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South Africa’s War on Women

Tuesday 30 September 2014

SEPT. 28, 2014

T.O. Molefe

CAPE TOWN — Two years ago, when Jyoti Pandey, a 23-year-old Indian physiotherapy intern, was gang-raped and fatally beaten by six men on a bus in New Delhi, there was a moment of soul searching among South Africans.

We knew such brutal acts are commonplace here, yet could not recall the last time we reacted with anywhere near comparable outrage. The sad truth is that many of us had been hardened by the daily news reports of violence committed by men against women and the perfunctory moments the government officially sets aside to reflect on them. The overwhelming visceral response from Indians shook those of us who heard about it from our stupor.

Our national resignation to gender-based violence has its roots in the myths and logical fallacies we rely on to excuse our inaction and dissociate ourselves from the everyday brutalities committed against women.

This collective resignation is most evident in response to the seemingly ceaseless instances of murder and rape that befall black lesbians. Just last month, 23-year-old Gift Makau was found gruesomely murdered in a township just outside of Ventersdorp, roughly 100 miles west of Johannesburg. It is believed she had also been raped. Ms. Makau, like the majority of lesbian victims, was out to members of her community and presented herself outwardly as masculine; she was targeted for being lesbian and for her gender expression, too.

This month the body of 28-year-old Thembelihle Sokhela was found in Daveyton, a township just east of Johannesburg. She was reportedly found in the room of a man now charged with her murder. Activists say she, too, was raped before she was killed.

However gruesome they may be, crimes against black lesbians don’t register on the public’s radar amid the general landscape of violence. The police reported that there were over 17,000 homicides and 62,000 sexual assaults in South Africa between April 2013 and the end of March 2014.

In fact, some public officials and commentators have argued that if the intention is to reduce murder, focusing on the relatively few crimes committed against black lesbians is misguided, since the majority of homicide victims are men. But this logical fallacy assumes that seeking to reduce hate crimes committed against black lesbians would come at the expense of reducing other murders.

When South African government functionaries lament violence against women and children during the official 16 days set aside each December for that purpose, they seldom reflect on their role in allowing the conditions that foment the violence to continue unabated. To them, the violence against women and children, and the disorder and structural violence in the country’s poor townships over which they preside are unrelated.

The fact that the murders and rape of black lesbians take place in townships points to the existence of a general disregard for the lives of people who live there. Twenty years after the country’s first democratic election, the townships remain underdeveloped and poorly resourced. The schools there are generally poor and job opportunities are few. Police and residents are constantly at loggerheads, if not about inadequate policing then over the excessive force police use to end protests over township living conditions.

There is also the case of Oscar Pistorius, the world-famous athlete who this month was found guilty of culpable homicide for fatally shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He now faces a potential maximum prison sentence of 15 years on that charge and up to five years on a lesser charge of negligently firing a gun in public. His case has nonetheless forced South Africans to confront two dangerous dissociative myths.

Mr. Pistorius is wealthy, dashing, famous and white. He has challenged South Africans’ quietly whispered belief that domestic violence and femicide are the preserve of poor, black men prone to alcohol and substance abuse.

This belief allowed middle class and wealthy whites to tut disbelievingly as they leafed through the Sunday papers reading about the latest incidents of violence against women. In their minds, this violence was something happening far away and the people involved were part of a society divorced from their own.

The public spectacle of the Pistorius trial, which centered on a predominantly white gated community in Pretoria changed all that; it’s no longer so easy to tune out to the shouting, breaking glass and sounds of fists on flesh coming from the house next door.

Regardless of whether there’s any truth to Mr. Pistorius’s defense against the charges — that he feared someone had broken into his home and fired shots in self-defense — his argument exposed the violent masculinity that cost Ms. Steenkamp her life. The person from whom he was supposedly protecting himself and Ms. Steenkamp was a figment of the white middle-class imagination: a member of the dreaded hordes of poor, black men who each night ostensibly scale the electrified fences of gated communities to rape and pillage.

The question now facing us is how to make each South African realize that the instances of brutality against women they hear about periodically are patches in a larger quilt of myth and inaction. So insidious and pervasive are these myths that no one can completely deny complicity. Perhaps only when each of us begins to take personal responsibility for the violence we allow in our midst will South Africa, like India, have its moment of collective outrage over violence against women.


T. O. Molefe is an essayist, at work on a book on post-apartheid race relations.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 29, 2014, in The International New York Times.

See online: South Africa’s War on Women