Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg, is a densely populated melting pot with some of South Africa’s worst social ills. Poverty, unemployment, HIV/Aids and crime.
One of the most common crimes in Alexandra Township — and throughout the country — is rape. A recent survey by the Medical Research Council of South Africa, a statutory government funded body, found that one in four South African men has raped at least one woman in their lifetime. And that nearly half have raped more than one woman. We talked with some Alexandra Township men who openly admitted they have raped and speaking to them it became clear that at the time they committed the crime they did not see it as wrong. They have grown up watching male members of their community treat women with contempt, they told us. Beating women, raping them and treating them like second class citizens — that is what they have grown up believing was the right way to treat females. One of the men — who CNN agreed not to name — told us that he and three friends gang-raped a girl they met a party. Watch the men describe their attacks » “With me it was not a problem,” he said, “but when I went to the bathroom having to find the third guy busy with her it was like I had a problem because she was crying, she was not happy.” His friend added: “I would tell myself that there is nothing I want in life that I can’t get, even a beautiful woman because when you try your luck with them, their response makes you feel like you are nothing. That’s why we decide to do things like this, having sex with them forcefully.” The men we talked to have all spent time in jail but have never been convicted of rape. Zwelithini Sono, a former defense lawyer who now helps rape victims, says he has never lost a rape case. “Police inefficiency, criminal justice backlogs, ill prepared prosecutors who in some instances are really not sensitive about the cases and the kind of trauma that the victims are normally exposed to, and the time that it takes between arrest and the prosecution or even finalization of these cases is really too much for some of the victims to even be able to stay in the system and ensure that they finally get the justice,” said Sono. He says he reached his breaking point in 2005 after securing yet another acquittal for a rape suspect — who then admitted to a friend that he committed the crime. Sono now provides legal assistance for rape victims and counsels young men about the seriousness of violence against women. He says apartheid is partly to blame for the way young men in South Africa have been socialized. It institutionalized violence, broke up homes and left boys without good role models to teach them right from wrong, he said. “There has not been enough conversations with men to try to sensitize them on the violence of rape, how sensitive women are and the kind of love that we can actually share.” Andile Gaelesiwe is a rape victim who is also trying to change the culture by encouraging women to speak out. She was raped by her father at the age of 11 and again by a taxi driver in her late teens. She says the stigma and shame of rape is what forces most women including herself to keep it a secret. She said: “It’s usually somebody that you know — an uncle, a neighbor — and therefore families would rather say ‘what are people going to say if we turn around and say uncle so and so did it, let’s rather we shut up about it.’ “Other families, especially in the rural areas, will go as far as saying the accused’s family or the actual accused pays some kind of damage to this family as if to say that this girl who has been raped will now be healed because the two families have had an understanding.” She publicly revealed her experience in 2003 when a caller to the radio station where she worked threatened to kill herself after being raped. Attitudes may take years to transform but both Sono and Gaelesiwe are among South Africans trying to turn the tide of abuse. “There can be a change of mindset. If we put processes together there will be a battle that we are going to win and that is to provide our women and children with the best support with love that they wish for each and every day,” Sono said. The South African government’s efforts to deal with the scourge have been criticized as uncoordinated and unsustainable. They include establishing courts sensitive to sexual violence. It is a battle government alone will not be able to win and hence the importance of involvement by people like Sono. The young rapists we met have attended Sono’s session and they tell us they do not see themselves violating women ever again. “One thing that especially us black people need is studies about humanity,” one of them said, “so that I can see my sister as my sister and let not that thought come into my mind.” They now believe that part of the answer lies in women being strong enough to face their accusers in court. But in South Africa this takes courage and is even harder when a victim does not have support from her family or community.
According to the latest police statistics 36,190 women were raped between April and December 2007 — more than 130 rapes a day. But these were the reported cases. Human rights activists believe majority of rapes in South Africa go unreported.