How to deal with sexual violence in South Africa

A month after the BBC wondered if South Africans will ever be shocked by rape, the sadistic rape and murder of the 17 year old coloured working class woman, Anene Booysen, from Bredasdorp, a small town in the Western Cape, provoked nationwide outrage. As last week’s news reports (see herehere and here, for example) and social media traction indicate, South Africans are aware of the urgency with which sexual violence in their country needs to be addressed. Yet the ideas on how to do that, differ widely. Some argue for a reconsideration of the in 1995 abolished death penalty. Others side with President Jacob Zuma, who calls for “the harshest sentences on such crimes, as part of a concerted campaign to end this scourge in our society.” The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, herself a South African, commented that “there is a need for very strong signals to be sent to all rapists that sexual violence is absolutely unacceptable and that they will have to face the consequences of their terrible acts. The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end.”

Others highlight the need to end persisting trends of victim blaming and popular misconceptions around the causes of rape: from substance abuse and poverty to curfews and dress codes.

Identifying patriarchal patterns as underlying the sexual violence, Gushwell Brooks, a lawyer and popular talk radio host, argued (in a post on the South African Daily Maverick site) for the deconstruction of violent, authoritative masculinities (dominant ideas about what it means to be a man). In his piece ‘The inefficacy of the Rape Debate’ he contends that

it is not good enough to teach our sons not to rape. What we need to teach our sons quite frankly and honestly is that a woman is not some “thing” placed on this planet just to satisfy whatever desire you have. Muted whispers that girls can do whatever you can, but not really, strips girls and women of the humanity and the accompanying respect they deserve.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and the much larger Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the latter which is in an alliance with the ruling party, decided to march together against rape, signaling that rape and violence against women is not a party political issue. There’s also widespread enthusiasm for the One Billion Rising Campaign, a global campaign against violence against women that took place yesterday, on Valentine’s Day. The campaign invites “one billion women and those who love them to walk out, DANCE, RISE UP, AND DEMAND an end to this violence.” And earlier this week, I was present as a few hundred people gathered at the St. George Cathedral, a landmark in central Cape Town, in a silent vigil against rape (the photographs illustrating this post is from that vigil).

Yet some express skepticism about these signals of resistance. Ranjeni Munasamy, another Daily Maverick columnist and former Zuma spokersperson, observes that “like during the Apartheid past, when violence was a daily feature of life in South Africa, we seem to be again getting accustomed and numb to death and brutality in our society.” South Africa, she argues, “is too accustomed to the daily violation of the weak by those more powerful.” Reuters conceives the overall South African sentiment towards sexual violence as ‘oblivious’.”

Marches, protests and tweets might challenge this ostensible oblivion and numbness. And for those who want to unite in their anger, share the frustration of powerlessness, grief together and send out one and the same message to rapists, survivors, politicians, legislators, mothers and fathers alike that “we want to end rape,” especially marches provide a tremendously powerful platform. However, as a time and occasion-bound gesture, rather than as part of a larger, more pragmatic and sustainable anti-rape campaign, the question ‘what difference will marches and protests make’ is a valid one to ask.

One Billion Rising has come in for some criticism. On the weekly newspaper Mail and Guardian’s Thoughtleader blog, Talia Meer takes a critical look at One Billion Rising’s approach towards sexual violence and wonders:

… can we just dance it all away? Or dance it away just a little? We certainly cannot “dance until the violence stops”! She warns that “Like the contentious Slut Walk, One Billion Rising runs the risk of sensationalising gender-based violence activism. It abstracts the on-going struggle of GBV organisations, individuals and survivors, to a brief, quirky and enjoyable moment. A walk in your knickers or a dance.

The legal academic and blogger, Pierre De Vos, acknowledges the good intentions that drive the protestors, but he worries that “the expression of outrage is a distancing device and ultimately self-serving. I fear the smell of self-congratulatory self-indulgence clinging to the enterprise. Expressions of outrage position us in opposition to the evil that we rush to condemn.”

