The recent news of womxn being robbed and sexually assaulted in taxis in Johannesburg has shocked the country and, once again, highlighted the rape epidemic and continued normalisation of sexual violence in South Africa. The taxi industry, transport ministry and the police have come under severe critique in their responses to the incidents of sexual violence. Yet the trend among these actors is to shift the blame onto the victims/survivors by admonishing them “to take the necessary precautions in protecting themselves from attack” or arguing that “women are responsible for their own safety while commuting as they make themselves vulnerable to rape in the way that they dress”.
I use the taxis in Cape Town daily. On my commute to work, I take a brief 300m walk from my street to the taxi. Along that walk I have been followed twice by men I did not know. When I get into the taxi I might face harassment, from the gaatjie (conductor), fellow commuters and if I’m unfortunate enough to sit in the front, by the taxi driver. Upon my arrival at the Cape Town Station, harassment is rife from traffic cops, vendors, taxi drivers, the owners of shops. On my 1.3km walk from the station to work I can expect to be catcalled, grabbed by vendors, homeless people, policemen, government officials as I walk past Parliament and sometimes even school children join in. I can wear tight jeans, a lose dashiki, a pant-suit, gym clothes. It does not matter, sexual harassment is an everyday, every minute facet of life in South Africa. I am constantly reminded that as a black woman, my existence is fragile, my dignity as elusive as ever.
Rape culture is part of South African culture. It is normalised in our daily interactions in the taxi, at school, at places of worship, in the office, walking down the street, or shopping. It is part of our mundane activities, it features heavily in both the public and private sphere. It is a product of a system and a history of institutionalised coloniality, racism, patriarchy, misogyny and misogynoir. Rape culture is a product of gendered socialisation, it is one of the tenets of heteronormativity and patriarchy. According to Everyday Feminism, Rape Culture can be defined as “situations in which sexual assault, rape, and incidents of violence are ignored, trivialised, normalised, or made into jokes. It refers to cultural practices that excuse or tolerate sexual violence by trivialising, or normalising it”.
South Africa has one of the highest sexual violence rates in the world, it has even been said to be comparable to the sexual violence rates of countries in conflict. According to the Rape Crisis Centre, of the one in nine cases that will be reported to the police, only 4% will end up in prosecution. Many do not report rape for multiple reasons – fear of persecution (societally or within their families, if the perpetrator is a relative); a lack of trust in law enforcement; fear of retaliation by the perpetrator/s; or a financial loss in incidences where they are being supported by their perpetrator/s. Moreover, some victims/survivors of rape are invisibilised by their positionality, while members of the LGBTQIA+, undocumented refugee/migrant womxn, or sex workers, might not report rape due to fear of further discrimination, persecution or hate crimes. Thus rape statistics might not accurately reflect the endemic nature of gender-based violence in South Africa.
Rape Culture, is not however, a post 1994 occurrence, Pumla Gqola (Rape: A South African Nightmare), highlights that naturally rape statistics would rise in post-1994 South Africa as black women are now more likely to report sexual violence, as previously police had been antagonistic. Moreover during the colonial and apartheid era, black men were hung for rape and only for raping white women. The rapes of enslaved womxn in the Cape Colony and black womxn in the townships and homelands were easily glossed over as black womxn were viewed as sub-human, lacking the dignity and racial purity of human white women. This narrative is one that continues today, the outcry over the rape of white women is often disproportionate to those of black womxn. Take the ways in which Anene Booysen was depicted in print media, often her mutilated beat-up body was displayed with very little regard for her dignity, as if she were an animal. Yet the victim of the Tokai Rape, Franziska Blöchliger, a white girl, was often depicted in family portraits or smiling portraits of herself. Black bodies are perpetually dehumanised and viewed as ungrievable.
Sara Baartman, Fezeka Khuzwayo, Anene Booysen, Nokuphila Khumalo and now the #TaxiRape are not anomalies, they are a part of patriarchal fabric that constitutes South Africa. It is thus disconcerting to hear the many voices in our public and private spaces talk of the series of rapes on taxis that have occurred as an anomaly. As if one in three women are not the survivors/victims of rape, as if ukuthwala, marital and corrective rapes are not taking place daily. As if Zapiro, does not think it inconsequential to continuously use the narrative of the rape of black womxn as if it were a joke, obfuscating the centuries of colonial misogynoir. We are now confining “rape” to an incident, that thing that happens over there to those commuters in the taxi. It erroneously distances the 32% of South African’s who do not have to use public transport from the 68% who have no choice but to use public transport. As if the middle and upper class do not commit rapes or are victimised by it.
It further stigmatises, “those taxi drivers” as the singular image of rape in South Africa. This erases the endemic nature of rape culture in this country, it excuses marital rape, the rapes of sex workers, the everyday sexual harassment that takes place in office places, universities, schools, hospitals, places of worship. South Africa bemoans this as #TaxiRape, a problem that those who commute on public transport have to deal with, we should avoid white Quantums and those four men, “take safety precautions”. But what of those rapists who work with us, study with us and live in our own homes? Can SAPS please advise on what we are to do about them? DM
Mamello Mosiana is an Intern for the Justice and Peace-building programme at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
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