News / Gender-Based Violence

South Africa’s rape epidemic

The following article first appeared in The Economist, 9th March 2017

Brown Lekekela dreads the end of the month. Payday means binge drinking. Violence follows. Women turn up battered and distraught at his gate, usually with small children in tow. They have nowhere else to go: Mr Lekekela’s emergency shelter, Green Door, is the only one in all of Diepsloot, a hardscrabble township north of Johannesburg that is home to an estimated half a million souls. The shelter, built in the yard of his humble house, can fit two women and their children, plus maybe one more family on the couch in his office. He runs it on donations and sheer willpower.

Mr Lekekela has a first-aid kit and some training to treat minor injuries. For more serious ones, it can take hours for an ambulance to arrive. Sometimes the women (or their children) have been raped. But with no other income or support, they often end up returning to their abusive partners. “It’s hard,” says the soft-spoken Mr Lekekela. “But if I don’t do it, who will?”

Rape and domestic violence are hard to measure, since victims often suffer in silence. And headline-writers overuse the word “epidemic”. But in South Africa it clearly applies. For a study published in November by the University of the Witwatersrand and Sonke Gender Justice, a non-profit group, 2,600 men in Diepsloot were surveyed anonymously. An astonishing 38% admitted to having used force or threats to obtain sex in the preceding year. Add those who said they had beaten, hurt or threatened to use a weapon against a woman, and the share jumps to 54%. Of those men, more than half said they had committed such crimes more than once.

Many men in Diepsloot, as in many other parts of South Africa, do not think they are doing anything wrong. They think they have a right to use force against their partners. In addition, many of the men interviewed had themselves experienced childhood abuse or trauma. Some were mentally ill. Those who abuse others suffer few consequences, whether from the law or neighbours. Diepsloot, a warren of shacks with pockets of small houses, did not exist until the mid-1990s, so everyone comes from somewhere else. “These men think they can do whatever they like,” says Precious Moeketsi, a 28-year-old with two young children who shares a shack with her sister’s family. “I feel worried living here.”

Although South Africa has strict laws against violence, they are spottily enforced. Researchers found that of 500 sexual-assault cases reported to the police in Diepsloot since 2013, only one resulted in a conviction. Small wonder rape is so rarely reported. (Researchers guess that police are informed about only one of every nine sexual assaults in South Africa.) Women worry about what friends and family will think. Some fear reprisals. Policemen are sometimes sceptical and tell women to go home and smooth things over. Even officers who take the issue seriously are hamstrung. Diepsloot’s police station has no specialist unit for rape and sexual-assault cases; the nearest one takes an hour to get to. The closest state hospital that can examine victims is 30km away.

Simply getting to court can be steep barrier. To get a restraining order, for example, a woman in Diepsloot will have to pay 26 rand ($2) for a round trip by minibus-taxi to the nearest magistrates’ court – a lot of money for a woman with no job. Lawyers Against Abuse, a non-profit group, supports women with free legal and psychological services offered from a refurbished shipping container near the police station.

The cycle of abuse “will become the culture of how we live”, frets Mr Lekekela. “But this is not how we are supposed to live.”

9 March 2017
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