Have you ever heard about the Underground Railroad? It was not an actual railroad, but a secret network of people in the United States who assisted those escaping slavery in the South to freedom in the North where slavery had been abolished. This secret, 1800s solidary network comprised escape routes, safe houses and places to find refreshment.
It is estimated that by 1850 as many as 100 000 enslaved African-Americans had escaped along this incredible network.
Actual figures for the number of escaped slaves who used the Underground Railroad will never be verifiable, of course.
Aiding and abetting slaves to escape was risky until slavery was abolished throughout the country in 1865. But it took a civil war, which claimed the lives of 2% of the US population, and a constitutional amendment to end slavery.
In South Africa, a similar secret railroad runs for women and children enslaved by abusive men, and has done so for a long time.
My earliest memory of aiding and abetting is that of a distant aunty who moved in with us for a few weeks.
“Haar man is weer deurmakaar [Her husband is confused again],” my mother explained to us as she made up a makeshift bed in our lounge and warned us not to complain about sharing our already crowded bedroom with the woman’s children.
Deurmekaar is an Afrikaans word for confused. A man who terrorises his wife is obviously very confused.
I think most people who grew up poor in South Africa will have a similar memory of taking a vulnerable woman in.
Nowadays social media plays a significant role on our underground railway. Since the run-up to the historic #Totalshutdown (TTS) protest in August 2018, I have been a member of a closed Facebook and WhatsApp group for women and gender-nonconforming individuals. Most of the mobilisation for this march against gender-based violence — which drew thousands of women out on to the streets in all major cities in South Africa — was driven by social media.
It prompted a few smaller protest marches in towns around the country, as well as in Namibia and Lesotho.
Since then these social media platforms have remained active sites of struggle and solidarity. The TTS Facebook group has close to 10 000 members, although the decentralised WhatsApp clusters are smaller and self-organised. These groups are all closed and the membership is restricted to women and nonconforming individuals. Nothing posted on these platforms may be shared or made public without the permission of the people who make the posts.
On a daily basis, women cry out for help and advice in the safety of these spaces. The posts vary from women simply needing to offload the burden of hardship to those who break their silence about the abuse they endure.
Some posts are as broad as: “Hi everyone please offer legal advice!!!!!!!!!! Legal advice, please. What must this potential victim do?” whereas others are more specific.
A common and often repeated call is for support at the court appearances of the accused: “I have been posting about the case of Cheryl that was shot 5 amount of times by her boyfriend. The suspect is appearing again tomorrow at Parow Magistrates courts. The accused has a long list of cases and already 23 was thrown out because people fear him. Please, fellow members, can you support this case tomorrow?”
Advice on dealing with an abusive ex-partner is another recurring theme. Nomsa turned to the group with this plea: “He says if I get married, which is gonna happen very soon … he will take my child away from me because she belongs to him, not me.”
One desperate young woman turned to us for practical advice about being harassed by a taxi driver at a well-known taxi rank in Johannesburg: “This driver makes it a point to harass any woman that looks like an easy target and gay men. I have repeatedly asked him to leave me alone and things are escalating. He is getting physical now and the queue-marshal thinks it is funny and no one is doing anything about it. This is getting too much. I have no choice but to go past there in order to go home. Please, I need help. I do not know this man and I wish for it to remain that way.”
Many women also turn to this community for advice on how to help others: “I have a friend who was raped and she fell pregnant as a result. She is now raising the baby on her own. Her family doesn’t care whether they eat. This has led to her picking food from rubbish bins in order for them to eat. All I’m asking for is the help I am unable to help as I am unemployed but would really appreciate help from you ladies.”
In between all the sorrowful pleas are posts from women who draw courage from this support to finally leave or simply tell their stories, often for the first time.
“I never thought I’d ever post my story here, I broke up with him earlier today via text and he said he’ll come to get his stuff later. He was here 2 hours ago, started throwing insults till I couldn’t take it anymore and I replied, then he slapped me with my two sisters in the next room, I fought back, moered [hit] him (I know we don’t tolerate abuse but it was self-defense) and kicked him out of my house. I’m sharing this with tears in my eyes, he’s the father of my baby, we had so many plans for the future,” wrote one.
Another said: “I got used to him beating me … if I just keep still it would usually end quick!!! He wanted me to cry but it didn’t hurt anymore … I just wanted it to end. For 2 years I have been in an abusive HELL!! And today still I fight for justice … while his policeman colleagues make dockets disappear … South Africa’s Justice system is letting me down big time … and every day I live in fear for my life and the lives of our 3 kids.”
One particularly harrowing post on the WhatsApp group came from a young woman in rural KwaZulu-Natal who was being held hostage by her father who had been raping her. We knew exactly where she was (she had a cellphone with her in the locked room, which she hid from her father) but could not get the police to intervene.
I could not sleep at all that night and lay awake contemplating exiting all those groups. But what good would it do? Not knowing is never an excuse, especially not in this networked era.
Other women post their “final straw” declarations: “If he dares touch me today, I will fight back with everything I swear I will make him regret it I’m not going to be his punching bag anymore it ends here!!”
The timeline is also filled with reposts of gender-based violence media stories, inspirational quotes and reports of women’s struggles (and victories).
There are calls for solidarity with women in other parts of the world, such as the recent call to mobilise in protest of the alleged rape of women by soldiers in the Zimbabwean army.
The site also serves as a practical resource with numbers for helplines, directions to shelters, legal advice, self-defence techniques and relevant articles, such as how to cope with a post that triggers your trauma.
Without exception, posts asking for help are always met by a flood of responses. This community is a highly responsive one. I stand in awe of the scale of the network of women who daily give practical expression to a solidarity so generous between strangers. We will never know the women we e-wallet taxi fare to, even if we sat next to them in a taxi.
Occasionally the graphic nature of the trauma becomes overwhelming and I feel reluctant to open a link, even when it furiously blinks its new notifications. My heart must be strong on a given day to go there. Yet, despite this, most of us do. We go there, we draw deep from the reservoirs of our souls and personal networks to try to do something.
Just like the Underground Railroad, the exact number of women and children carried to relative safety in this way will probably always be unverifiable. But these online platforms do give us a harrowing glimpse into the scale of the pandemic and the extent of the state’s failure to respond to a crisis that claims so many lives.
According to the World Health Organisation, South Africa has a femicide rate five times the global average. In many instances, we fare worse than women in war zones. So, when we say that we feel like there is a war on us, we are not being dramatic. We are stating a fact.
The State of the Nation address last month filled us all with hope that the president was carrying through on the promises made to us at the national gender-based violence and femicide summit in November last year.
President Cyril Ramaphosa promised that the government would be “strengthening the functioning of various specialised units such as the Family Violence, Child Protection, and Sexual Offences units and improving our administrative and record-keeping capacity at all levels”.
None of this is possible without dedicated resources. It was therefore particularly disappointing that the budget speech made no specific mention of gender-based violence nor the promises made. It is clear to us after the budget speech that none has been allocated for this purpose.
The real implication is that, until such time as the state steps up and takes up its obligation to emancipate vulnerable women and children, the emotional and financial burden of keeping women safe and alive will continue to be carried by other women.
Fortunately, there is the train that runs through our land … Stimela!
Fatima Shabodien is a feminist activist