffered in a country at war, President Cyril Ramphosa announced in late 2019 that tackling the scourge of abuse would be a national priority.
“There is a dark and heavy shadow across our land. Women and children are under siege,” he said at the time, describing South Africa as one of “the most unsafe places in world to be a woman”.
Today, Phele is living with a boyfriend, and he knows about her past. Together, they have decided to install a safe at home -- so that she can keep a gun.
On the other hand, African leaders opened a two-day virtual summit on Saturday to discuss the continent’s Covid-19 response as well as security issues that have been overlooked during the pandemic.
The African Union summit comes almost exactly one year after Egypt recorded the first coronavirus case in Africa, prompting widespread fears that member states’ weak health systems would quickly be overwhelmed.
But despite early doomsday predictions, the continent has been hit less hard than other regions so far, recording 3.5 percent of virus cases and four percent of deaths worldwide, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Today, though, many African countries are battling damaging second waves while straining to procure sufficient vaccine doses.
“This disease has caused great suffering and hardship across our continent,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the outgoing AU chairman, said in opening remarks Saturday.
“It is not only a severe health emergency. It is also a grave economic and social crisis.”
African leaders have been speaking out against vaccine hoarding by rich countries at the expense of poorer ones.
“There is a vaccine nationalism on the rise, with other rich countries jumping the queue, some even pre-ordering more than they require,” Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the AU’s executive body the African Union Commission, said in a recent interview.
Ramaphosa was due to deliver a pandemic response update during the closed portion of the summit on Saturday, according to a draft programme seen by reporters.
In his opening speech he called for “a fresh injection of resources” from the International Monetary Fund to “correct the glaring inequality in fiscal stimulus measures between advanced economies and the rest of the world.”
Separately, member states are due to hold internal elections to lead the restructured commission — the results of which will shape how the AU responds to the pandemic and a host of economic and security challenges.
Faki, a former prime minister of Chad, is running unopposed for a second four-year term as commission chief.
He still needs to get two-thirds of the vote, overcoming accusations -- which he denies -- of “a culture of sexual harassment, bribery, corruption and bullying within the commission,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a recent briefing.
In another race, Nigerian Bankole Adeoye is favoured to head the AU’s newly-merged political affairs and peace and security departments, diplomats say, though AU rules dividing top positions among Africa’s sub-regions could lead to a surprise result.
Whoever wins could play a critical role, along with Faki, in addressing crises the AU is accused of overlooking.
There are multiple internal conflicts the AU has done little to resolve.
Its Peace and Security Council has failed to hold meetings on a conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists in Cameroon, for example, as well as rising Islamist militancy in Mozambique.
A three-month-old conflict in the AU’s host country Ethiopia, pitting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government against the former ruling party of the northern Tigray region, has proved especially sensitive.
Abiy has rejected appeals from high-level AU envoys for talks with Tigrayan leaders, sticking to his line that the conflict is a limited “law and order” operation.
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