Editor’s note: This article was first published by Fusion.
Anti-rape activists believe that a woman is assaulted every 107 seconds in the United States. In South Africa, a number is hard to pin down—estimates ranged from every 26-36 seconds, at least until activists decreed there are too many discrepancies in data collection to provide a firm number.
Civil rights activist and veteran journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault has covered issues relating to South Africa since 1985, well before the fall of apartheid, and has witnessed a new South Africa emerge—even reporting on the country’s first gay marriage in 2006. But Hunter-Gault has noticed a divergence between South Africa’s professed national priorities and the day-to-day lives of its residents. In spite of a progressive constitution guaranteeing rights to all, women, people of color and LGBT people are still confronted by racism, sexism and homophobia and experience extreme forms of sexual and physical violence just for having the courage to exist.
In a new e-book, Corrective Rape: Discrimination, Assault, Sexual Violence and Murder Against South Africa’s LGBT Community, Hunter-Gault expands her 2012 New Yorker piece on lesbians in South Africa—Violated Hopes—which looks at the state of affairs facing lesbian women and how much is at stake for the nation. (The term “corrective rape” is defined as the rape of gays and lesbians to “fix” their sexual orientation or make them conform to gender stereotypes.)
Fusion interviewed Hunter-Gault by phone to try to make sense of a society-wide crisis.
Fusion: Let’s talk about your interest in this topic—what drew you to the issue of corrective rape?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault: I’ve been covering South Africa for a long time.
I was there in 1985 in the dark days of apartheid. I was there when the new constitution was written. I follow America but also South Africa which is a younger democracy. South Africa had a constitution more progressive than most in the world, including the U.S., and at that time, it guaranteed rights for everyone; I covered one of the first gay weddings.
But then I began to hear of atrocities toward people who were covered in the constitution, and so my friends put me in touch with people fighting for their constitutional rights. I went to one of these communities—I met with two women that were involved in an organization that was trying to help gay people get redress in the course. They took me to a place where gay people could tell me their stories.
It struck me that a country that promised equality for all people wasn’t living up to it. And that’s when I started to probe this issue—and people were willing to talk. Some were a bit reluctant, not so much because they were afraid, but because they had been through so much with so little respect by the powers that be. One judge—I wrote about this—who had made one of the rulings against a murder-rapist, he had a problem with the term lesbian.
Fusion: We use the term “rape culture” in terms of feminism and in the context of the United States. Let’s unpack the idea of “a rape culture.” In South Africa, an environment exists where estimates believe 1 in 2 women are raped.
You mentioned a disturbing story about Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa. In November of 2005 (well before he took office in 2009), Zuma was investigated for rape charges of a 31-year-old woman. As you explain in the book:
Zuma, then 64, stood accused of raping the 31-year-old daughter of a family friend. He said that the woman in question had provoked him by wearing a skirt and sitting with her legs uncrossed, and that it was his duty as a Zulu man to satisfy a sexually aroused woman. Such statements reflect the deeply embedded views of many South African men. After a two-month trial, Zuma was acquitted.
Fusion: How do those kinds of attitudes contribute to the problem?
CHG: If you look around the world right now, there is a lot of violence against women. Many of these horrific incidents are [in] countries that have been at war. It seems to be the consequences of generations of misogyny, it seems to be exacerbated after war. There were men who were soldiers who were just serial raping women. I was in Darfur once [in October 2007] with Nelson Mandela’s wife [Graça Machel]. The women had to go out to the forest and forage for food—we asked why only the women were going into the camps. Shouldn’t the men go? The women said, “Oh no—the men would be murdered. We would only be raped.” It’s this kind of problem.
There is a legacy of misogyny and privilege that allows for this behavior. That tradition of jackrolling [a colloquialism for gang rape]—[these boys] don’t see anything wrong with it. They rape relatives. They rape older women. And it isn’t being addressed.
There’s nothing new about homosexuality—but after the constitution was written, and they were protected, that protection seemed to piss men off. Women felt more comfortable coming out in public. But that’s just one explanation—it didn’t explain the rape culture. The rape of women was going on even before the constitution guaranteed equality. Gay men, too, are being raped and murdered. It’s just the statistics show more women/LGBT than men.
Fusion: Why don’t the words of officials and the cultural climate around violence match? What is the key thing missing?
CHG: “Rape is a man’s duty”—[Zuma] has tried to clean that up, he’s taken public positions against this kind of violence. Unfortunately, Zuma might have come around to a different position, but there are a whole lot of folks who find some affirmation in that even though it was a long time ago—but it wasn’t that long ago. I don’t think any young man is pointing to Zuma—but I think there are traditional attitudes he gave expression to that still exist.
Fusion: Rape is a global epidemic and often used as a weapon of war. Why did you choose to focus on this specific country and the environment for women in South Africa?
