Last month, a BBC feature asked “Will South Africans ever be shocked by rape?” It provided a shocking insight into South Africa’s apparent numbness to sexual violence, describing the country’s citizens as “unable to muster much more than a collective shrug in the face of almost unbelievably grim statistics”. It pointed out that while Indians were re-examining their society in the light of a single, horrific incident of gang rape, in South Africa “there is no sense of a nation being galvanised”. This is despite almost 60,000 rapes reported to the police each year and that the true figure might be at least 10 times that – 600,000 attacks.
“It is not that the issue is ignored – far from it. This week South African newspapers are carrying gruesome stories of what is being described as a new trend – the rape of elderly grandmothers, mostly in rural communities; an 82 year old and a 73 year old attacked on 2 January,” the BBC reported.
“In recent days commentators and campaigners here have looked, almost enviously, towards India, wondering what it might take to provoke a similar sense of outrage – and angrily debating whether outrage itself is enough, and who, or what, to blame.”
This week, we got the answer. It took a disturbingly similar incident to that which caused the mass uprising in India to trigger shock and outrage in South Africa, even from the office of the president. Though there is no mass uprising, there is a realisation that something has gone horribly wrong in South Africa for its women to be subjected to such horror and violence.
Seventeen-year-old Anene Booysen, of Bredasdorp in the Southern Cape, was gang raped and badly mutilated. Her mother, Corlia Olivier, recounted to the SABC the sight of her daughter after the attack: “My child almost looked purple. She was in such a bad state. All her fingers were broken, her legs were broken. Her stomach had been cut up, you could see her intestines. Her throat was also slit open.”
Die Burger reported that a doctor who had first-hand knowledge of the emergency operation performed on Booysen, said someone had put their hands inside her body and pulled out her intestines.
“She lost a large part of her intestines. That is also why she didn’t survive,” said the doctor. Police apparently found Booysen’s intestines lying around her, covered in sand.
Before she died in hospital, Booysen identified one of her alleged attackers, Jonathan Quinton Davids, 22, who was apparently her ex-boyfriend. He appeared in the Bredasdorp Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday on charges of rape and murder. Another three suspects have reportedly been questioned.
The victim in the New Delhi attack in December had to have 95% of her intestines removed in three operations. She suffered brain injuries, internal infections and had trouble breathing, yet she managed to make two statements to police officers to help arrest her torturers before she died. Like her, Booysen wanted justice to be done and her attackers to be held accountable.
In her final act of bravery, her voice was heard.
On Thursday, President Jacob Zuma said the attack on Booysen was “shocking”, “cruel” and “inhumane” and called for the harshest possible sentence for the assailants. “Impose the harshest sentences on such crimes, as part of a concerted campaign to end this scourge in our society,” said Zuma in a statement.
“It has no place in our country. We must never allow ourselves to get used to these acts of base criminality to our women and children.”
The president’s statement was one of a volley of reactions from government, opposition parties, civil society groups, womens’ rights organisations and organised labour, expressing outrage and demanding action to stem the tide of sexual violence in South African society.
Cabinet has now decided to prioritise crimes against women and children and wants there to be no bail for suspects and stiffer sentences. The ANC Women’s League wants an official enquiry into gender-based violence.
“We will be calling for a national commission of enquiry into rape and gender-based violence in order to develop a national strategy to eradicate rape from South African society,” the league said.
But could a public inquiry help to stop endemic levels of sexual violence in South African society?
Dr Saths Cooper, president of the International Union of Psychological Science, says rape is not a new phenomenon in South African society and literature, research and the facts and figures are all at hand showing the nature and extent of the crimes.
He said there were several root causes of sexual violence against women including power relations, socialisation and economic and social conditions.
“In most societies where there is economic stability and social security, incidence of rape is fairly low. But when social and economic conditions are unstable, and there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety, there are concomitant levels of rape and other aberrations,” Cooper said.
“We don’t know to what extent the frustration of young and old males, at their wits end in a society that has discarded them, where they have no jobs and women tend to get things quicker exacerbates the situation. That is not a cause, but could be an underlying issue behind incidence of sexual violence.”
Cooper says in South Africa there are “lots of people who are the walking wounded, who feel frustrated and oppressed, and who don’t have ability to discriminate right and wrong”.
He said the education system does not socialise children on appropriate relations with other people. Therefore racial and gender behaviour tends to be socially transmitted generationally.
Cooper said South Africa has a “prudish, Calvinist, Victorian notion about sexuality” which is why issues like women’s dressing and behaviour are factored into justifications for rape. The migrant labour system had forged a situation where sexual relationships became based on convenience.
“This gave rise to a set of conditions such as single, vicarious parenting and a significant number of households without male figures who could instil a sense of respect for women and girls.”
He said violent behaviour was learned and that people who experience violence against themselves or others then perpetuate it.
“How we socialised to deal with each other interracially and gender wise, that transmits itself. It may not be noticeable certain urban contexts but in schools, playgrounds, townships and neighbourhoods, it is easy to do what you see so much of happening around you. Brazenness increases. Others do it and get away with it, so the behaviour is replicated,” Cooper said.
Uneven power relations are also a major contributing factor to rampant incidence of sexual violence.
“We are notorious as one of few societies where children who can hardly walk and grandmothers are raped,” Cooper said. Women who are intellectually challenged have also been victims of gang rapes and exploitation.
Rape is often misunderstood as stemming from sexual desire when it is primarily an act of violence and aggression.
“Ours is a violent society. The first resort is a violent reaction. We think afterwards about the consequences and that is a problem,” Cooper said.
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.
The Marikana massacre, rampant service delivery protests, murder, rapes, road deaths, police brutality and other horrors shock us when they happen, but society recovers and moves on quickly. Self-preservation takes precedence.
South Africa seems to be reacting to rape in the same way as to other forms of exploitation such as abuse of power and corruption. We are pounded daily with the rape of the public purse and the political elite using their positions to feather their own nests. As we already diagnosed, scandal fatigue is a new South African syndrome as acceptance of corruption as a norm has set in.
In all these instances, the powerful abuse the weak and society learns to look on dispassionately. This is a far cry from the society that stood up against a powerful oppressive regime and conquered it, where community activism was the frontline defence against tyranny.
Our numbness to all forms of violence and the extent to which we appear overwhelmed by scandal fatigue is a sad indictment of the psyche of our nation.
The agony and death of Anene Booysen is a signal of a sick society, our society. Hers is more than a story of the violent rape of an innocent. Anene Booysen is our country. The abuse and defilement must stop. We must stop it. DM
Photo by The Unbound Spirit
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