Protester holding pic of Anene - Zubair SayedFor many marchers, their sense of responsibility and agency to rise up against rape might indeed vanish when the march is over and they go home. Only to be fired up once again when the next rape, brutal enough to be deemed newsworthy, confronts our conscience. Yet meanwhile, ‘ordinary rapes’ (at an expected rate of at least 154 a day) will continue to go on. And so will our lives. Is it indeed oblivion and violence-fatigue that is guiding this ostensibly short-term character of our responses? Or is the psychological self-distancing mechanism, as envisioned by De Vos, to blame? I wouldn’t know. I can only observe, imagine and wonder. What I observed is a sense of powerlessness. And what I imagine is that for many South Africans, overturning patriarchy, reconstructing dominant masculinities and enforcing harsher sentences simply feels beyond their sphere of influence. Which got me wondering; next to tweeting, marching and investing in both daughters and sons, what else CAN we do?

It’s not like there aren’t organizations and groups doing real, hard work around rape in South Africa. The website Women, In and Beyond the Global provides an answer on how to channel and sustain outrage in a constructive and pragmatic manner; quantify your outrage and support those organizations that have been working to end rape and empower survivors for years. Both Rape Crisis Cape Town and the Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children are such organizations. They empower, counsel and support rape survivors and strive towards law reform through advocacy, training and awareness campaigns.

Despite the fact that sexual violence has been a well-known reality for South African women for years, both these NGOs are facing funding withdrawals, which has led to a continued threat of closure.

For those who feel outraged and powerless and are in a position to either donate money or dedicate some time, become a monthly donator or pay a once off donation to Rape Crisis via their website and support the Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Girls here. Another way to exercise agency is signing the petition by This online petition seeks to tackle the problem by calling on South Africans to sign an online petition, which should pressure the government to heavily invest in research on rape and in a public education campaign.

* The photographs are the work of Zubair Sayed, a Cape Town, South Africa-based communication and campaign specialist who dabbles in photography. You can reach him at

8 thoughts on “How to deal with sexual violence in South Africa

  1. One small but positive step would be that Zuma in particular, and his supporters in general, stop refering to their African culture as a reason for the things they do such as polygamy and adultery. Cultures grow and change over time and it is time that the African culture of male superiority over women, paying “lebola” for a wife (effectively buying a slave by putting the wife/wives to work in the fields, to gathering wood, to fetching water) changes. It is time the African culture acknowledges women as equal to men and not subservient to men. It is time that African men do not insist that their women bow down to them. This must start from the top at traditional leader level.

  2. egteSafrican, yes, and also the Afrikaners using their culture as a reason for the things they do such as domestic violence, rape and murder. I am compelled to point out that rape and domestic violence cut across race and cultural boundaries, and to blame it on African men is reductionist. Three of my rapists were white men, one coloured in my two instances, and I’m a middle class esteSafrican witmeisie. The patriarchal culture is in your life too, in your actions with the women (and men) in your life. And the blaming you do does not account for the rape of children, and the 1 in 7 boys who are sexually assaulted. Again, this crosses race and class and culture barriers.

  3. Word up emmanence: “I am compelled to point out that rape and domestic violence cut across race and cultural boundaries, and to blame it on African men is reductionist. ”
    – The Oscar Pistorius shooting is a perfect example of this. And yet look at how the media gave him the benefit of the doubt. Initial reports said he “accidentally” shot her four times, “probably mistaking her for a burglar.”

  4. Well put, Emmanence and Dylan.
    If we are discussing (and trying to understand) masculinities in this context (which in my opinion is incredibly important), pointing solely at Zuma or today’s ‘top’ isn’t going to get us very far. Especially if we ignore South Africa’s history of colonial-, apartheid- and resistance violence ( where some boys and men were trained to be violent to stay in power, many others were subjected to violent brutality). I cannot tell you how masculinities exactly operate, this differs per context ( and deserves to be researched more). What I do know is (and I echo Emmanence and Dylan) that dominant patriarchal masculinities indeed cut across race and cultural boundaries. Black masculinities, especially in relation to violence, appear to remain more fascinating to both the media and many researchers. My point: Let’s not talk about ‘Zumasculinity’ or suggest that the ‘problem’ starts at the top. It not only ignores history, it also obscures the complexities..

  5. Sexual violence is becoming global issue and this crimes are spoiling the image of society. I personally thinks that government official people should take some serious action against criminals and also law should have been more strict.

  6. Some very insightful comments have been made here. The Caribbean, where I reside,is quite like South Africa in its unofficial endorsement of violence against women as a part of the culture. I’ve often felt so impotent when urged to participate in yet another march against rape. I’ve been there, done that. The truth is, as long as we women accept and condone the dominant patriarchal mindsets that propel men to debase women, we are doomed. Many women, seeking only to secure a better life style (better home, car, wardrobe, even hairstyles!), see absolutely nothing wrong with objectifying themselves. Education is the key, and it is not an education plan that will see immediate results. It takes decades, even centuries, to change attitudes.