CHG: It’s such a beautiful constitution. I’ve often talked about how much more progressive the country is, at least on paper. And then you’ve got tradition and [that is powerful.] I was in a rural village in Malawi where there was a coming of age “rite of passage.” Older men called “hyenas” [would] wear disguises and have sex with girls as young as 8. There were organizations working against it, and I went to talk to the chief. And the thing that convinced the chief to stop the practice was that they told him about AIDS. We didn’t tell him to protect the woman—that would have been a wash—but the fear of AIDS stopped the practice. But those places don’t have constitutions like South Africa.
That’s why South Africa becomes such a critical test case for trying to correct this. The commitment to tackling this problem of rape generally, as well as the prosecution of people who harm LGBT individuals—there is lip service, but not a lot of commitment to enforcing the law. They have these organizations and task forces, but this kind of stuff is still going on.
Fusion: The main conversation internationally around South Africa is normally the racial legacy of apartheid. But you mention that the violence, when it happens, impacts people across racial lines. Was anything else disproportionate?
CHG: I think it’s in the culture generally—you have a culture of violence against women that crosses racial lines. There was a woman who wrote about incest in the Afrikaner community—I think you get a lot of attention to the rape and murder of black women, but I don’t know if there is the same attention around similar issues in other communities.
Fusion: Why do you think there is so little media coverage around sexual violence?
CHG: There wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to it—when there are demonstrations and things like that, there is no consistency to coverage or holding people accountable. Some of the more outrageous cases are being reported but there isn’t consistency. Up until the end of apartheid, you had a lot of support for civil society, NGOs, etc. And when apartheid ended, they saw it as the end of their role, so there was a diminution of support for civil society. So there wasn’t consistent funding for building a society as you had for ending apartheid.
Gradually, there has been some renewal of civil society. So you have a lot more public voices and expressions against these kinds of actions. I mentioned several of the organizations, but they are still struggling. So that’s been a big problem—funding for these organizations that are fighting for justice.
If they can afford to come to the U.S. or go to Europe to help raise money, advocates do, but that’s limited and it make[s] it difficult for those organizations to be effective on the ground. They are growing and getting stronger, but they need greater exposure for what they are attempting to do so they can get greater support. You just don’t have the kind of support the country had when people were fighting for the end of apartheid.
Fusion: The crimes you describe, like the 2013 murders of Anene Booysen and Duduzile Zozo are terrifying in scope and brutality. Booysen’s aunt told newspapers “her throat had been slit, all her fingers and both legs were broken, a broken glass bottle had been lodged in her, her stomach had been cut open.” What ideas are being expressed through such extreme violence?
CHG: I have not seen firsthand any of the bodies, but I’ve been to the locations where people described to me what happened. The scene was so graphic, it is etched in the minds of some of the activists, and some of the police, and they described the condition of the women described in the ditch. Some of the townships are better off than they described during apartheid, but there is still a kind of culture that exists in so many of the depressed and deprived townships where people don’t have jobs … the highest rate of poor education and unemployment are with young men in the country.
Without a lot of hope and things to [do], they go to places called “shebeens”—under apartheid, they were illegal but generally the authorities looked the other way. So there is a culture of going to these places … the townships are still very isolated from the cities like Johannesburg—there is a lot of drinking that goes on. So i[n] townships like [Kwa-thema], any controls that these men have while sober disappears while drinking. So you might see a lesbian couple and these men are having a few drinks, and whatever that cultural antagonism toward gay women and gay people was under control, they lose that control and inhibitions and things happen.
One of the most brutal of these murders is when two women had been in these bars and these men followed them and one went down an alley—and they did terrible things to her and then they killed her. And one of the people I interviewed, Dapika Nath, also talked about how alcohol causes the anger to rise, and lose control and that gives way to this kind of violence.
It’s the culture in a way, a culture in which there is a hopelessness, and that is the impetus in some cases for some of this violence. It’s something that is really worrisome, because we are having street demonstrations because the people who expected to have a new lease on life under a black-run government are not getting basic needs met.
These [extreme voices in government] are the few people addressing the poverty and homelessness, and there is a really volatile relationship in the country right now. Even if there was a rape culture that had been there for generations, if you had a way of reaching these kids, this all could change. I mean, this jackrolling—who’s doing it? It’s kids? Young men! They don’t have anything else to do.
A lot of this violence is in the family—not just the rape, but also femicide, where the husbands are killing the wives. It needs to be addressed—and for the future of the family. If you have a country of young men with no hope, the brunt of that lands on women. It’s not a pretty picture.
Fusion: How do we even begin to work toward a solution?
CHG: I think there needs to be all hands on deck—fighting against corrective rape and rape in general. When there is financial support, and institutional support and political will [in favor of] the organizations fighting rape, there will be progress.
Editor’s note: Rape statistics are difficult to get for South Africa and even the authorities explain that the police statistics drastically undercount the occurrences. The Medical Council estimates that the actual number of rapes occurring is nine times higher than reported.
Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist, anti-racist activist and deputy editor of Fusion’s Voices section, opining on pop culture, news, video games and everything that makes life worth living.