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How rape became South Africa’s enduring nightmare

New crime statistics show a slight drop in sexual offences but experts say true figures are much higher. The Daily Maverick asks if history can cure the crisis

Most South Africans learn about rape, or the threat of rape, when they are very young – even if they are yet to have the words for it. Sexual abuse has become normalised.

Though the country’s annual crime figures, released on Tuesday, saw the number of sexual offences drop by just over 5% to 53 617 between 2014–2015, most researchers believe this figure reflects only a fraction of actual that occur.

The chances of rape convictions have proved to be scanter still.

“I do not remember how old I was when I first became aware of rape as a thing in the world,” writes professor Pumla Dineo Gqola, who has made sexual assault the focus of her new book Rape: A South African Nightmare.

Understanding history

The notion that rape in South Africa is a specifically post-apartheid problem is dismantled by Gqola, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand.

It is natural that rape statistics would rise after 1994, she writes, because black women felt more comfortable to come forward. Police stations under apartheid had previously been deeply unfriendly places.

If we’re serious about tackling rape we must interrogate its histories properly, Gqola adds, taking into account the rape and forced impregnation of slave women in Cape society and that rape was a core feature of British colonial rule. Under apartheid, no white men were hanged for rape and the only black men who were hanged for rape were convicted of raping white women.

A history of violence and dispossession has bred a toxic masculinity at both ends of the political spectrum.

“Under colonialism and apartheid, adult Africans were designated boys and girls, legally and economically infantilised,” Gqola writes. Asserting masculinity could provide a way of rejecting that position.

Both sides were prone to hyper-masculinity – from the apartheid agents to the liberation figures, the struggle hero to the gun-toting Afrikaner.

Widespread perceptions about rape complicate the picture further: not all women are attacked by people they know; the abuse of children demonstrates that it is not all about sex.

There is no significant difference in the profile of those who rape adults and those who rape children, Gqola argues.

Nor is it about income. “I cannot accept the lie that poverty makes it more likely for men to rape,” Gqola writes, and her book profiles a number of cases involving wealthy, or relatively well-off men.