On May 8 this year, South Africa’s former deputy president Jacob Zuma was acquitted of rape at one of the most controversial and highly publicised trials in the country’s history. As Judge Willem van der Merwe handed down his judgement of “not guilty” at Johannesburg High Court, he widely criticised the state’s case against the stalwart of the African National Congress (ANC), which alleged that Zuma raped the 31-year-old, HIV positive complainant at his Johannesburg home in November 2005.
But more telling than the acquittal of the ANC veteran, who is regarded by many as the rightful successor over Mbeki to Mandela’s legacy, is the extraordinary way in which the case highlighted South Africa’s dubious attitude towards incidents of sexual violence.
For the vast duration of the trial, the woman at the centre of the allegations was publicly vilified by thousands of Zuma supporters who camped outside the court-house chanting “burn this bitch” in their hero’s defence. At one point a close friend of the woman, giving evidence for the prosecution, was pelted with stones as she entered the court as the baying mob, wearing t-shirts adorned with the phrase “100% Zulu boy”, mistook her for the claimant.
Akin to such disturbing scenes, Judge van der Merwe himself angered women’s groups with the highly controversial decision to allow the admission of evidence concerning the claimant’s sexual history as well as extracts from a personal journal leaked to the defence team. In total the claimant was subjected to four days of rigorous cross-examination on the witness stand.
In his rationale of the verdict, finding that “consensual sex took place between the complainant and the accused”, Judge van der Merwe went on to add that “evidence had been given that the [claimant] was mentally ill”. The claimant fled South Africa shortly after the verdict and is now said to be living in exile due to fears for her long-term safety.
The overriding message of the Zuma trial and the furore surrounding it could not have been made clearer; for victims of rape in South Africa it is easier to stay silent than risk the demonisation associated with reporting an attack to the authorities. A sobering thought for a country which, Interpol claims, has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world – comparable with the likes of Darfur and wartime Bosnia.
In figures released by the Department for Safety and Security (DSS) for the year from April 2004 to March 2005, there were 55,000 reported cases of rape in South Africa. Of these staggering numbers 22,486 cases involved the rape of children while 4,829 related to cases of indecent assault on minors.
Carol Bower, Executive Director of the organisation Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN) believes that the problem is getting worse; “Sexual assault of children in South Africa happens at very high levels,” she says. “The reported figures only give a small part of the picture – most rape perpetrated against children is not reported; even the Medical Research Council (MRC) says that only one in nine rapes are reported.
“This means that, if 22,500 are reported, there are at least 202,500 rapes of children each year. However, I would argue that it is even higher than that, more like only one in twenty being reported, which would give a figure of closer to 500,000 per annum.”
South Africa’s atrocious record of child abuse first came under public scrutiny in October 2001 when a nine-month-old baby girl was raped in Upington. In July 2002 the baby’s attacker, 23-year-old David Potse, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the rape and sodomy of the child, nicknamed “Baby Tshepang” (‘have hope’) by the South African media.
But the Baby Tshepang case was just the tip of the iceberg, illustrating the endemic nature of sexual violence against children in the country. In 2001 the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town made public the results of a nine-year study, detailing that the average age of children brought in for reconstructive surgery following a rape was three years’ old.
Akin to these findings are recent estimates from Childline South Africa (CSA) that one in four girls and one in five boys growing up in the country is at risk of being raped before the age of 16. Whilst results from the SA Demographic and Health Survey, published in The Lancet, found that 33 per cent of rapes of children under the age of 15 were perpetrated by their school teachers.
One explanation that has been put forward to explain the rising levels in child abuse is the pervasive existence of the “virgin cure” myth. In the wake of the HIV/AIDS pandemic which has, according to the most recent Department of Health (DOC) figures, resulted in 5.6 million South Africans becoming infected with the virus, there is still a widespread belief that a way to ‘cleanse’ oneself of the virus is to ‘lie’ with a virgin; the younger the virgin, the more potent the ‘cure.’
Both Joan van Niekerk, National Co-ordinator of CSA and Susan LeClerq-Madalala of the University of KwaZulu-Natal have stated publicly that they believe the myth is playing a significant role. While the results of a three-year study of 28,000 men conducted by Johannesburg City Council (JCC) found that one in five of those interviewed believed the virgin cure myth to be true.
However, Bower is not so sure; “The jury is still out on the ‘virgin cleansing’ myth,” she says. “I am not convinced that it is a major factor. [The MRC have] shown that the rate of reported rape of under-18s has been pretty consistent for several years, and the deepening HIV pandemic has not impacted significantly on the reporting figures.
“It is also true that most people who know their HIV status are women presenting at ante-natal clinics. Thus, it is my view that if men are raping children because of the virgin cleansing myth, it is largely an academic exercise. It has been shown that men have raped children throughout recorded history to cure themselves of everything from VD to consumption [TB].”
More pertinent, argues Bower is the context in which South Africa’s crime figures are escalating: “South Africa is a long way from recovering from the legacy of structured inequality and the denigration and denial of human rights,” she says.
“Colonialism set the foundation for the systematic dehumanisation of 90 per cent of our population by the minority, and this impacts on vulnerability to abuse. The inhumanity we practised and taught each other as we fought for or against apartheid lingers in our national psyche.
“As a result of this, South Africa has one of the fastest-growing and largest gaps between the “haves” and the “have nots” and such poverty enormously increases the vulnerability of children to rape, abuse and neglect.”
