Women in South Africa are at greater risk of being raped than getting an education. In an essay written for DN Kultur, South African writer Marlene van Niekerk writes about a country at war with itself.
South Africa is country in crisis. It is yet again racked by extreme levels of social violence. Although police insist that crime statistics show improvement, there are still about 15,000 murders per year. Roughly half of the victims are children. Hundreds of thousands of burglaries, armed robberies and assaults occur annually. Violence has become normalised. The public is battered and blunted by news reports of the most appallingly violent deeds. Social protest during strikes and such like and its containment form no exception to this. Rampant criminalisation of society across all the classes and in all offices up to the highest has become an accepted fact of life down South. Increasing numbers of people tend to live in suspicion of each other, if not in outright fear of and anger towards each other. Black people are the most exposed to violent crime, not only through weak policing of the townships but also through increasing police brutality.
After the recent torture and death of a Mozambican man at the hands of the South African police, Graça Machel wife of ailing former president Nelson Mandela has, in an extraordinary move, spoken from the heart at the victim’s burial. One cannot help to feel that she articulated the sensibility, the perception and the concern of the statesman that had lead South Africa’s liberation struggle when she said: “South Africa is an angry nation… We are on the precipice of something very dangerous with the potential of not being able to stop the fall. The level of aggression is rising. This is an expression of deeper trouble from the past that has not been addressed. We have to be more cautious about how we deal with a society that is bleeding and breathing pain.”
In this general context the lives of women are especially precarious. South Africa is ranked by Interpol to be the rape capital of the world. There is no doubt about it that the human female in South Africa 2013 is reduced to leading the threatened life of hunted prey. Underreported in colonial times, masked by various successive wars around the same sought after mineral resources, or window dressed by the spectacular parades of imperialist or nationalistic grandeur, the social ill of rape is currently reaching unheard of proportions and can no longer be ignored or hidden. As millions of unemployed men are relegated to the waste people of modern capitalist financial and consumer capitalism and are permanently excluded from the economy, desperation, amongst other factors, is turning them into violators. Women, who for centuries have found themselves in the position of the sport of the slaughterous type of male often produced by history in these quarters, whether he was wearing the uniform of the Dutch East India Company marauder, the British Irregular Forces, the Apartheid butchers, are now prey to the men to whom, after decades of racist oppression, the new black rulers had promised jobs, opportunities, an integrated and more equal society and a dignified life. Devastated and disappointed, their hopes shattered, living humiliated, disempowered lives, they devastate others in turn. This anti-social behaviour is also sometimes noted in non-human milieus of social animals where the basic conditions for survival (like proper parenting and sufficient food) are under extreme stress.
And so, thy name woman, has become prey, casualty, off-cut. There is no other word for it. Women get to hold the stickiest of ends in South Africa. They stand a better chance of getting raped than of getting an education. It applies across all classes and all colours and all ages. The shocking fact is that even the most vulnerable are not spared. Baby girls, as young as a few months as well as very old grandmothers are permanently under rapacious siege, especially in the poor townships. Mentally handicapped girls and lesbians stand a good chance of getting raped, the latter specially selected for what has been termed “corrective rape”. Not even the sick, the handicapped or the dead are spared. The woman, escaping from scenes of domestic violence and who goes to the police office to lay a complaint against her husband, had better think twice. The law enforcers themselves may turn nasty on her. She might return home in a worse state than she had left. Going to an outside toilet at night, may prove fatal. If you send your daughter to buy bread, she may never return. In the leafy suburbs , on the other hand, the wives and female children of the rich are bunkered in their big houses. They are equipped with alarms, pepper spray canisters, dogs, security companies, watchmen, security patrols, electric fencing, security cameras and panic buttons. It has become a way of life that few reflect on as abnormal.
The men who assail the female body are in most cases somebody familiar to the victim. Girls from poor families often cannot trust their own fathers, brothers, uncles or cousins. The guilty parties often turn out to be acquaintances of the victim: teachers, pastors, doctors, policemen, hospital orderlies, politicians, sportsmen, schoolmates. One often reads of drug-crazed township youths hunting in packs, rubbishing the girls that they have set their sights on. “Jack-rolling” it is called. Rampant groups of boys in their early teens filming their own gang rape of female classmates on their mobile phones on school grounds has become a regular occurrence. Every day corpses of raped females are found in ditches, under beds, on ceilings, under heaps of leaves, in the bushes, at mine heaps, dumped in lakes and rivers, pit latrines, wells, locked in car boots, stuffed somewhere out of sight where the perpetrators hope they will be forgotten. Farmer’s wives on small holdings and isolated homesteads are often attacked by groups of men who rape, kill and pillage. It is a country at war with itself.
