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 104.

    @100 and @102 - I agree. The men have a lot to do in order to help prevent this by teaching young boys and men respect for women and that rape is wrong. They should stand up and say 'no this is unacceptable' and women need to find their voices as well and speak out about this. But a fear of being ridiculed (in the case of the men) and punished (in the case of women) probably prevents them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    How did it come to this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @ 101. Oldschooltie

    "Women - mothers - must teach their children the meaning of respect, and it needs to be taught in schools as well."

    Why do you put this at the feet of women, mothers, and schools? Where are the men in this?? Fathers are powerful figures in children's lives - more than we often give them credit for. Men and fathers need to teach children what respect is too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    " ... young men grow up with a dangerous sense of entitlement." says a lot about the way in which they're brought up and educated.
    Women - mothers - must teach their children the meaning of respect, and it needs to be taught in schools as well. Some societies don't know any different, because women've been seen as second-class citizens. Fear, shame & ignorance prevents them from speaking out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Sadly, I think part of the problem is that (some) men don't like to hold other men accountable - or at least they don't want to talk about rape. A male friend told a story from Iraq - soldiers were swapping stories about girls when a guy blurted out that he dragged home a passed out woman from a party and had sex with her. None of the other soldiers ever said a word to him about being a rapist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Rape is horrifying to the core. Why do men rape? Is it because they lose all sense of proportion and are unable to control their physical urges! Why can't they have normal physical relationships with consenting partners? The mere fact that women are treated with so much disrespect and violence defies the moral standards that are upheld by the churches, the government and the schools. BAFFLING!

  • 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 97.

    Sadly, this is a backward culture of rape and attacks on women.

    As an example, Sweden and Australia are asking many of the same questions posed in this BBC article; it is a problem that is coming to many countries, through immigration from other countries that do not share the same values that have evolved in the west.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    barryp @ 94:

    How nice to be able to pontificate from 6,000 miles away. Actually the SA police have done quite well. The murder rate has halved in the last 20 years, and stricter gun controls introduced a decade ago (USA please note) have since halved the gun deaths.

    SwampPuppet @ 91:

    Your remarks are beneath contempt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    There’s a hatred of women worldwide, incldg traditional mothers' self-hatred. Even Western mothers kept their daughters down – emotionally-abusively, & educationally. 3 generations ago, Western teen-aged women were married to old men. Thankfully, the breed is dying out.
    Though highly faulty, it’s the laws that offer a chance at protection here, and public services that offer a way out, too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Like it or not part of the problem stems from lack of enforcement of LAw on the subject, possibly even from having corrupt Police and Law officials. In the UK for a time the penalty for Rape was Execution. The ONLY reason any state can function is where the citizen respects (fears) the Law. It is then that Education can change peoples behaviour and the penalties be relaxed, not the other way round

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Part of the problem is the violence in SA. I live in a quiet town - only 3 riots in the past 12 months - and it's 18 months since I last had to fight for my life (and that of my gf) with a knife against 3 men. It's a month since a friend was hijacked at gunpoint. We all know people who've been assaulted, murdered, or killed on the appalling roads. And half the sexually active population has HIV.

  • 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 91.


    The left-wing are never done brain-washing everyone to think like them.

    Education is the pursuit of knowledge. Not socially engineering people to live like you want them too. What you and Tony Blair are talking about is brain-scrubbing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I guess it takes some a lot longer to evolve. Can't really say more and still be politically correct.

  • 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 88.

    WWJD? What would Jesus do ?

    Jesus & christianity the true religion, said, "Do unto others as you want done unto yourself." also "Love one another" also "be truthful."

    This means you do not rape another person, because you would not want to be raped either.

    You love other people, love means respect their wishes & decisions when they say no.

    Truth, you don't hide under beds & gang rape.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I don't condone rape. But, western media is often guilty of exergerating problems when they in Africa. Every crimes comitted anywhere in Africa can be found in Europe and America. The only difference is these crimes are often sophisticated&more covert in the west, but less sophisticated & overt elsewhere. Donations to politicians is political contribution in the West but bribery elsewhere.

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    79. “for many animals, rape is very natural”

    As soon as an animal develops abstract reasoning, they’re the more despicable for accepting rape.


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