Published 9 years ago

He was a familiar face in her neighbor-hood who offered her a ride one day.

But as the little car drove past her stop, where she was to get off, and sped on to the freeway and into inner city Johannesburg, she knew there was danger ahead.

“From that moment, I just felt something was not right. He wasn’t touching me, he wasn’t doing anything but I just knew it,” says Nkuli Bogopa, opening up about the day she was raped at the age of 19 by a man she knew in a part of town she was afraid of. The darkness of that day seems light years away, visibly conflicting with the cheerful woman she is today in the brightly-colored room where we meet.


Bogopa is a woman of the new South African middle class, with a tertiary degree, a great job and a family. She is not the common face of rape in this country. Yet, we can only blame popular perceptions of rape for this.

Shortly before the interview, Bogopa was the one asking the questions: “what kind of women have you reached out to?”, “where are they from?”, and “what did they do?”.

It was easy to understand her concern: rape survivors are not an analogous demographic. They are separate people, from discrete communities and backgrounds. They were brought up in different ways and believe in different things.


The violation of their bodies, and in some cases, hopes, is the single thing that unites them. In many cases, it changes them completely. The person who emerges from a sexual assault can never be the same again. At the same time, the people and the world around the victim change. American writer and lecturer on psychology and politics, Andrew Solomon, says it best.

“Historically, rape has been seen less as a violation of a woman than as a theft from a man to whom that woman belonged, either her husband or her father, who suffered an economic loss (a woman’s marriageability spoiled) and an insult to his honor.”

Fear And Shame

In South Africa, signs of this quiet paternalistic culture are clear. This can explain, partly, the culture of fear and shame that surrounds reporting a rape or seeking justice.


Perhaps a popular example of this is the 2006 rape trial of a prominent South African politician, who in his 60s, was accused of raping a 31-year-old woman, related to him through a family friendship. At the end of a two-month trial, the politician was acquitted.

The brutal gang rape and disembowelment of Western Cape teen, Anene Booysen in 2013 was another famous case that rocked South Africa. Weeks earlier, there had been fury in India after a young woman in New Delhi was killed in a similar, hideous crime, and a furious South Africa realized it too was confronting a tide of sexual violence.


Is There Justice?


The nation has not completely failed its women, children and sexually-vulnerable citizens. In 2007, the laws governing rape changed. Definitions were broadened to include both male and female victims as well as a range of sexual violations that constitute an offense.

Even the nature of the law changed. Rape is no longer governed by common law which relies heavily on the court’s prior decisions. Legislation is now in place which elevates rape to a statutory offense.

Signs of change have been celebrated by prosecutors.

In 2007, the year the new sexual offenses act came into operation, over 52,000 rape and other sexual crimes were reported to police and relevant authorities. However, in the course of gathering evidence, 60% of these cases were abandoned. Eventually, only 2,105 cases secured conviction which is only 4% of all cases reported that year.


Seven years later, the figures are much healthier. This year, more than 62,000 victims came forward, over half them were specifically rape complaints. It was a bumper crop for convictions, the highest in recent history, at 67%.

However, if you look at actual statistics, you’ll notice a major shortfall. The conviction rate corresponds to cases that ended up going to trial. So in reality, of the cases reported this year, only 8,174 went to court and only 5,484 cases secured convictions. It illustrates that sexual violence in South Africa is still an issue that needs to be addressed.


The Third Witness


There are adverse circumstances responsible for this.

Cases are often withdrawn due to lack of evidence. The J88 form, known in courtrooms as the ‘third witness’, is a form filled after a sexual offense is reported. It records medical evidence on the victim and determines whether a rape occurred. Often, injuries are relied upon as signs of violation. In many cases, the information is vague or the examination is rushed. Advocates routinely argue for these reports to be made inadmissible during trial, eliminating the only tangible evidence of a rape outside of witness testimonies.

In some cases, rape dockets detailing the original complaint, disappear without explanation. In some areas, there is allegedly an ‘unofficial’ price list to make them disappear.

Mara Glennie, founder of Tears Foundation, a referral service for victims of sexual crimes, says this might be true in certain parts of the country.

“I do believe that [this] does happen. There are areas in our country that have a high incidence of gangsterism where this can occur.”

Without a docket recording an offense, a case cannot proceed to trial.

Other reasons leading to the low number of cases that go to court have to do with criminal procedure. Investigators assigned to a case can be spread too thin so they may not follow up the complaint, or they report the victim or accused missing. If either one is missing, or cannot be found due to address informalities common in townships and rural areas, a case cannot go to trial.

But perhaps the greatest hurdle to having a case go to court happens at the point of reporting it. Glennie was herself a victim of sexual and violent abuse. She remembers her visit to the police station.

“I went to my local police station with black eyes and limping. I asked if I could lay a charge of abuse.”

It was a Friday and when she got to the station she was asked to return on Monday because the responsible officer was not around.

“Quite often you have unsympathetic people, generally-speaking, people who don’t want to help. It’s a messy procedure,” she says.

However, there may be a reason behind the lethargy at police stations. The South African Police Service has targets to meet and is expected to reduce violent crime by at least 4% each year. This serves as a major disincentive for officers to ensure that reported rape cases reach investigators and prosecutors.



But victims themselves are slow to report crimes because of fear. In a majority of cases, the offenders are known to them, as Bogopa’s story shows. Far beyond intimidation, women who have been raped may be slow to speak because of cultural taboos.

“No one wants to say they’ve been abused by their partner, people may not want to date a rape victim. Also, there are negative financial consequences, the person that hurt you might be the breadwinner,” says Glennie.

But beyond the structures that victims can appeal to, the context in which they live is at odds with itself. South Africa is a historically conservative country grappling with the progressive laws that now govern it. The prevalence of rape and other violent crime has often been blamed on a crippling culture of violence that began during colonial rule and continued past the end of apartheid.

The legacy of the country’s past has encouraged violence in certain parts of the country. Former segregationist policies left townships unpoliced in some instances. Gangs and criminal groups in townships flourished during this time.

In Soweto, the Jack Roller gang, a youth gang prominent in the 1980s, were specialists in abducting and raping women in townships.

Their legacy continues with ‘jackrolling’ as the common street term for recreationally raping women in this way. It is clear that to alleviate the sexual crime endemic in South Africa, the mindsets of perpetrators have to change.

Back in Bogopa’s colorful office, she talks about a project she is working on.

“For as long as women are the only people talking about this issue, it’s never going to change. Our jails are full of men, our street corners are full of men, a majority of our crime is committed by men. Women are on the receiving end, men are on the other side. We need to invest more time in the boy child, we need to build better men.”

So this has become her crusade, she founded an organization that routinely brings young men together to freely discuss the “the issues of life”. Bogopa is working with a small group of young men which she hopes to grow to 2,050 annually.

“I want the message to be as broad-based as possible,” she says.

In a country known to be an international rape capital, cultural and historical problems run deep. The South African Medical Council has noted that only one in nine rape victims make it to the police station to report the crime implying the reported figures may be much higher.

Even as more and more rapes are recorded and conviction rates rise, the problems within and around sexual violence in the Republic hint at a quiet crisis where the nation’s constitutional ideals are misaligned with the attitudes of its public.

Related Topics: #Abuse, #November 2014, #Rape, #Survivors, #Violation.