Where is South Africa's Jantar Mantar moment?

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The brutal gang rape and murder of a New Delhi 23-year-old has sparked global condemnation and top-level political talks in India about urgently amending rape laws. It has also seen thousands of protesters gather each week since the crime at the 18th century masonry observatory of Jantar Mantar. What would it take in South Africa to provoke such a response? 

“Reaction to the death of a young Indian woman who suffered organ failure after being gang raped reverberated beyond Asia to South Africa,” ran an AFP article carried by a number of international publications last week. “News of the 23-year-old’s death prompted a groundswell of anger and a good deal of introspection about why South Africa persistently has some of the highest incidences of rape in the world.” 

That might be the case – though there’s little indication that this “groundswell” has swollen much off the ground, beyond some mutterings on social media and a petition started by India-origin South Africans in support of the Delhi protestors. But as welcome as such a catalyst would be, wouldn’t it be a little unnerving if it took a despicable event in India to finally kickstart a proper national conversation about rape in South Africa?

The New Delhi gang rape was horrific: an attack so ferocious that the 23 year-old paramedical student was found with only 5% of her intestines left inside of her. It is fitting that the attack should have prompted such an outpouring of outrage, both domestically and abroad. It is also entirely appropriate that the response from Indian politicians and security officials has been prompt and vocal (though no doubt influenced by the pressure of public protests). 

The day after the gang rape, the Indian parliament saw MPs from both houses put aside their regular business to discuss the case and demand punishment for those responsible (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-20765869). Politicians like Sonia Gandhi, president of the governing Congress Party, cancelled their New Year celebrations as a mark of respect to the murdered young woman. The army also cancelled all official celebrations. An Indian parliamentary delegation to South Africa has been called off. 

An investigation into the rape and murder was quickly organised: led by a retired Delhi High Court judge, it has been tasked with identifying any kind of negligence which may have facilitated the attacks. Legal reforms for rape trials are being mooted, including the establishment of fast-track courts to give judgement within 30 days. Some want to go further, calling for the chemical castration of rapists or the death penalty.

It has been announced that from now on, there will be a minimum of 10 female constables at every New Delhi police station to assist with the reporting of rape cases. In at least one Indian state, a website has been set up to publish the names and addresses of convicted rapists, in the hope of using Indian sensitivity to public embarrassments as a disincentive to rape. 

By all accounts, these measures are long overdue in a country with a serious sexual violence problem, where the invidious euphemism “Eve-teasing” is given to the sexual harassment of women. In India, 24,206 cases of rape were reported in 2011, in a country of roughly 1,21 billion people. Women’s rights groups believe this reflects only a tenth of the number of actual rapes taking place. One reason for the under-reporting of rape in India was exposed last month, when a 17 year-old girl committed suicide after police allegedly tried to persuade her to drop a complaint of gang rape and either accept a cash offer or marry one of her rapists.

In 2011 in South Africa, the number of reported rapes rose to 56,272: more than double the Indian rate. Gender activists here also believe this number is far lower than the actual figure. Yet despite a number of headline-grabbing atrocities, the country has yet to have anything approaching a Jantar Mantar moment. In April of last year, a 17 year-old mentally handicapped Soweto teenager was gang raped by seven young men who filmed her screaming and begging for mercy. The case only came to the police’s attention after the video of the rape began to circulate at Joburg schools.

Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulu Xingwana condemned the attack, asking the country to “spare a thought for this young girl”. Government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi told the media that “Cabinet calls on the law enforcement to ensure that the full might of the law is implemented”. Op eds were written denouncing South Africa’s rape culture. The crime trended on Twitter. Yet within a few weeks the matter appeared to have been forgotten.

2013 has only been around for a week, and already the litany of horrific South African rapes is chilling. 

On 2 January, Butterworth: a man is arrested for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Police reported that he raped her in a field after she refused his offer of a R2 coin. 

On 3 January, Soweto: a man is arrested for the rape of a 17-year-old girl in a shebeen in full view of other customers. 

On 3 January, Butterworth again: two men appear in court for the rape of an 18 year-old, one of the men’s sister. Police reported that her brother invited her into his room and raped her. “After he finished his friend came in and raped her also,” a police captain explained.      

On 4 January, Kimberley: a man is arrested for the rape of an 82-year-old woman.

And then there’s Limpopo. In the last week of 2012, six girls were raped. The youngest was three years old. Another was a seven year-old raped by her father. In the wake of these crimes, Limpopo police issued some “hints” to be adhered to over the festive season.

“Avoid walking alone during the night at secluded places,” the notice read. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Avoid frequenting liquor outlets. Avoid hitchhiking. Elderly women should not be left alone at homes.

These “hints” are no doubt sensible in many contexts. But, as usual, they place all the burden of avoiding being raped on women. They say as much explicitly: “Females are therefore sensitised to be vigilant to avoid being victims of rape”. There is no attempt to appeal to men not to rape women in the first place. Rape is presented as something close to inevitable, like bad weather, and it is up to women to take the necessary precautions to avoid it.

Women should not go to liquor outlets, just in case someone there decides to rape them. Elderly women need to be guarded at all times, just in case someone breaks in and rapes them. (In October, it was announced that adult daycare centres were to be set up in KwaZulu-Natal to protect grannies from rape.) This is the way our culture handles an epidemic of sexual violence: by asking women to live fearful, circumscribed, cloistered lives.

The Limpopo police “hints” also fall short on another score: they fail to take into account the fact that home may be one of the least safe places for South African girls and women. The seven year-old Limpopo girl raped by her father was not hanging around a shebeen. The 18 year-old Butterworth teenager was raped in her brother’s bedroom, rather than being abducted while hitchhiking.

 What will it take for South Africa to have its own Jantar Mantar moment? If the gang rape of a mentally handicapped 17 year old failed to get thousands on the streets in protest, what will? It is almost impossible to imagine what level of atrocity would have to be breached in a country where octogenarians and toddlers are raped weekly. Even a high-profile victim likely wouldn’t do it: this is the country, after all, where the president’s own first wife – Sizakele Zuma – reported being raped by four men at Nkandla in 1999.  

In South Africa, as has been the case all over the world, the rape and murder of the young New Delhi women, and its aftermath, has dominated the news for some weeks. The most fitting tribute to her memory, however, would be to apply the same kind of public pressure, and political impetus, to handling the long list of sexual crimes which take place in our own country every week.

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on the Daily Maverick.