There is a conversation we are not really having in South Africa and on the occasions that I have written about it or raised it as a subject on the radio I have felt dejected, overwhelmed and despondent. It concerns rape. The amount of rape and other forms of sexual violence that take place in this country, with its so-called progressive Constitution, is staggering. My heartache stems less from the rape of women and children itself, but more from the reaction to this heinous crime.
As a woman living in this country, there is no greater fear than that of being raped. I cannot imagine anything more humiliating and punishing than a man subjecting me as a woman to the most vile and violent expression of his power. The immediate reaction of my male readers and listeners is to defensively say: “Not all of us are rapists”. But the majority of rapists are men so when are we going to start talking about this huge group? If men who are not rapists are not prepared to join us in a frank conversation about this abhorrent crime but instead display an intolerable defensiveness and hijack every available platform to push an irrelevant agenda, then we are clearly a long way from holding each other’s hands as men and women and fighting this scourge.
By constantly reminding us that “it was not me”, these men seem to want us to thank them for not raping a woman. You do not get an award for not committing a crime.
As a woman living in this country, there is no greater fear than that of being raped
There are many examples of the strides society has made in empowering women in South Africa. Women in the state and civil society have been able to secure substantial political and legal advances in the past 20 years. There is a significant representation of women in state and private institutions. As far as the representation of women in Parliament is concerned, South Africa is at the top of the list, with the highest representation in the Southern African Development Community region. But we must be careful not to be duped into believing that the central place accorded to women in the new political order means dignity and respect for women is the subsequent outcome. Cosmetic changes have been made but in terms of making a difference in the lives of the women who are genuinely shackled and not empowered to negotiate their income, safe sex, access to health care and justice in the event of the endemic gender-based violence, there is absolutely nothing to celebrate.
How do we explain the fact that in a country with the highest representation of women in Parliament, it took so many years for the Sexual Offences Act to be passed? The women in Parliament and various ministries should have used their platform to be vociferous in demanding justice for raped women and challenging the system that continues to humiliate us. When the conviction rate for rape and domestic violence is reported to be low, when a rape victim’s case is postponed 22 times, it is not the non-governmental organisations that should be marching but the women in Parliament. It is they who are empowered and are in a position to challenge their male comrades and demand that other women, who do not have a voice, must also be heard.
The tragic irony of this class-based empowerment of women is that rape is the one thing that makes us equal as women. Regardless of how powerful, educated or influential you are, this weapon called rape has been used on you in the same way that it has been used on an uneducated, unemployed and poor woman. That is why, for as long as I have the voice and the platform, I will continue to raise this topic.
— Redi Tlhabi