Rape in South Africa: Desperately seeking a political champion

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Without the government's will to curb gender violence, our rape statistics will continue to be the worst in the world.

Five years. That's how long it took for President Jacob Zuma to make more than a passing reference to rape in a State of the Nation speech. Until two months ago, he had successfully steered almost entirely clear of what experts have called a crisis in our country.

So what changed in February 2013? Anene Booysen. The 17-year-old's horrific death at the hands of her rapists proved to be the tipping point for a country and a government that seemed numb to the epidemic.

Statistics vary – and under-reporting affects what we know – but most agree that South Africa is the rape capital of the world. Here, we measure in seconds how often a woman is raped. One Medical Research Council study among men from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal showed a devastatingly casual familiarity with rape – more than 25% of the men questioned admitted to raping someone. A poll in 1999 among 1500 schoolboys in Soweto showed most thought "jackrolling", or gang rape, was "fun".

In February, South Africans echoed the outrage over Indian rape victim Jyoti Singh-Pandey's death two months earlier, and our politicians were finally moved to say something and, more importantly, do something. In his speech, Zuma paid homage to Booysen but denounced her horrific death – which took place just a week earlier – and finally dealt with the issue of rape at some length. He announced new legislation and improved efforts, and dusted off plans from various parts of his government. Shortly afterwards, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced increased funding to embattled nongovernmental organisations that were fighting to continue the lonely work of aiding rape survivors.

It's not enough, not by a long shot, and activists have pointed out a host of problems, including an absence of effective government policies and budgets that has led NGOs to step in to subsidise the system's shortfalls.

But the fact is that it took a rape so awful and shocking – and one that came on the heels of the Indian tragedy that riled the world – that it was impossible to look away.

Scoring political points
Our leaders had to say something instead of letting the parade of rape statistics go by every year with no champion for the survivors left in its wake.

It didn't last long. The rape and disembowelment of 14-year-old Thandeka Madonsela in Soweto in March received little attention from the authorities: activists had rightly feared that the outrage the Booysen incident sparked and the action it galvanised would die down with no consistent voice in the government to champion the cause.

The country has one of the highest levels of rape in the world, but our politicians – those with the most power to make a difference – only seem to comment on the issue when they are able to score political points.

Former ANC youth leader Julius Malema was found guilty by the equality court for his offensive statements about the complainant in Zuma's 2006 rape trial, intimating that she must have had a "nice time" if she stayed for breakfast. But he didn't bat an eye several years later when the political winds altered and he changed his tune accordingly, using the deeply problematic statements Zuma made about women during the trial against the controversial president.

"There is no politician who has shown a sustained and in-depth interest in the problem," said Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence. "I wouldn't want to say that all politicians use rape in an opportunist way, but certainly there are those who do: those who have no history of supporting it but will open their mouths and have a lot to say when it suits them."

But the casual attitude towards rape by our leaders is just one facet of a far larger issue: a growing conservatism and subsequent failure to act with urgency in a country where one in every three women is likely to be raped.

Steering clear
Yet it hasn't always been like this, particularly in the country's ruling party. The ANC today is a very different party from the pro-women organisation that campaigners such as Frene Ginwala and others made it.

"In the first decade of democracy, the ANC Women's League, powered by strong female ministers, took on tough battles – and won," Sonke Gender Justice chair Sisonke Msimang wrote in a 2011 column in Business Day. "It developed an excellent track record in advancing women's rights at party and state level."

But 19 years into our new democracy, the country's female politicians seem to steer clear of issues such as rape and justice for women.

ANC Women's League spokes­person Troy Martens said: "The role of fighting ­gender-based violence and patriarchy cannot rest on the shoulders of the Women's League alone; it needs to come from and be initiated by men as well."

Although the league's diligent spokesperson has done her best to maintain the its communications, their activities are a mere shadow of what the organisation once was.

"I think that was a moment in the ANC and it has passed, and the party as a whole is in the hands of social conservatives," said Wits politics professor Shireen Hassim, who specialises in feminist theory and politics. "There are people who clearly think the Constitution went too far, that we need to take more account of culture, and the way they understand culture is extremely conservative and stuck in ossified practices. And it is those groupings that are in the ascendancy in the ANC."

Zuma's conservative views towards women are well established; his comment recently during a televised interview that women should be mothers caused a minor outcry, and in 2011 critics slammed his choice of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, whose disturbing decisions on cases involving allegations of rape emerged not long after his name was mooted for the position.

Opposition party
"He gave a slap on the wrist to a man who was found guilty of tying his girlfriend to the back of his car and dragging her for 50m," wrote Msimang, one of his fiercest critics. "And he had a clear pattern of reducing and suspending sentences for men who had raped or sexually assaulted their partners."

Things are little better in the opposition party. Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille, who refused to budge after appointing an all-male cabinet in the Western Cape in 2011, was criticised last year for failing to help NGO Rape Crisis.

Rape Crisis director and activist Kathleen Dey was magnanimous on the issue. "Zille had petitioners coming out of the woodwork from every single sector saying 'we have no money, you have to help us, our issue is the most important'. They were entirely unprepared."

