South Africa: few good men?

A new report suggests that 78 per cent of South African men admit to committing some form of violence against women.

violence south africa
A new study suggests rates of violent crime against women may be even higher than previously thought [GETTY]

“He pulled me by my hair and dragged me to the entrance of the house. I knew he was taking me to the bedroom, and I knew what that would mean. His one hand pulled at my long hair, braided to my scalp while his other hand wrapped itself around my face, choking me, his fingers digging into my eyes …. I held on to the gate and refused to let him take me in – that was when he bit off half my ear.”

Three weeks earlier, 46-year-old Gugu Mofokeng had left the shelter where she had been living for a year – in hiding from her abusive former boyfriend. Her rehabilitation had been fruitful; she had volunteered for a community radio station and worked to nurture dialogue between abused women. She now planned to open her own shelter for abused women and children.

But Mofokeng’s ex-boyfriend tracked her down, begged for forgiveness and promised to help make her dream of opening a shelter a reality. At first things went well – he had money and a car. But Mofokeng struggled with the irony of the very man who had led her to a shelter helping her to open one for other abused women.

Then the abuse resurfaced.

“I had gone to a white Christian shelter for abused women, and so he started … [accusing me of sleeping] with white men,” Mofokeng explains. “When I told him that this won’t work, it got worse.”

Her former boyfriend hounded her for days before the attack outside her home.

Mofokeng’s story may sound shocking, but it is not unusual in South Africa. Gender activists have long argued that violence against women in the country is at “epidemic” proportions. And despite the introduction of several pieces of legislation and the creation of the Commission for Gender Equality, few improvements have been forthcoming.

A question of numbers

A 2009 study conducted by the Medical Research Council (MCR) sent shockwaves across the country when it revealed that one in four men in the coastal provinces of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal admitted to committing rape.

But the findings of a new report, the Gauteng Gender Violence Indicators Pilot Project, released to coincide with 16 days of international activism against gender violence, suggest the situation may be even worse than initially thought.

Conducted in 1,000 homes across Gauteng, South Africa’s most prosperous and populated province, which includes Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria, the study found that 78.3 per cent of men admitted to perpetrating some form of violence – whether emotional, physical or sexual – against women.

A joint initiative by the MRC and the NGO Gender Links, the study involved in-depth interviews with men and women.

Twenty-five per cent of the women interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual violence – but only 3.9 per cent of these reported the crime to the police. One in 13 of the women surveyed said they had been raped by a non-partner, but just one in 25 rapes had been reported to the police.

Of the men interviewed, 37.4 per cent admitted to committing an act of sexual violence at least once.

Rachel Jewkes of the MRC said the findings did not make easy reading. “I think it is remarkable that so many men are willing to say ‘yes we did it’,” she says, adding that the study was the first of its kind because it attempted to map the prevalence of gender violence through a household survey. The sample used was representative of the population dynamics of the province, but was randomly selected and, crucially, did not rely on police data.

Missing the full story

According to official South African police statistics there were 68,332 reported sexual offences between March 2009 and March 2010 – down from 70,514 cases the year before.

Vish Naidoo, a spokesperson for the South African Police Services (SAPS), says police statistics demonstrate that victims of rape are coming forward more than ever before. “After 1994, statistics increased as people become more confident to come forward as a result of all the efforts to educate them to report the crime.”

He feels that studies such as that conducted by the MRC and Gender Links offer only a “snapshot of the issue”.

“Often the police statistics do not reflect what is going on in homes and in communities … in this study, one out of 25 women reported sexual offences while almost three-quarters of men admitted to perpetrating violence,” Jewkes says.

Kubi Rama of Gender Links says the study demonstrates that police figures do not reflect the true scale of the issue. “What this tells us is that we need a country-wide prevalence study because official statistics are not telling us the full story.”

But Naidoo insists access to law enforcement is not an issue: “We have a number of community interventions, community police forums, around 1,380 across the country.”

Is South Africa unique?

Statistics for gender violence are typically hazy, but South Africa is by no means unique. The UN estimates that up to 70 per cent of women worldwide experience some form of violence at least once in their lifetime.

The UN’s UNITE to End Violence Against Women campaign says that according to the World Bank, women aged between 15 and 44 are more likely to suffer domestic violence and rape than cancer, war, car accidents or malaria. And one in five women worldwide experience rape.

Anthony Collins, a social researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s department of psychology, says South Africa is in an unusual position because it has “first world infrastructure for data collection within third world living conditions”.

While South Africa boasts some of the most progressive legislation against the abuse of women in the world, the UN says that at least 102 countries have yet to create provisions against domestic violence and approximately 53 others have not criminalised marital rape.

But Lisa Vetten from the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC), which specialises in supporting and representing women in abusive relationships, says that even though the constitution and legislation guarantees South African women protection “if there is no implementation of these measures, then this is a dramatic failure”.

A recent study conducted by the TLAC revealed that just four per cent of approximately 2,000 cases of rape they tracked since 2003 resulted in a conviction. “You are asking people to come out and report the cases, but if there are few consequences, then you are effectively undermining all of that,” Vetten says. “The system is just not working.”

