Women in the World

South Africa Rallies Against Fatal Gang-Rape

The brutal rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl has shaken the country’s consciousness—and inspired South Africans to share their own stories of sexual violence.

Eight days ago, in a crime that shocked South Africa, 17-year-old Anene Booysen was brutally gang-raped. Her throat was slit; her fingers and legs shattered. The attackers had stuck a broken glass bottle inside her body and left her for dead on a construction site in the small, quiet Western Cape town of Bredasdorp, about 120 miles from Cape Town. A security guard found her near lifeless body. She identified and named at least one of the alleged rapists, but died soon thereafter.

South Africa, a deeply wounded nation that still grapples with the scars of a violent apartheid past, has been jolted to its core by the gratuitous act of violence visited upon this young woman. Booysen’s case has also shattered the silence around the country’s rape crisis, which seldom gets the national attention it deserves.

This time, though, the national reaction to a rape—finally—seems to be different. This is a good thing. But it is also surprising, because collective denial about South Africa’s outrageous rape statistics has become as normal here as the rapes themselves. According to officials, rape is massively underreported in the country due to low conviction rates and the chilling effect of silence and shame. But the Medical Research Council estimates that up to 3,600 rapes happen daily in this nation of close to 52 million people. This places South Africa among the countries with the highest incidences of rape worldwide—and, outside of war zones, makes it one of the most violent societies, especially toward women.

It is difficult to know why this particular attack has yanked South Africans out of their complacency. For years now, there has been a particularly brutal epidemic of rapes and murders of black lesbian women in South Africa’s townships, for example. But activists have never really succeeded in getting South Africans to react with urgency and collective determination to root out sexual violence.

The newfound outrage over Booysen’s death might be connected to the global focus on a similar gang rape in India, which has enflamed that nation and set off calls for harsher sentences for rapists. It’s possible that the India case could have quietly touched the hearts and minds of South Africans more than they realized—and that Booysen’s tragic demise might herald South Africa’s own awakening on the issue. Whatever the reason, the country is now embarking, somewhat clumsily and haphazardly but with unprecedented frankness, on a journey of talking about an evil that has been ignored for too long.

Over the past two days alone, I’ve lost count of the number of stories listeners have shared with me on my daily chat show on Talk Radio 702. One married man is grappling with the memory of a woman who molested him when he was very young. She was his mother’s friend. Another man stopped his car while driving to call in to the show and publicly, for the first time, talk about criminals who had hijacked him years ago but only drove off with his car after gang-raping him. Women and girls make up the highest number of victims, including many of my media colleagues who have shared their stories with me in confidence after reading about my own rape in my recent book A Bantu in My Bathroom.

Throughout the day on Friday, the media created a space on social media platforms, in the newspapers, and on the airwaves for South Africans to share their stories of being victims and survivors of rape. Every group is affected: girls and boys, women and men, old and young, rich and poor, black and white.

The challenge now is for South Africa to sustain this focus. The drivers behind the rape epidemic are many. Of course, perpetrators should be held morally and legally responsible for sheer callous behavior. Actions cannot be excused on account of context. Men and women who rape must be indicted. They are moral agents. They are not robots.

But, painful as it will be, South Africa needs to address the factors that partly explain why rape is so prevalent here. After all, no one is born a rapist. The country experienced a police state for centuries and the psychosocial consequences live on long after the political demise of apartheid. Violence became normative. It has remained that way. The country has to deal with this historic psychosocial challenge. It hasn’t yet.

Inequality also needs to be reduced. Inequality does not justify rape. But boys and men who feel like losers in a deeply divided society develop antisocial habits. They resent themselves and others and that resentment finds violent expression. It is hard to believe that sexual violence can be eliminated without inequality being massively reduced. South Africa’s social evil feeds on the country’s visible inequality.

Boys can also do with better and healthier male role models. As a result of violence being normative, sexuality here is also violent. Many men think being aggressive, and possessing women, makes one a “real” man. Alternative ways of being male need to be rehearsed.

Last, the weaknesses of the country’s criminal justice system, with low conviction rates for sexual violence, may not be unique to South Africa but here they exacerbate the impact of the range of other factors not prevalent elsewhere in the world.

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Unless South Africa tackles both the familiar law enforcement challenges, and the more enduring posttraumatic stress symptoms passed down from its violent history, Anene Booysen will not be the last victim of gratuitous violence. Indeed, many more became victims here while you read this report.