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The rape of South Africa’s children

There is increasing evidence that rates of child sexual abuse and rape are disproportionately high in sub-Saharan Africa. A searingly powerful photographic exhibition hopes to break the silence and shame society into facing up to its sickness.

In mid-winter 1990 in Dobsonville, a group of Sowetan women living in shacks on no-man’s-land tried to fight off the police, their attack dogs and the bulldozers that had arrived to demolish their homes. Although forced removals were commonplace under apartheid, this protest would draw national and international attention because it took an unusual form; in a direct challenge to the androcentric apartheid state, the women had stripped off their clothes to shame the authorities.

In winter 2014, during evictions of shack dwellers in Philippi, Cape Town, reporters for GroundUp witnessed a woman stripping off her clothes in protest.

GroundUp took the editorial decision not to show her naked and to cut the video at the point she starts to strip. What you do not see therefore is that she is successful; the police and eviction squad desist when she bares herself. Her shack was one of the lucky ones spared by the city’s anti-land invasion unit that day.

This history of South African women using their bodies to shame society and its authorities into responding to their plight is helpful in locating a recent photographic exhibition of devastatingly powerful images taken by German-South African photographer, Maryatta Wegerif.

Titled ‘Behind Walls’, the to-date hardly-seen exhibition in a hardly-known gallery in Muizenberg, Cape Town, deals with the aftermath of a child rape. To take the picutres, Wegerif spent days working with her model and collaborator, Thandi (not her real name).

The survivor of a prolonged gang rape by seven men when she was 12 years old, Thandi, now 23, has never stopped suffering. The men were adults, friends of the family and neighbours. Only one did jail time; others were protected by the family.

Though only a child, she was blamed for her victimhood, told it was “her own fault”, she got what she “deserved”, and that she was “stupid”. Her rape did not stop there; a grownup cousin molested her for a further two weeks. She was eventually sent away by her aunt, reinforcing her sense of shame and guilt.

Besides the lasting physical and emotional damage, Thandi is also morbidly obese from an eating disorder, one result of the trauma she suffered. She is now trying to break out of this prison of flesh she has constructed for herself.

The photographs of her naked body are both beautiful and yet hard to confront. The closed room they chose for the setting, Wegerif says, “became Thandi’s realm in which she, for the first time in ten years, felt free to express her pain. She was determined that I show the sadness, the loneliness, the depression, the urge to wash and the need to eat. It was a heavy and a difficult day for Thandi.”

Thandi has explained her decision to be photographed: “If one girl, who had the same experience as I did, sees my story, she will know that she is not alone. If one mother teaches her son to respect women because of my story, it will result in one man who will not hurt women.”

Behind Walls

Those who know Thandi say she has a remarkable ability with children. Her primary ambition is to finish her schooling, which was so brutally cut off, but currently, working as a cleaner, she earns only R300 a week and cannot afford it.

The portraits of Thandi speak to the shame of South African society. 2012 statistics show that child victims accounted for 40% of all sexual offences. Of the 30,893 sexual offences committed against children made known to the police in 2013/14, the police identified the perpetrators in 20,115 cases. That is a good figure for the SA police. The problem is that most rape is committed by someone the child knows and trusts and is not reported. A prevention strategy is what is called for.

South Africa also has about 100 cases a year of child rape homicide, a phenomenon virtually unknown elsewhere, even in other violent societies. Although the reason for this is not yet understood, the reasons for the appalling levels of rape are not a mystery. South Africa has a history of dehumanising others, which it has still not shaken. Under apartheid, institutionalised violence was the order of the day, from the first day of school to military conscription. Masculinity was defined by aggression; admired for its violence. Marital rape was not even recognised by the state. Many men still believe they can decide when a rape is excusable based on the victim’s behaviour.

Patriarchal gender norms in both black and white society are now reinforced by socio-economic gender inequality.

Violent masculinity and rape permeates gang culture in the Western Cape, exacerbated by alcohol and methamphetamine abuse, starting at an early age. A culture of impunity means that few rape perpetrators face consequences and victims remain defenceless.

Government has culpability here. It has still not got its national strategic plan on gender-based violence together and there have been unforgiveable and excessive delays in the implementation of the rape law reform process, which started in 1997.

Last week, a sobering report, Child Gauge 2014, was released by the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, giving a picture of the conditions facing South Africa’s 18.5 million children, 56% of which live below the poverty line, 3.8 million in overcrowded households, one in five orphaned.

The subject is so unpleasant that society would generally prefer not to speak about child victims like Thandi. People prefer to be outraged rather than taking a hard look at themselves and their communities.

Lucy Jamieson, one of the authors of the report, notes that the media has focussed on the need to strengthen policing and responsiveness to rape. But, says Jamieson, “we are trying to emphasise that prevention is possible and a much better strategy both in the best interests of the child and society in general … These include proven interventions – parenting programmes, teacher training, life-skills programmes for adolescents, and safe and supervised care for children after school and during the holidays.”

Thandi’s scars remain deeply etched into her life and her body. She has now shared this pain in an extraordinarily brave and arresting way. Her message is clear; the goal has to be to prevent rape in the first place; it is not enough to treat its victims and punish its perpetrators.

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