The statistics do not lie. There are 65,000 rapes reported per year. Experts say one may multiply the figure by 36, for most rapes go unreported or are withdrawn by the women who pressed charges. It is estimated that a woman is raped every 17 seconds. In a recent study by the Medical Research Council, one in four of interviewed men confessed to have raped somebody and half of those have raped more than once. Most rapes are perpetrated by men between the ages of 19 and 25. Most see nothing wrong with it and many believe women actually enjoy it or ‘”ask for it”.
Sociologists, psychologists and political scientists are trying to pinpoint the causes of what is now labelled a veritable rape pandemic in South Africa. The explanations point to a tangle of causes, a toxic mix of frustration at being jobless, a sense of inferiority, lack of childhood socialisation, lack of social cohesion in the poor strata of society, the absence of caring attentive mothering because of grinding poverty, the absence of caring fathers and male role models, a sense of hopelessness at social immobilisation, a total collapse of authority and policing, a failure of the criminal justice system, the lack of education, a lack of self-respect, the lack of the ability to regulate arousal and affect, the lack of empathy for the vulnerable. Add to this a widespread culture of machismo underpinned by traditional chauvinistic attitudes to women and one can ask “quo vadis?” with more than superficial wryness.
As was the case recently in India, public outrage about this state of affairs, reached a saturation point after a specifically horrific case of rape in the rural area of Bredasdorp. The body of a young girl was found with all ten fingers broken, legs broken, vagina torn by a sharp object, her stomach cut open and her guts strewn about her on the ground. The case drew attention because of the spectacular degree of violence, and the head of state duly pronounced his dismay and shock. The Minister of Women, Children and Handicapped People, (a title that in itself merits analysis) propelled herself into action and announced programmes to train the police in handling rape cases, to provide council for victims, to reinstate special courts for sexual offences and pushed for public awareness campaigns. The Human Rights commission made declarations and issued statements condemning the failure to protect and uphold the rights of women. Ex-struggle veterans joined the fray in writing emotional appeals to the men of the country to behave themselves and honour their womenfolk. All the same, the ANC Government, eager to make a good impression before the next national elections in 2014, has had to admit to the direst shortage of even the most basic medical rape kits that would enable police to gather forensic data in situ.
The high incidence of rape however might not be about crime, or morals, or the betrayal of women’s rights. It might simply be a matter of the effects of poverty on basic biological mother to infant needs and processes. The human baby, writes Astrid Berg, medical researcher at the Red Cross Children’s hospital, is hard wired to attach to the emotional and physical succour and safety of its mother. If these natural biological needs are systematically thwarted by neglect, physical or emotional abuse, absence or rejection, all caused by the mother’s exposure to the extreme stresses of poverty, the limbic system of the baby itself might be damaged, and the youngster is likely to grow up to be less than a properly rounded human, unable to regulate negative emotion or destructive impulses, unable to properly relate to and care for vulnerable others. This equally holds for future mothers, women who will be mentally and emotionally unable to attach in a normal nurturing way to their offspring. And so the cycle will be reproduced for many generations still to come.
This is the scandal of a regime that just like the one that it has replaced, openly continues to enrich itself and its surrounding élites at the cost of the majority of people whom it is supposed to serve. Once again one sees billions of rands wasted on highly dubious fraudulent arms deals, amassing weapons that are as exorbitant in cost, as they are unnecessary in our context. Once again one sees members of government gorging themselves on every conceivable luxury, whilst the biggest enemy is the internal one of endemic mass poverty, lack of employment and a positively dysfunctional education system.
The symbolical rape indeed, is of Lady (Social) Justice, she who blindfolded and about to be violated, holds the scales that are disregarded by greedy selfishness and corrupt leaders who too often blatantly ignore the spirit, if not the letter of our Constitution. Sadly even some of the most senior officials of our country, men and women who live in secure houses, who erect for themselves bunkers in compounds dubbed National Key Points, and who in their daily lives are shielded from the raging social tragedy outside, do not set the best of examples, let alone examples of sexual morality and familial prudence.
The time has indeed come for the countries who joined, on a bigger or a smaller scale, the just struggle against Apartheid, to start exerting pressure on a former liberation organisation which, in its current reckless and rudderless formation, is trampling underfoot the ideals of empowering the poor and uplifting the downtrodden, ideals that it had propagated in order to mobilise the world’s moral and financial support. After the Struggle, the struggle continues. We need guts for this, not Gripen fighter jets. We quite probably have neither the pilots nor the money to keep them operational, let alone to fight some unlikely conventional war.
Marlene van Nieker, writer