JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa’s president on Friday canceled a visit to the United Nations’ annual gathering of world leaders this month to focus on unrest over gender-based violence and xenophobic attacks, while women held another protest to express their fears.
Hundreds gathered outside the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to demand stronger government and business-sector action against rising levels of rapes and other sexual offenses. Some members of the ruling African National Congress party called on the government to declare a state of emergency.
New data on gender-based violence fueled concerns. Police on Thursday released annual crime statistics saying sexual offenses and rape rose 4.6% and 3.9%, respectively, in the past year.
Women across South Africa have been sharing their experiences of violence and their fears on social media with the hashtag #AmINext. Friday’s demonstration followed several days of protests in Cape Town last week after a spate of murders of young women and children.
President Cyril Ramaphosa told reporters that “the women of our country are afraid” and he vowed to introduce measures to help give them “the safety they deserve.” That includes making public transport safer, he said.
The women, many dressed in black, marched in the streets. Some said they had lost confidence in the government to deal with the issue and even called for the death sentence to be made the punishment for rape. The death penalty in South Africa was abolished in 1995.
“Every day there is a reported case, even the victims being small children,” said Soweto resident Othilia Motau. “Our courts are not prosecuting people. They get arrested and soon they are out on the streets and they rape again.”
Johannesburg resident Bonolo Mafa said women generally felt unsafe even when using taxi services like Uber and Taxify.
“Most of the times those Uber drivers are men and it can get very scary,” she said. “Even now we are scared of the police, we do not get any comfort from having the police around. Safe spaces are only created by other women.”
South Africa in recent weeks also has been shaken by a new wave of deadly xenophobic violence in Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, leading to an outcry from countries across the continent. More than 12 people have been killed and police say more than 700 have been arrested.
The periodic violence against foreigners leads people elsewhere in Africa to remind South Africans of the hospitality that countries on the continent showed them during the long fight against the harsh system of white minority rule known as apartheid, which ended in 1994.
Nigeria’s government in particular has protested the latest violence, and a local airline this week began airlifting scores of Nigerians out of South Africa for free. About 700 Nigerians have registered with missions in South Africa, hoping to leave.
South Africa’s president on Friday said his government was “totally committed” against attacks on foreign nationals. Ramaphosa acknowledged local frustration about the country’s high unemployment rate and sluggish economy but said that “we do not take out our anger against people from other nations.”
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