SOUTH AFRICA: Still A Nation of Rapists 18 Years On

Thursday, April 26, 2012
The Star
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Seven children under the age of 14 were being raped in Soweto in a day. Nearly 30 children were being raped every month. More than 100 were raped over the four months before we cast our first democratic vote in April 1994, leaving then-Soweto police spokesman Joseph Ngobeni to say: “We can't go on like this.”

But we did.

Civil society was enraged by the figures of 18 years ago, when police statistics showed that an average of three women were raped every hour in SA.

At the time, police believed that for every rape reported to them, another 35 went unreported. They feared that hundreds of thousands of rapes, a devastating number closer to a million, happened quietly, violently, every year.

Who knows what the correct figure is, even today?

The police don't know. The National Prosecuting Authority doesn't know either.

And while reporting has improved since 1994, it is believed that tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of rape survivors are coerced or choose not make a statement, while only 50 000 to 70 000 sexual offences are reported.

About 30 percent of teenagers say their first sexual encounter is based on rape. Reports have stated that a child is raped every three minutes, but mostly, nobody knows – or nobody does anything about it. These are statistics that ravage the moral regeneration movement.

In interviews with men in Gauteng two years ago, the Medical Research Foundation (MRF) found that nearly 40 percent had raped a woman. Nearly 7 percent who took part in the survey said they had participated in a gang rape.

We're in desperate trouble, and have been for a long time.

Last week's horror story about “Jackpot”, the mentally challenged Soweto girl who was gang-raped by seven men and boys, left a nation aghast.

Yet jackrolling, the colloquial term for gang-rape, has been a peculiar feature of SA life since the township conflicts of the 1980s. Were it not for the viral cellphone distribution of a grainy video showing the terror meted out to “Jackpot”, we would never have known what had happened to her. But callers to radio phone-in shows this week said it goes on all the time – that rape in our country may, in reality, be a fact of life.

Anyone who watched the video of “Jackpot's” gang rape are, of course, also guilty of a crime in terms of the Sexual Offences Act. The same is true if they sent it on.

Yet it seems doubtful that that act, or any other laws around rape in our country, are going to change anything.

After all, we've had some of the most strident anti-rape laws in the world since Thabo Mbeki signed the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act No 32 in December 2007.

There are even special protection measures for children and people who are mentally disabled and particularly vulnerable, like “Jackpot”. But nothing is changing.

Nobody can be completely sure why, but there are several reasons we can consider.

The first, perhaps most important, one is that it's clear from the stats that not enough South Africans consider rape to be a serious crime.

Too many boys think that forcing a girl to have sex with them is acceptable. It's as horrifyingly simple as that.

In the same way, not enough South Africans believe that women are or should be free, that they should even be able to dress as they please.

Although our constitutional right is to freedom of movement, many women feel under siege when they wear a short skirt. Sexism is deeply entrenched.

Despite the generous dreams of liberation in 1994, it must also be true that there is still not enough effective policing around rape. Many women fear the ordeal of secondary victimisation if they report what has happened to them, and that means only one thing: the criminal justice system still lacks credibility.

When rapists are not caught, or when investigations don't lead to successful prosecutions, that further diminishes the system. It feels as if there is far too much impunity. There is research that shows that out of 25 men accused of rape, 24 are acquitted.

Despite the sexual offences act, our government has shown that it is unable to bring sexual assaults against women and children under control.

Interpol studies from as far back as 1997 say we're at the top of the world's worst rape statistics.

Of course, many of us are uncomfortable laying political blame. Rather, we'll say there is too much emphasis on sex in our country, from TV soaps to surprisingly explicit sex education classes at school.

And some even believe the media are, in part, to blame because of an obsession with sex, where even the human drama of rape can be sensationalised.

It's accepted that continued socio-economic turmoil plays a role in our rape pandemic. So, too, could decades of dreadful education, absent parenting and a lack of benevolence in a lot of homes.

Many boys haven't learnt much about empathy, relationships and strong emotional attachments.

Where are the good fathers? Where are the loving role models?

Researchers have insisted for a long time that SA masculinity is in crisis, and that our history of institutionalised violent social conflict has resulted in a displacement of aggression.

In other words, men who feel they have no power assert it over those who they, traditionally, control.

That would of course be women and children. Yet more research shows that it is often more educated men, those who should be empowered, who are the rapists.

Perhaps we have too much patience with men.

Remember the decision to ban Rape Crisis's anti-rape ad featuring Charlize Theron, back in 1999?

That happened after complaints from men. In the ad, Theron said: “Many people ask me what South African men are like”, before citing our frightening rape statistics. The Advertising Standards Authority said it discriminated against men as a group, stereotyping them either as rapists or complacent, but the decision provoked fury among women's organisations and rape counsellors who remind us that they believe a woman is raped every 30 seconds in our country.

That would bring the number to about a million a year – the same as the figure offered by police way back in 1994.

Not long before Theron's ad was banned, Mbeki made a nationwide appeal for an end to violence against women. In a speech on Women's Day soon after he assumed the presidency, he said the liberation of South Africans would not be complete until women could live without fear in their homes and walk freely on any street. Nelson Mandela said the same thing. Liberation, then, is still far from complete.

The truth is, we are still a nation of rapists 18 years after Mandela took his vows as the first president in a free land.

Among the many promises that were made in that golden time, protecting women and children against rape is just another that has been broken.