  7. regarding STRONG WOMEN and the weak men who are strong enough to rape them:

    as the webmaster of, i am making a formal complaint. i believe that it is BIGOTED and HETEROPHOBIC to paint ALL rapists as “violent and evil people,” as sean hannity did on february 21st. i know through first-hand experience that rape doesn’t always have to be violent. newsflash: i am not a violent person, and if all acts of rape are violent then all acts of sex are violent. i can tell you that i just don’t get off on violent sex.

    i will admit that a violent rape is justified when a man is protecting himself from a delusional wombn who got a cue from an episode of “the big bang theory,” when “100 ways to rip a guy’s nuts off” was brought up as a matter of self-defense (and spoken to facilitate laughter from the audience). in this case, violent rape is both a called for and justified matter of self-defense, but rape doesn’t always have to be violent. actually, if a wombn is trying to rip my nuts off, i am more inclined to hannibalize her MOMmary glands, though i don’t know of “100 ways to chew a mom’s milk-jugs off”. at least there are two jugs of beverage involved to wash the breasts down with.

    i know for a fact that some rapists are just desperate men who choose to rape the little gender simply because females are members of the shorter gender, and therefore are much easier to dominate. i know through first-hand experience that the broader gender can’t help but feel superior to the little, puny, shoulderpad-wearing gender of wannabees who go to “curves fitness” (a man-free zone) to feel comfortable in a less-intimidating environment. dare i suggest that the ego of ms. Strongwoman is bruised when she’s confronted with someone who is curling three times her weight (or even three times the weight she is curling), but i can’t not be reminded of masculine superiority when i see heterosexual couples standing side-by-side at the beach. i say “at the beach” because you can’t really get away with wearing high-heeled shoes in the sand.

    i’ll bring up the coney island hot dog-eating competition’s addition of a “ladies’ division” to prove my point. now, in addition to the aforementioned lesser heights and widths and strength-levels of Strongwoman, her stomach is also lesser than mens’ stomachs. as a matter of fact, along with the gender-based eating competitions, i will bring up the gender-based sports teams and the gender-based military requirements. as well as the gender-based olympic competitions. isn’t basing physical competitions on gender an outright admission that one gender would serve as a handicap to the other gender if they competed together?

    now, if Strongwoman wasn’t designed to be raped, she’d have been created with enough strength (and/or testosterone) to fend off the bigger, taller, more protective and dominant gender. if Strongwoman wasn’t designed to be raped, then female bodybuilders wouldn’t be masculine wannabees who take testosterone injections (much like chastity bono and other post-op masculine wannabees), and domestic violence would be all about Strongwoman abusing her man. to think that all rape is violent, though, that is a slight on mens’ physical superiority and mens’ ability to keep Strongwoman from BECOMING violent.

    rapists don’t always have bad intentions. rape can be done as an act of kindness, of caring about the mental clarity of any wombn. rape is a loving thing. rape is a way for Strongwoman to broaden her horizons and to realize that feminism (and the “anything a man can do” mantra) is a lie. it may be a mark of “tough love” if Strongwoman is resistant to changing her belief-system, but it’s always a mark of love for someone to care enough about someone else’s gullibility to want to help them grow out of it.

    i will admit that rape is justifiably violent when a man is protecting himself from a delusional wombn who got a cue from an episode of “the big bang theory,” when “100 ways to rip a guy’s nuts off” was brought up as a matter of self-defense (and spoken to facilitate laughter from the audience). in this case, violent rape is both a called for and justified matter of self-defense, but rape doesn’t always have to be violent. actually, if a wombn is trying to rip my nuts off, i am more inclined to hannibalize her MOMmary glands, though i don’t know of “100 ways to chew a mom’s milk-jugs off”. at least there are two jugs of a beverage involved to wash the breasts down with.

    wrapping up, i hope i have given enough food-for-thought for anyone to reconsider their views on rape, rapists, and the millions of Strongwomen who weren’t strong enough to keep from being a victim.

    mr. dylan terreri, i
    dr. sheldon cooper, ii
    “When I’m hungry, I eat. When I’m thirsty, I drink. When I feel like saying something, I say it.” – Madonna

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