Five years. That's how long it took for President Jacob Zuma to make more than a passing reference to rape in a State of the Nation speech. Until two months ago, he had successfully steered almost entirely clear of what experts have called a crisis in our country.

So what changed in February 2013? Anene Booysen. The 17-year-old's horrific death at the hands of her rapists proved to be the tipping point for a country and a government that seemed numb to the epidemic.

Statistics vary – and under-reporting affects what we know – but most agree that South Africa is the rape capital of the world. Here, we measure in seconds how often a woman is raped. One Medical Research Council study among men from the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal showed a devastatingly casual familiarity with rape – more than 25% of the men questioned admitted to raping someone. A poll in 1999 among 1500 schoolboys in Soweto showed most thought "jackrolling", or gang rape, was "fun".

In February, South Africans echoed the outrage over Indian rape victim Jyoti Singh-Pandey's death two months earlier, and our politicians were finally moved to say something and, more importantly, do something. In his speech, Zuma paid homage to Booysen but denounced her horrific death – which took place just a week earlier – and finally dealt with the issue of rape at some length. He announced new legislation and improved efforts, and dusted off plans from various parts of his government. Shortly afterwards, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced increased funding to embattled nongovernmental organisations that were fighting to continue the lonely work of aiding rape survivors.

It's not enough, not by a long shot, and activists have pointed out a host of problems, including an absence of effective government policies and budgets that has led NGOs to step in to subsidise the system's shortfalls.

But the fact is that it took a rape so awful and shocking – and one that came on the heels of the Indian tragedy that riled the world – that it was impossible to look away.

Scoring political points
Our leaders had to say something instead of letting the parade of rape statistics go by every year with no champion for the survivors left in its wake.

It didn't last long. The rape and disembowelment of 14-year-old Thandeka Madonsela in Soweto in March received little attention from the authorities: activists had rightly feared that the outrage the Booysen incident sparked and the action it galvanised would die down with no consistent voice in the government to champion the cause.

The country has one of the highest levels of rape in the world, but our politicians – those with the most power to make a difference – only seem to comment on the issue when they are able to score political points.

Former ANC youth leader Julius Malema was found guilty by the equality court for his offensive statements about the complainant in Zuma's 2006 rape trial, intimating that she must have had a "nice time" if she stayed for breakfast. But he didn't bat an eye several years later when the political winds altered and he changed his tune accordingly, using the deeply problematic statements Zuma made about women during the trial against the controversial president.

"There is no politician who has shown a sustained and in-depth interest in the problem," said Lisa Vetten, one of the country's foremost researchers and analysts on gender and violence. "I wouldn't want to say that all politicians use rape in an opportunist way, but certainly there are those who do: those who have no history of supporting it but will open their mouths and have a lot to say when it suits them."

But the casual attitude towards rape by our leaders is just one facet of a far larger issue: a growing conservatism and subsequent failure to act with urgency in a country where one in every three women is likely to be raped.

Steering clear
Yet it hasn't always been like this, particularly in the country's ruling party. The ANC today is a very different party from the pro-women organisation that campaigners such as Frene Ginwala and others made it.

"In the first decade of democracy, the ANC Women's League, powered by strong female ministers, took on tough battles – and won," Sonke Gender Justice chair Sisonke Msimang wrote in a 2011 column in Business Day. "It developed an excellent track record in advancing women's rights at party and state level."

But 19 years into our new democracy, the country's female politicians seem to steer clear of issues such as rape and justice for women.

ANC Women's League spokes­person Troy Martens said: "The role of fighting ­gender-based violence and patriarchy cannot rest on the shoulders of the Women's League alone; it needs to come from and be initiated by men as well."

Although the league's diligent spokesperson has done her best to maintain the its communications, their activities are a mere shadow of what the organisation once was.

"I think that was a moment in the ANC and it has passed, and the party as a whole is in the hands of social conservatives," said Wits politics professor Shireen Hassim, who specialises in feminist theory and politics. "There are people who clearly think the Constitution went too far, that we need to take more account of culture, and the way they understand culture is extremely conservative and stuck in ossified practices. And it is those groupings that are in the ascendancy in the ANC."

Zuma's conservative views towards women are well established; his comment recently during a televised interview that women should be mothers caused a minor outcry, and in 2011 critics slammed his choice of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, whose disturbing decisions on cases involving allegations of rape emerged not long after his name was mooted for the position.

Opposition party
"He gave a slap on the wrist to a man who was found guilty of tying his girlfriend to the back of his car and dragging her for 50m," wrote Msimang, one of his fiercest critics. "And he had a clear pattern of reducing and suspending sentences for men who had raped or sexually assaulted their partners."

Things are little better in the opposition party. Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille, who refused to budge after appointing an all-male cabinet in the Western Cape in 2011, was criticised last year for failing to help NGO Rape Crisis.

Rape Crisis director and activist Kathleen Dey was magnanimous on the issue. "Zille had petitioners coming out of the woodwork from every single sector saying 'we have no money, you have to help us, our issue is the most important'. They were entirely unprepared."

Written by: Verashni Pillay

Picture credit: Mail & Guardian

  • This article was published on Mail & Guardian.

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