A culture of violence

Many activists are mindful that South Africa’s high rates of sexual violence must be understood within a broader context. From March 2009 to March 2010, there were 16,834 reported cases of murder, 17,410 reported cases of attempted murder and 113,755 reported cases of aggravated robbery.

“The 16 days of activism points to masculine violence against women, but people need to remember men are seven times more likely to be killed by another man,” Collins says, adding that it is impossible to separate gender violence from the larger picture of violent crime in South Africa.

“South Africa is a minefield of contradictions,” he says. “On one hand you have the new Domestic Violence Act, a set of gender provisions that are terribly progressive, the introduction of child protection courts, but on the other hand, you have a society that opposes restrictions to corporal punishment towards children and you have a violent masculinity emanating from our leadership.”

Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has been widely criticised for practising polygamy, which activists say undermines gender equality, while Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, has made statements that have inspired the ire of gender activists.

“There is a simultaneous talk of rights, and yet there is another lived reality,” explains Collins.

Collective amnesia

Mbuyiselo Botha, an activist at the Sonke Gender Justice Network, argues that getting to the root of violence in South Africa requires one to emerge from the collective amnesia about South Africa’s past.

Botha, who works to rehabilitate abusive men, insists that this focus on the past is not an excuse. “We must remember that gender violence in South Africa is another type of violence, along with road rage, the massive rate of murders,” he says. “We are a nation who abuse each other, because it seems to be the only language we understand.

“It is tempting to have amnesia for what happened in the past … it is useful to remember that we are emerging from an abnormal system that invariably created abnormal individuals who created a society that is also abnormal.”

Collins agrees that the past helps to create context, but warns that this argument faces some resistance. “Certainly, one argument is that it is linked to traditional or cultural habits that tend to normalise the issue. Another argument is that it is originates from colonialism and then apartheid which involved oppression, where even men were victims and violence was embedded in their lives,” he says.

“But these arguments tend to polarise people even further … and people tend to ask: ‘shouldn’t we move on … it has been sixteen years?'”

Masking reality

It is a discussion that Rama says masks the issue of rampant gender inequality. “This is an issue of patriarchy, of gender imbalances, not poverty or simply history. So many other countries have traumatic pasts and poor social conditions and yet do not have the kind of violence [we have] in South Africa.”

The debate over gender equality often becomes a battlefield for the “African traditions” versus “Western education” camps.

“Bringing up gender equality is sometimes looked upon as another colonial, Western idea – a threat to traditions,” says Collins. “You would be surprised how much currency this sort of rationale has.”

But the irony of this, of course, is that gender violence cuts across South Africa’s race and class lines.

“There is a kind of crisis [about] what it is to be a man; and unless there is a conversation that unpacks their violent tendencies, it just doesn’t go away,” Botha says.

“I think there are issues of change, confirmation, confusion, the pain of not knowing how to deal with the transformation of our society …. We are battling to accept and acknowledge women’s empowerment in the country as a noble and sensitive thing to embrace.”

Some activists suggest that the social and cultural baggage of apartheid may not only be impacting poor, black men.

“We focus on the victims, and this is not a bad thing, but we tend to forget that fixing this problem means we have to unpack the origins of a type of masculinity that is required for social domination,” Collins says, adding that studies have shown that during apartheid there was a correlation between returning soldiers and increased violence.

“Think about British colonisation, with its harsh public school system of canes and cold showers; a sort of brutal psychological conditioning that created essentially aggressors that forwarded the aims of the empire.”

‘Creating a perpetrator’

“We need to find out what creates a perpetrator,” Collins says, adding that there is a link between exposure to violence during childhood and adult abuse, either as a perpetrator or a victim.

“We know that well over 90 per cent of South Africans endorse corporal punishment … and ultimately, the roots of violence come from violence during childhood.”

It is a conclusion that Gugu Mofokeng can identify with.

“I come from an abusive family; I was abused since I was nine years old, kicked out the house and forced to sleep in the toilet,” she says. “I realised later that my grandmother was also abusive and this can perhaps explain why my mother is abusive and also why I ended up in abusive relationships.”

Jewkes says it is a theory that needs to be taken seriously. “We underestimate the gender socialisation [of] women who grow up in homes where there is violence against their mother or sisters. They become desensitised.”

But Jewkes says attitudes may be changing, even if behaviour is not. “It does appear that less people believe that rape victims are the cause of rape,” she says. “I would say that it would have been different a year back.

“It is an important first step; but we do need a wide range of policy to take the firm root. How do we develop gender equity? Schools should be the start, it should be a key part of education at the formative stage and it is a case of strengthening family and parenting.”

Today, Mofokeng runs a shelter from her home for abused women and children called the Recovery Village. She has few resources but says she will not turn anyone away.

“We don’t have any funding or a website … I do have an email address, but we don’t have internet access,” she laughs. “I welcome women and children who have nowhere else to go, they use my clothes and I mentor young women towards motivating them to look ahead.”

Mofokeng says it is an attempt to break the cycle of abuse.

“I am no longer a victim, I am now a victor. I survived and I feel blessed, and that side of the story must be told.”

You can follow Azad Essa on Twitter @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera