South Africa has some of the highest rape statistics in the world, and this week we’re outraged by the death of a teenage girl at the hands of sexual sadists. But we remain powerless, because we’re confronting the problem far too superficially.
The rape that led to the death of Bredasdorp teen Anine Booysens has shaken us all to the core. The torture she endured as her assailants gang-raped, mutilated and left her for dead has an entire nation seething. Listening to talk radio commentary on the matter, the public sentiment is in favour of stiffer sentences. Calls abound for hard labour, a referendum on whether the unconstitutionality of the death penalty should be overturned, and tougher prisons.
Rape rears it monstrous head all too often, leaving behind a traumatised, deeply injured and angry South Africa. It is a disturbing daily companion, one that reportedly happens at least 154 times a day in this country.
NGOs, labour and political movements have joined the chorus of anger, calling for mass protests; men and women across the nation to join hands in solidarity against this heinous crime and for us all to take equal responsibility. The fact that a serious change needs to be made is obvious.
It is inexcusable that any human being should endure the pain, humiliation, trauma and violence of a rape, a crime described as being in some ways worse than murder, since the victim (usually a she), her family and her partner are left with the physical and psychological scars for a lifetime. But what can be done and why do South African men persist in this behaviour? In all honesty, does rape only manifest through forced penetration?
Criminals, including the perpetrators of the horrific attack on Anene, escape the scene of the crime once they have committed their deeds because prison is a scary, brutal place. It is a place where rapists themselves become victims of rape, where violence is the norm – more so than on the hard streets of Hillbrow. Gangs rule the roost and a single cigarette has to last more than a few days. Therefore, despite the educational programmes, regular meals and occasional TV time, prison is no Holiday Inn. The possibility of arrest, trial and conviction is therefore a real and effective deterrent rather than an incentive.
The same should be said of the death penalty. It deals with the end result, and despite the obvious pitfalls of an effective criminal justice system, nothing will be gained even if every rapist was arrested, convicted and hung by the neck. The social ill that initiates rape goes much deeper; it surpasses the deterring fear the possibility of arrest and loss of life.
Some have blamed this social ill on the ever-expanding South African norm of fatherless homes, where boys are raised by mothers and grandmothers and have no father-figure to guide them. I am a bit rusty on my Freudian theories, but logic dictates that if you were abandoned by daddy, rather than having disdain for females, you would have a gripe with your father, the person that actually abandoned you – and rather have some reverence for the females that raised you.
Joining hands, taking to the streets, wearing red T-shirts; men publicly announcing their solidarity with women and their disgust with rapists; these are of no use either. We have been doing this since time immemorial. Part of the reason why rape is committed in secluded places, away from the prying eyes of the public, is not because the perpetrators are shy by nature, but much rather because they know that society finds their behaviour abhorrent. Us reminding them that what they are doing is wrong, in essence, is moot.
To repeat a much-used cliché in opinions of this nature, we need to dig deep and try to find the source of male anger toward women, the male anger that drives the excessive prevalence of rape within our society. The starting point, however, is this: how do South African men define their machismo, or what makes us men?
The answer to this question, across all ethnicities and races, is, quite frankly, aggression. Whether it be on a rugby field in Ventersdorp, a student drunken night out with the mates that ends in the death of a vagrant in the middle of a park in Hatfield or a stabbing in a shebeen in Mitchell’s Plain; South African men define their masculinity through violence.
The most likely and unfortunate victims of this violence tend to be women, whether it be through anger, unrequited sexual and romantic advances or numerous other social factors. The reason women tend to be at the victim end of the stick is quite simple. As much as liberated South Africa likes pointing its judgemental finger towards East Asia and north of the Limpopo for misogynistic attitudes toward women that strips them of their human value, we are equally, if not more complicit.
A woman is a “thing” to own, she is “yours”, you “own” her loyalty and dedication, she has you to thank for the food on her table and the clothes on her back. We allow them to spend our money, we let them go out with their friends. If we cheat on them, they just need to understand – men are just like that, and they found us like this and need to accept us the way we are.
It might seem petty, a little chauvinistic and no more, but the implications are far-reaching. The above narrative soon turns to, “How dare she say no to me, I will teach her a lesson.”
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.
Rape does not start with non-consensual sexual penetration, but it starts when you force a woman or a girl to go out with you, when you don’t get it when she moves away as you gyrate up against her in nightclub or when you believe that she keeps her job because of her impressive cleavage.
Rape happens when you apply a different set of rules for women, where they are just a little less human and capable than you.
Unfortunately this realisation does not come about when you are blindfolded and awaiting your death on the gallows, nor does it hit you when the ANC Women’s League or Cosatu organises a march. So as much as we need to speak out against rape, we really need to be honest, fess up and actually change our attitudes towards women. The first step would be to have the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities change her portfolio – as women are not handicapped or children, and have unique challenges of their own. DM
Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
"The soul is known by its acts" ~ Thomas Aquinas