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South Africa finally wakes up to sexual violence

By   /   February 16, 2013  /   No Comments

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The gang-rape and murder of Anene Booysen has shocked the country into action. But what can be done?

Women protest outside the magistrate’s court in Bredasdorp, where two men accused of raping and murdering 17-year-old Anene Booysen appeared. Photograph: Reuters

A month after the BBC wondered whether South Africans would ever be shocked by rape, the sadistic rape and murder of a 17-year-old working class woman, Anene Booysen, from Bredasdorp, a small town in the Western Cape, provoked nationwide outrage. As last week’s news reports (see here, here and here, for example) and social media traction indicate, South Africans are aware of the urgency with which sexual violence in their country needs to be addressed. Yet the ideas on how to do that, differ widely.

Some argue for a reconsideration of the death penalty abolished in 1995. Others side with the president, Jacob Zuma, who calls for “the harshest sentences on such crimes, as part of a concerted campaign to end this scourge in our society.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, herself a South African, commented that “there is a need for very strong signals to be sent to all rapists that sexual violence is absolutely unacceptable and that they will have to face the consequences of their terrible acts. The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end.”

Others highlight the need to end persisting trends of victim blaming and popular misconceptions around the causes of rape: from substance abuse and poverty to curfews and dress codes.

Identifying patriarchal patterns as underlying the sexual violence, Gushwell Brooks, a lawyer and popular talk radio host, argued (in a post on the South African Daily Maverick site) for the deconstruction of violent, authoritative masculinities (dominant ideas about what it means to be a man). In his piece The inefficacy of the Rape Debate he contends that

it is not good enough to teach our sons not to rape. What we need to teach our sons quite frankly and honestly is that a woman is not some “thing” placed on this planet just to satisfy whatever desire you have. Muted whispers that girls can do whatever you can, but not really, strips girls and women of the humanity and the accompanying respect they deserve.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and the much larger Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the latter which is in an alliance with the ruling party, decided to march together against rape, signaling that rape and violence against women is not a party political issue. There’s also widespread enthusiasm for the One Billion Rising Campaign, a global campaign against violence against women that took place yesterday, on Valentine’s Day. The campaign invites “one billion women and those who love them to walk out, DANCE, RISE UP, AND DEMAND an end to this violence.” And earlier this week, I was present as a few hundred people gathered at the St. George Cathedral, a landmark in central Cape Town, in a silent vigil against rape.

Yet some express skepticism about these signals of resistance. Ranjeni Munasamy, another Daily Maverick columnist and former Zuma spokersperson, observes that “like during the Apartheid past, when violence was a daily feature of life in South Africa, we seem to be again getting accustomed and numb to death and brutality in our society.” South Africa, she argues, “is too accustomed to the daily violation of the weak by those more powerful.” Reuters conceives the overall South African sentiment towards sexual violence as ‘oblivious’.”

Marches, protests and tweets might challenge this ostensible oblivion and numbness. And for those who want to unite in their anger, share the frustration of powerlessness, grieve together and send out one and the same message to rapists, survivors, politicians, legislators, mothers and fathers alike that “we want to end rape”, marches provide a tremendously powerful platform. However, as a time and occasion-bound gesture, rather than as part of a larger, more pragmatic and sustainable anti-rape campaign, the question “what difference will marches and protests make” is a valid one to ask.

One Billion Rising has come in for some criticism. On the weekly newspaper Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader blog, Talia Meer takes a critical look at One Billion Rising’s approach towards sexual violence and wonders:

Can we just dance it all away? Or dance it away just a little? We certainly cannot “dance until the violence stops”! … Like the contentious Slut Walk, One Billion Rising runs the risk of sensationalising gender-based violence activism. It abstracts the on-going struggle of GBV organisations, individuals and survivors, to a brief, quirky and enjoyable moment. A walk in your knickers or a dance.

The legal academic and blogger, Pierre De Vos, acknowledges the good intentions that drive the protesters, but he worries that “the expression of outrage is a distancing device and ultimately self-serving. I fear the smell of self-congratulatory self-indulgence clinging to the enterprise. Expressions of outrage position us in opposition to the evil that we rush to condemn.”

For many marchers, their sense of responsibility and agency to rise up against rape might indeed vanish when the march is over and they go home. Only to be fired up once again when the next rape, brutal enough to be deemed newsworthy, confronts our conscience. Yet meanwhile, ‘ordinary rapes’ (at an expected rate of at least 154 a day) will continue to go on. And so will our lives. Is it indeed oblivion and violence-fatigue that is guiding this ostensibly short-term character of our responses? Or is the psychological self-distancing mechanism, as envisioned by De Vos, to blame? I wouldn’t know. I can only observe, imagine and wonder. What I observed is a sense of powerlessness. And what I imagine is that for many South Africans, overturning patriarchy, reconstructing dominant masculinities and enforcing harsher sentences simply feels beyond their sphere of influence. Which got me wondering; next to tweeting, marching and investing in both daughters and sons, what else can we do?

It’s not like there aren’t organisations and groups doing real, hard work around rape in South Africa. The website Women, In and Beyond the Global provides an answer on how to channel and sustain outrage in a constructive and pragmatic manner; quantify your outrage and support those organisations that have been working to end rape and empower survivors for years. Both Rape Crisis Cape Town and the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children are such organisations. They empower, counsel and support rape survivors and strive towards law reform through advocacy, training and awareness campaigns.

Despite the fact that sexual violence has been a well-known reality for South African women for years, both these NGOs are facing funding withdrawals, which has led to a continued threat of closure.

For those who feel outraged and powerless and are in a position to either donate money or dedicate some time, become a monthly donator or pay a once off sum to Rape Crisis via their website and support the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Girls here. Another way to exercise agency is signing the petition by This online petition seeks to tackle the problem by calling on South Africans to sign an online petition, which should pressure the government to heavily invest in research on rape and in a public education campaign.

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