Bower makes a valid point; the Children’s Institute (CI) estimate that between 10.5 and 14.5 million South African children live in deep poverty. This constitutes approximately a quarter of the total population. The reality of this, argues Bower, is that children often live with “desperate parents who, feeling disempowered and helpless, are unable to protect their children from abuse and violence.” Such risk factors, she goes on to say “are exacerbated by the inability of poor and sick parents to care for, protect or provide for them.”
Yet Alongside this is the issue of the gender inequalities that are firmly entrenched within South African culture. “In general,” says Bower, “South African society prescribes rigid roles for men and women. Women’s status is largely determined by their relationship to men – father, husband, son or brother.
“Masculinity is about being strong and in control, about knowing what you want and going after it, at whatever cost. It is inextricably linked to an active sex life, and to a sense of entitlement about sex, whilst femininity is about being weak and subservient, about being unsure enough to even mean no when you say no; it is inextricably linked to being in a relationship at any price – including a lack of space to negotiate sex.”
Dr Rachel Jewkes, Director of the South African MRC’s Gender and Health Unit, also appears to prescribe to this view and has asserted that incidences of rape are “more common in countries with a more pronounced gender hierarchy, and in a culture where violence is used to exert dominance”.
Pointing to South Africa’s brutal past, Jewkes has commented: “Many people in South Africa have been extremely brutalised by the political violence in our past, the disruption of families and communities, high levels of poverty and the very high level of violence of all forms.
“The root of the problem of infant rape, as with rape of older girls and women, substantially lies at these more mundane doors. It should be regarded as part of the spectrum of sexual violence against women and girls.”
A survey conducted by the Men as Partners project of the Planned Parenthood Association of South Africa (PPASA) appears to bear out Jewkes’ claims; that it is prevailing attitudes that need to change in order for ground to be gained in the fight against sexual violence.
The survey found that 22 per cent of men interviewed approved of hitting a partner, while more than half believed that rapes were caused by women dressing or walking in a provocative manner. These findings echoed results from an earlier study conducted by the Women’s Health Project (WHP) in Kimberley, presented at the Barcelona AIDS Conference in 2002, which found that two out of ten respondents believed that having sex with a child younger than ten years old was not an act of rape and over 12 percent believed people in their community thought women ‘asked’ to be raped.
In a 2004 nationwide study of adolescents, based on interviews with nearly 270,000 South African boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 19, 58 per cent of all respondents felt that “sexual violence does not include forcing sex with someone you know”.
The South African Men’s Forum (SAMF) is one organisation that is aiming to change such attitudes at grass-roots level by involving men in the fight against violence. Headed by Mbuyisela Botha, SAMF conducts regular workshops with men living in townships in order to create a platform upon which to discuss ideas surrounding male identity and sex.
“In my [Zulu] culture we respect women,” says Botha. “And in the way that men feel that they can take what they like – when they like – even with violence, our culture has been distorted. Still men decide how, when and where to have sex. They feel it is their right to exert that power.”
Botha has received a mixed response among participants to his workshops, stating that although some feel it is a positive way to reinforce messages and promote wider respect for women and children, others feel that such ideas are “Eurocentric” and as such “have no place in an African setting”.
The South African government meanwhile has also stepped up to the plate with its restructuring of the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS), formerly the Child Protection Unit (CPU). Amid numerous e-rumours that the FCS is to be closed down entirely, Divisional Commissioner Manoko Nchwe has confirmed that “the intention is not to close the FCS Units but to multiply them at station level where they are needed most for dealing with these crimes”.
In addition, the South African Police Service (SAPS) have been promised extra resources, which have been earmarked to implement specialist services such as trauma rooms within police stations, in order to boost capacity for responding to crimes of sexual violence.
The government have also been making extra moves to throw legislative weight behind the problem; in February this year the Children’s Bill, which stresses the protection of children, was passed, along with the tightening of the Domestic Violence Act and Sexual Offences Bill – which will strengthen the legislative foundation for the care and protection of children as well as increasing the means possible to prosecute offenders.
And in light of the United Nations Secretary General’s study on violence against children in South Africa last year, which depicted the huge surge in violence against children, the government has also announced the roll out of a National Action Plan which will include specific interventions such as the scaling up of Thuthuzela Care Centres –which are integrated judicial, healthcare and social havens for abused women and children, offering rape survivors immediate treatment and psychological support.
Such moves by the government cannot come soon enough; a newly released study by the Simelela Rape Centre in Khayelitsha –a bustling township in Cape Town – has shown that in their first six months of operation 442 rape survivors sought treatment at the site. The youngest case was of a one-year-old baby and the oldest a 69-year-old grandmother. Over one in three cases involved girls of 14 or younger, while 58 per cent of victims treated at the centre knew their attackers and one in ten rapes were committed by a family member.
Thirty years ago, the world looked on in horror as one of the most obscene acts of violence perpetrated against children in South Africa played out in the Soweto Uprising. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson’s face was broadcast around the globe as he lay dying from a bullet wound inflicted by the apartheid police. Pieterson became the symbol of the struggle of South Africa’s children against the violent forces that oppressed their very existence.
But today the threat to the country’s children has taken on a far more insidious guise, permeating the communities in which they live, the schools that they are taught in and in many cases, the homes in which they should feel most safe and secure. That the vast majority of crimes against children still go unreported speaks volumes about prevailing attitudes in a country still traumatised from its brutal past. And the Zuma trial has demonstrated with horrifying clarity what most people living in the ‘new’ South Africa already knew; that the “Rainbow Nation” has a very long way to go yet.
© Laury Jeanneret (first published in se7en magazine), 2006.