Ntombesintu Mfunzi: A South African athlete’s fight against rape
In 2016, ultramarathon runner Mfunzi was raped and nearly died. Now, she’s using her energy to help other rape survivors.
The hilly and winding trail routes near Mhlakulo village in Eastern Cape, South Africa are challenging for even the most elite runners.
In some parts, reaching the summit requires crawling up the rugged gravel paths on tiptoe.
Ntombesintu Mfunzi, a 39-year-old ultramarathon runner, is one of the top female runners in the country and she lives and trains in this expansive region.
Mfunzi grew up in Ntsimbakazi – a village about 130km (80 miles) from Mhlakulo – where local races are rare.
In 2013, she was invited to compete in the Mirtha Payisa Run for Diabetes. She won the half-marathon and successfully defended her title in 2015 after the 2014 event was cancelled.
But it was in 2016, when she returned with a hat-trick of titles in sight, that her life changed.
The night before the race, Mfunzi was lured into a bush, beaten with a hammer and brutally raped. The rapist threatened to kill her but left her lying in the bushes.
Mfunzi eventually managed to get help, was admitted to hospital and reported the incident to the police.
“To say I was terrified would be putting it mildly,” Mfunzi describes the traumatic experience in vivid detail in her memoir Yoyisa (Overcome).
“My knees went weak and I buckled, falling face down right in front of him. My terrified state did nothing to him, for he brought the hammer down on my back as though he was putting a nail into a cement wall. The pain was excruciating.”
Lying in a hospital bed, she decided she would still compete the next day.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let the devil win again. I’m going to do what I came here for, which is running’,” she told Al Jazeera.
The following morning, as Mfunzi crossed the finish line ahead of the pack, she collapsed in front of the crowd chanting her name.
Four days later, the community in Mhlakulo found the rapist who is now serving 22 years in prison.
Now, she is using her story to raise awareness of gender-based violence (GBV) and help other rape survivors overcome their trauma while also advocating for systemic change through her work as a human resources officer at a prison in Port Elizabeth.
“From that day in November, my life changed completely,” she said. “I was supposed to die. But maybe God wanted me to save other survivors, to inspire them to fight.”
Mfunzi’s story is among many in a country with some of the highest rates of gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide in the world.
According to the most recent data from the South African Police Service (SAPS), 2,695 women were murdered in 2019-20, indicating a woman is murdered every three hours.
In the previous period, the femicide rate was 15.2 per 100,000 women – five times the global average.
South Africa also has the highest rate of rape in the world with 132.4 incidents per 100,000 people.
Reported sexual offences, including rape, have been on the rise annually since 2016, when the number was 49,660. Last year, more than 53,000 sexual assaults were reported to police, but women’s rights groups say the actual number is likely to be much higher.
“These are issues that we are constantly facing,” said Claudia Lopes, a women’s rights activist and programme manager at the human rights foundation, Heinrich Boell, in Cape Town.
“It feels like we’re dealing with the same onslaught, and as civil society organisations and activists, we get frustrated.”
In May 2020, following a wave of renewed protests demanding government action, President Cyril Ramaphosa approved the long-awaited National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide (NSP GBVF), implemented to address accountability, prevention, protection, response, economic empowerment and research.
Nearly 21 billion rand ($1.36bn) was allocated over three years to support the plan.
However, last month, President Ramaphosa revealed “national resources” were urgently diverted “to fight the COVID-19 pandemic”, as he announced a two-year 128 million rand ($873,000) private-sector fund to provide additional finances to implement the national plan.
The move came amid mounting pressure from activists and civil society organisations, and a sharp increase in violence against women during the nine-week national lockdown imposed last March.
The government says the fund will assist in various initiatives aimed at supporting victims and survivors, strengthening the justice system, raising awareness and creating economic empowerment opportunities for women.
But some activists said the establishment of the fund was rushed and that a lack of consultation with civil society left them in the dark about how the money would be spent.
