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'I write with a sense of shame': Kieswetter's letter to SARS staff about gender-based violence

Sep 13 2019 19:10
Edward Kieswetter

Below, reproduced in full, is a letter SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter sent to staff in response to gender-based violence and violence in general in SA. 


I write to you as a son, a brother, a husband, a father and a grandfather. I write with great sadness - sadness for our loved ones, sadness for all women, mothers, sisters, aunts and young girls in our patriarchal society.

I write with a sense of shame – shame that as a society we are not able to give an assurance to our young children that we will take proper care of them. Shame that simply to be a woman or a child in our country, is to be at risk of violence and abuse. Shame that we cannot prevent innocent young children from falling into pit latrine toilets and suffering a cruel death, being denied the opportunity of a joyous life. 

We are a society at war with ourselves. To deny this is to be complicit and part of the problem. To be silent renders us impotent, unable and unwilling to solve this inexcusable character of South Africa. We do not fight for each other, we fight with each other. More than 300 years of oppression and disenfranchisement has turned us into an "us vs. them" society. We have to unlearn that and learn what it means to be South African.

We conveniently refer to the attack on women as Gender-Based Violence. This is too vague, too euphemistic, and too simplistic. We should call it for what it is. It is the despicable and deplorable violent attacks by men on women, girls and babies. It is more appropriate to refer to it as Male-Perpetrated Violence.

Women should not have to protect themselves from men. They should feel safe and secure with us as men. They have the right to feel safe. Two nights ago one of our colleague’s daughter, a 26-year-old woman, on her return from work, was violently attacked by a coward of a man who preyed on a defenceless woman. Like other monsters, he is still walking free and ready to repeat his ghastly act, whilst she has to deal with the immense trauma and the risk of permanent damage to her hand and her self-esteem.

How many more women, young girls and young children must live with this constant fear of being attacked and violated?

The recent attack on fellow Africans is conveniently referred to as xenophobia. But it is much more than that; it is an inhumane and debased act of criminality. It says more about us as a society, than about our brothers and sisters whom we attack. Of course, underlying this indefensible behavior is the fact that many of our own still experience abject poverty and unemployment in the face growing inequality.

These stubborn remnants of the oppressive system of apartheid are in themselves an act of violence against our own people. As long as the material conditions of fellow South Africans remain unchanged and they do not share in the benefits of democracy we cannot feel safe. This injustice, which is still largely borne by black people, especially women and children, remains a threat to justice for all of us. Higher walls and gated communities give us a false sense of safety, and are unsustainable. The anger and impatience, 26 years into our democracy, is understandable, it truly is an indictment on all of us.

The latest report on crime highlights an increase in violent crime and sexual offenses. It suggest as many commentators have remarked, we are a country at war with itself.

I also write as the Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service. In my first letter on May 1, 2019, I committed, among other matters, "to work tirelessly to root out any form of abuse, including racism and sexism" and invited you to hold ourselves and each other "to be respectful to your co-workers, treating them the way you wish to be treated; to be an activist against gender-based and other forms of abuse" and "to embrace the racial, cultural, religious, sexual orientation and other aspects of our rich diversity".

I now appeal that we radically step up our internal conversation to raise awareness and shape the desired behavior to counter these forms of violence that characterises us.

As an organisation, SARS is a microcosm of our society. The criticism of society is therefore also a criticism of us. We have to confront ourselves with the hard question of whether we are contributing to or combatting the violence we see in society.

In this regard, I would like to initiate a process of self-reflection on our own values, policies and practices. We should also step up our efforts to understand both the level of violence, especially against women, and demonstrate the behavior we expect of others.

As specific actions I propose the following:

  • We select a day next week where we open our offices an hour later to allow our women to take part in a consciousness event per office or head office location;
  • Starting next week set aside one lunch break per week SARS-wide for the next two months to have conversations on the abuse by men on women - women to lead these conversations, and recommend to us, what concrete steps to be  taken to change a lot for women on a sustainable basis;
  • We will commence a review of current organisational practices that explicitly and implicitly discriminate against women and/or encourage abuse, as well to update our policy on Sexual Harassment. I have set a timeline with a specific plan of action that addresses a step change in our organisational values, culture and practices;
  • I’ve established a dedicated capacity to deal with current cases of Sexual Harassment including all forms of bullying and victimisation;
  • I’ve instructed Wellness to create an all-inclusive telephonic service for victims of abuse;
  • Each division to have a trained individual to assist and offer support and comfort to victims of abuse.

I have requested the Communication division to establish a confidential portal that offers support and material on women abuse and empowerment; and I have assigned a senior representative to support my office and be available to anyone who wishes to draw attention or report specific instances of sexual abuse and harassment. Specific details for the latter two items will be communicated during the course of next week. 

I appeal to all our male colleagues to step up and help to create an environment wherein our women feel safe. As men we need to speak out.

Edward Kieswetter is Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service. Views expressed are his own.



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