During a visit to South Africa a year ago, a 16-year-old friend passed me a folded piece of paper. On it was written the sombre announcement that she believed she was a lesbian. She had no idea how she would tell her mother – homosexuality is not readily accepted in African culture and in some corners it is actively shunned.
Indeed it did not go down well when we helped her break the news. But we were secretly quite pleased. Now we could stop our worrying, all the way from far flung Europe, about errant boyfriends and teenage promiscuity, unplanned pregnancy and, most of all, HIV and AIDS. So what if she was gay?
The rape capital of the world
Not so simple. In South Africa there is a scourge even worse than HIV (antiretroviral drugs are readily available now), one that cuts deeper into lives and communities than murder or theft.
It is rape. The numbers reveal that South Africa does rape more profoundly and with more wanton efficiency than anywhere else in the world.
Johannesburg has long been described as the murder capital of the world and South Africa is the world’s rape capital. In a country of 49 million people, around 50,000 rapes are reported each year. With around half of those people living in poverty, and the education system in tatters, one campaign group – the One in Nine campaign – says a woman in South Africa is more likely to be raped than to learn to read.
Alongside the official figures is the alarming statistic that just one in nine women actually report a sexual offence to the police. Victims are often ridiculed by the police, cases are seldom properly investigated and nine out of every 10 men arrested go free.
Within this culture of impunity, where sexual violence is allowed to flourish, rape has been contorted to represent a variety of awful things. Foremost, of course, it represents power over women – a by-product of the intensely patriarchal African social design in which man is rightfully entitled to subjugate woman. Rape can also be construed as a cleansing and healing ritual, where virgins and babies are raped in the belief that it cures AIDS.
It is also a crime of hate.
Living in fear
In South Africa, sexual attacks against lesbians are growing in frequency. Lesbians are violently abused, ostensibly to cure them of their “unAfrican” predilection, to teach them that they are women and not men. They are raped, in other words, in order to turn them straight. It is known as “corrective” rape.
Last April, in a Cape Town township, Millicent Gaika became a victim of so-called corrective rape. Overpowered, trapped inside her shack, she was beaten and raped continuously for five hours. Neighbours described horrific sounds as they tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing police cars. Finally two men broke down the door and confronted her attacker.
Millicent was saved, but she only got away with her life.
“He locked the door and then we fought,” she recalls. “Because he’s a man he overpowered me by strangling me. I tried to scream but my voice was too low.”
She is telling her story on camera, sitting alongside her friend, to a freelance journalist. It is just hours after the attack ended and both of Millicent’s eyes are swollen, her face bulbous and bruised, her neck cut deep and raw.
“They will say I’m trying to be a boy, that I even steal their girlfriends. So no wonder I got raped. Serves me right, that’s what they’ll say.”
Millicent knows there is little chance her attacker will be convicted. She does not even expect the sympathy of her community. Since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 lesbians, along with their gay male counterparts, have become more open about their sexuality, embracing rights enshrined in one of the world’s most advanced constitutions. But their rights are often paper thin, their communities have failed to embrace them back.
Campaign groups say more than 500 women report being victims of corrective rape each year. In recent years more than 30 such attacks have resulted in death. Yet despite a concerted effort by concerned groups to highlight the plight of lesbians in the townships, the South African government has failed to designate corrective rape a hate crime – something that would force the police and courts to take it far more seriously.
In Millicent’s case, her alleged attacker was arrested and then released on bail of just $10. As he awaits trial, he has been able to threaten her life. She lives in constant fear. Statistically, there is just a one in 10 chance that he will be convicted.
History of violence
So why rape, and why South Africa?
In Johannesburg’s Alexandra township I met an inspiring man named Dumisani Rebombo. When he was 15, Dumisani became a rapist. As part of a coming-of-age dare by his fellow pupils, Dumisani agreed to join in the gang rape of a girl at his school.
“They said if you want to prove yourself a man, there’s this girl who is too clever, she must be taught a lesson and be raped by some of us,” he told me.
“I don’t condone the fact that I agreed. But I agreed to it.”
Dumisani describes being terrified during the ordeal. He knew it was wrong but felt he had no choice. Later, when his classmates heard the rape had taken place, Dumisani describes “30 boys cheering for what had happened”. It was then he felt something needed to be done.
Decades later, Dumisani is a respected gender relations counsellor touring the townships offering workshops on sexual relations and trying to bridge a cavernous divide.
“Men are not all monsters,” he says. “Among six men one is bad and five are good, but the five are silent. Our challenge is to get the five to speak up.”
It is a laudable goal, but some challenge indeed. A history of violence and societal decay thanks to 50 years of apartheid has made violence against women endemic in everyday life. There is also poverty and alcohol abuse. And there is the inadequate policing that presents little or no deterrent, no means of justice or retribution.
In the end impunity prevails, along with the silence. The attacks continue and worsen. Police figures show a sexual offence is committed every eight minutes in South Africa. With each one society’s wounds run deeper and deeper.