Lopes said that while the funding itself is good news, the lack of clarity raises questions about transparency and accountability, as well as concerns about the diversion of government funding away from existing services, such as shelters for victims of crime and violence.
“What’s important is knowing how these funds are managed,” said Lopes.
“My fear is that with austerity measures, the private sector fund will be used as an excuse by government to reduce the money to NGOs that render services,” she said.
Other activists have pointed out the minimal information in the government’s 2021 budget about addressing GBV.
Is South Africa doing enough?
In South Africa, accurate and up-to-date statistics on rape are difficult to produce, in part due to high costs and low reporting.
Studies show that those who report incidents to the police experience re-trauma, victim blaming, threats, incompetence and delays in handling their cases.
According to a 2017 report by the South African Medical Research Council – the most recent study of its kind – arrests were made in 57 percent of reported rape cases and only 8.6 percent of cases concluded with a guilty verdict.
When Mfunzi reported her rape to the police in 2016, she says they acted swiftly in taking her statement, gathering evidence and transporting her to the hospital for tests.
While her rapist was arrested within four days, delays in the system meant it took another two years before he was convicted and sentenced.
Mfunzi says she was given a number of reasons why her court dates were repeatedly postponed, including renovations at the court, a shortage of judges and non-availability of lawyers.
“I’m really thankful for their [the police’s] work, but I feel like the justice system relaxed after the rapist was arrested,” she said. “The closure was so important to me … this postponement was really killing me.”
I feel like the justice system relaxed after the rapist was arrested
Mfunzi said more needs to be done to ensure women feel safe reporting rape, including prioritising rape cases in courts and providing sensitivity training for police officers conducting investigations.
“That is why people are not reporting cases … they are scared of it dragging for years.”
Speaking at a public dialogue event aimed at improving access to justice for GBV survivors in August 2020, Police Minister Bheki Cele said GBV remained a priority for the SAPS.
He said progress was being made in resourcing specialised GBV units within the police service and providing officers with sensitivity training.
But following his announcement of the latest crime statistics on February 19, which showed a rise in rape and sexual offences, Cele acknowledged there were policing gaps, particularly in handling GBV cases.
“I do concede that we will have to … put our house in order,” he said.
In its annual reports dating back to 2005, the National Prosecuting Authority, which operates under the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to prosecute criminal cases, has identified that staff shortages, inadequate budgets and reputational damage have undermined its effectiveness in fighting corruption and GBV.
The government has identified “broadening access to justice for survivors” as a key intervention in its NSP GBVF and has committed in its 2021 state budget to increase the number of rape care facilities from 58 to 61 and designate 99 additional courts as sexual offences courts.
For Mfunzi, being a victor is also about championing other survivors.
In September last year, she hosted a march to raise awareness of GBV and is a speaker for the 16 Days of Activism campaign.
I’m proud of my colleagues #StAlbansCorrectionalServices, yesterday we had a walked in St Albans surroundings to raise awareness against Gender based Violence #IChooseToBeAVictorNotAVictim #StopKillingUs #IsayRapeIsMurder pic.twitter.com/B1nl1w84i7
— Mfunzi Ntombesintu (@ntombesm) September 24, 2020
She also posts messages of encouragement using the hashtag, #IChooseToBeAVictorNotAVictim.
Mfunzi said many survivors have contacted her to share their stories. Others express their gratitude on social media.
“We’ve never met but it feels like we’ve been friends forever … today I’m doing a dedication run especially for you,” one woman told Mfunzi on Facebook.
“Thank you for this … so encouraged by your strength!” tweeted another.
She said these interactions inspired her to pursue a degree in psychology and work as a counsellor.
Mfunzi still finds strength and healing from running.
A top-10 finisher at the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town in 2018, she was training to make the top-five this year before the race was cancelled due to the coronavirus.
Despite this disappointment, she continues to run twice a day in the Eastern Cape.
Mfunzi has not returned to Mhlakulo village since the incident in 2016. But she says she wants to go back one day.
“I would love to go there as the new person that I am. As painful as my journey has been, I’m grateful for the woman I became.”