Will South Africans ever be shocked by rape?


The BBC's Andrew Harding was told that even babies got raped

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The 22 year old was still sitting inside the makeshift bar in Soweto, when the police came for him. It was a few days before new year.

According to witnesses, the man had just attacked and raped a 17-year-old girl at his table, but apparently considered the incident so trivial that he had not even tried to flee.

Nor had anyone else in the bar, besides the alleged victim, thought of contacting the police.

At a time when Indians are re-examining their society in the light of a single, horrific incident of gang rape, South Africa seems numb - unable to muster much more than a collective shrug in the face of almost unbelievably grim statistics - seemingly far worse than India's.

Start Quote

Andy Kawa

Rape is in our culture. It's part of the whole patriarchal culture”

End Quote Andy Kawa Businesswoman and activist

Here almost 60,000 rapes are reported to the police each year - more than double the number in India, in a far smaller country.

Experts believe the true figure is at least 10 times that - 600,000 attacks

It is not that the issue is ignored - far from it.

This week South African newspapers are carrying gruesome stories of what is being described as a new trend - the rape of elderly grandmothers, mostly in rural communities; an 82 year old and a 73 year old attacked on 2 January.

But despite the anger voiced by columnists, and by people calling in to radio stations, there is no sense of a nation being galvanised.

In recent days commentators and campaigners here have looked, almost enviously, towards India, wondering what it might take to provoke a similar sense of outrage - and angrily debating whether outrage itself is enough, and who, or what, to blame.

History, perhaps, or drugs, or poverty…

"No-one can tell me that raping a three-month-old baby or 87-year-old granny or burning a library or vandalising a school is caused by poverty," said trade union federation leader Zwelenzima Vavi, in a recent Tweet exchange.

"Rape is in our culture. It's part of the whole patriarchal culture," businesswoman and activist Andy Kawa, who was herself the victim of a gang rape, told me.

"It's an every day thing. It happens in homes. There's silence because of fear, because the perpetrator, most of the time, has the power," she said.

'Plenty of rapists here'
Mpumelelo Mkhabela, editor of the Sowetan newspaper Editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela says the people need to do more to fight rape

Mpumelelo Mkhabela, editor of the Sowetan newspaper, said: "The government is doing its best but we also need citizens to take up the fight and take up the campaign instead of being outraged for a moment, only to stop a few days later."

Perhaps the only certainty is that South Africa is a violent society.

It has been so for decades, and people have got used to it.

In many communities young women talk of how they almost expect to be assaulted - and young men grow up with a dangerous sense of entitlement.

So this week there was barely any public reaction, beyond a few brief headlines, when news came in of a 21-year-old woman who was gang-raped on Tuesday on her way to try to enrol at a university outside Pretoria.

Start Quote

We're not protected, we don't feel safe”

End Quote Female student

She was dragged into the bushes by four as yet unidentified men. She survived the attack.

Outside the university gates the next day, I spoke to some of her fellow students.

Most had not heard about the attack, and none seemed remotely surprised.

They were more preoccupied with keeping their places in a very long queue on a very hot day.

"We're not protected, we don't feel safe," said one female student.

A man walking past said: "There's plenty of rapists here."

Then a young woman thought for a moment, looked at her friends, and said quietly, "I don't know what is wrong about men.

"There must be something done about them."

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I think South Africans have just become immune to a lot of these crimes, despite how horrendous they are. Unless it happens to them or are directly affected in some other way there's a strong cognitive dissonance present... they'll talk about it and how horrid it is but it will never be enough to get them to do something about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    The problem is a deep one and finding a solution is difficult. In spite of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and all the literature and education around sex, rape remains an accepted norm for many. We have to keep on getting the message out that it is not only totally unacceptable but it is also illegal - rapists MUST be punished and severely!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    My South African fiancée is Tswana. She left her ex-husband when he started beating her up, the last time so badly that the police took one look at her and threw him into a cell. Her mother - to my horror - regrets the divorce because, quote, “Women need to be disciplined, and should accept it.” It’s not just the men who need educating, and it’ll take years, as it will in India.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Rape is a horrible atrocity in South Africa. I remember as a kid my neighbours house was burgled, and the two teenage daughters gang raped in front of the parents. That was a mere 20 feet from where I was sleeping. The country has to do more to protect victims and install a sense of shame for the perpetrators as they often think it is socially acceptable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    For too many South African men, a little enjoyment using the opposite sex is a normal way to end a pleasant night out with the guys. Has been this way for decades. Until there is a national outcry and the police investigate and the courts prosecute properly, it will continue.


Comments 5 of 7


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