That contested power relationships lie at the heart of the rape pandemic in South Africa is illustrated by exchanges between men overheard in a rural taxi. The gist was that if women thought they had rights men would use rape to put them in their place. Women of all races, classes and ages are victims, and potential victims of rape, with a quarter of the South African male population having admitted to the crime. However, the powerlessness experienced in dealing with it is compounded by the circumstances under which poor women in rural areas live. While the degree to which police respond appropriately to rape is variable in all areas, the logistics of obtaining help in many rural areas – distances from police stations and from medical assistance – delay the course of justice. To make matters worse, perpetrators are found among the ranks of police members themselves. A recent case dealt with by Monitor suggests that some members may conspire with colleagues to defeat the ends of justice.
Rape in rural areas
The obstacles faced by victims living in rural areas are shown in the case of Ms B who, was raped at night in a rural area which falls under Nyoni SAPS, approximately twenty kilometres away. The police were called early the following morning, by which time the victim had, understandably, washed, reducing the likelihood of recovering forensic evidence. After their initial response to the call the police went away, and returned later in the day, with a female member. They then took the victim to the district surgeon at kwaDukuza hospital (about a half hour drive away). Nine months later Ms B has had no feedback from the police, but enquiries reveal that no arrests have been made. There have been a number of rapes in the area this year, and sundry other criminal activities. According to locals, these crimes are perpetrated by strangers who have moved to the area. Those pushing for the establishment of a DNA database in SA argue that it would play an important role in the conviction of rapists. However, in the case of Ms B – and countless other rape victims living in areas even less accessible to police and medical assistance – the delay in accessing a doctor, plus her having washed, minimises the chance of collecting semen samples. Furthermore, so many criminals continue to operate with impunity without being arrested their DNA samples would not be on the data base anyway.
Although there were some delays, the Nyoni police were fairly diligent in their response – in contrast to reports from some other areas. According to media coverage of a visit of the Gender Commission to the Mbazwana (far northern KZN) policing area, families of rape victims have ‘given up’ on pursuing justice through the police, and accept cattle in compensation for rape (which occurs in other areas also). The rape of children and the elderly is said to be widespread. A local activist is quoted as saying that police do not take victims seriously. To make matters worse, husbands may ‘bully and ostracise’ women who report rape – to the extent of women reporting the rape of a child or grandchild may fear losing her husband.
Recent years have also seen a resurgence in KZN (as opposed to the Eastern Cape where it has long continued) of a custom known as ukuthwala which, in the past, involved men abducting young women who had changed their minds about marrying them (as opposed to ukubaleka, in which a young couple had run away together to force their families to negotiate their marriage). Ukuthwala has now become a forced marriage, usually of young/underage women, often with collusion of parents who welcome the monetary compensation. Certain traditional leaders are among those accused of engaging in this illegal activity.
Parents may also push their young daughters into polygynous marriages with older men because of the financial incentives. What amounts to the selling of daughters is not new in impoverished areas. During research in the late 1980s Monitor was told of poverty stricken families in a Midlands area near Pietermaritzburg accepting money in exchange for their underage daughters. Young women are usually powerless to resist their parents because, without jobs and income, they are dependent on them.
It is known that some teachers also take sexual advantage of impoverished female students in their schools, including those who are (in terms of Children’s Act) underage. Even if it is known that teachers are abusing female learners parents may be reluctant to take steps to expose them, in communities in which there is an exaggerated respect for authority figures, and where intimidation is rife.
Rape by police
The report for 2012/13 released by IPID (the police oversight body) showed a country-wide increase in reported rape by police members, with a figure of 24 given for KZN.
This is not a new phenomenon – police members have got away with raping women for years. In the early 1990s, notorious KwaZulu-cum SAP security policeman, the late Sphiwe Mvuyane, kidnapped and raped women (including university students) with impunity. During the apartheid years there were allegations that some white police members raped black women they picked up for influx control transgressions, but such allegations were impossible to verify. Nevertheless the apparent increase in rape by police members during recent years is disturbing.
To make matters worse, such cases may be under-reported. A recent rape of a young woman living in a rural area in southern inland KZN, Ms C, shows that some cases may not even make it into IPID statistics. Under some pretext Ms C was taken in a police van to Pietermaritzburg where she was raped by the police member, who even instructed her to wash herself afterwards. When she returned to her home she reported the rape at the local station and was given a J88 form to be completed following a medical examination. She saw the doctor at the local hospital but the female police member who was supposed to bring the sealed rape kit to the hospital did not arrive, and did not answer her telephone when she was called. The following day Ms C returned to the police station and tried to open a case. The member on duty told her that she would have to go to Pietermaritzburg where the crime was committed – which is nonsense. After hearing about Ms C’s experience later that day Monitor called the station and the constable on duty repeated what he had told Ms C. Upon insisting on speaking to a senior member the cellphone number of the duty officer was provided. He confirmed that a case should be opened, and said he would proceed to the station. However, despite being contacted, the victim did not return to the station. It transpired that the alleged rapist paid a large sum of money to the impoverished mother, on whom the victim is dependent for subsistence.
In terms of legislation all rape cases must be reported by the station to IPID – but if no case is opened nothing further can be done. Suspicions remain that the delaying tactics – the failure to deliver the rape kit, and the refusal to open a case – may well have been deliberate, since it is known that male police members often collude with perpetrators.
Rape : What is to be done?
Alarm bells about rape have been ringing for years but, despite a Ministry for Women, Gender and Human Rights Commissions, annual periods of activism against violence against women and children, and huge funding poured into anti-violence campaigns, the situation is no better and perhaps – with regular reports of rape of babies, as well as the elderly – is even worsening. A solution should include urgent short term interventions, but also a fundamental shift in gender relationships.
Immediate action should include a far closer monitoring of police investigations into rape cases and an improvement in forensic medical services, especially in rural areas. A far more proactive stance in educational issues involving girls and young women is also needed, with strict sanctions imposed against errant educators. The importance of empowering both girls and boys through education – including in comprehensive life skills programmes – cannot be over-emphasised
However, far more fundamental changes in entrenched male attitudes and behaviour towards women is essential – especially in KZN where the legacy of a century of codified not-very-customary law which denigrated the status of women continues to dominate, especially in rural areas. Traditional leadership itself is often (but not always) guilty of suppressing the rights of women. As argued in previous Monitor reports, the importance of strengthening of the family (in its variety of forms) cannot be overemphasised. There is simply no substitute for male role models who treat women and girl children with respect – and finding ways of promoting this ideal should be a priority.