At least 110 women are raped in South Africa. Every day.
There are many similar statistics, all pointing to the same stupefying fact – that South Africa is one of the most dangerous places for girls and women.
This writer too is a survivor of an episode of violence, which – ironically – happened the evening before the country celebrated Women’s Day (August 9) in 2014.
In South Africa, a strong patriarchal mind-set, coupled with the intersection of race, gender, class and other identities, influence gender-based violence. There is also a gross underreporting of such crimes.
In the following pages, two educated young women recount how they didn’t let their own experience of violence get them down.
Samantha Smit* (name changed to protect identity) and Bukelwa Moerane reside 40 kilometers from each other, one in the affluent area of Roodepoort, and the other in Diepsloot, a township in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg. Their paths have never crossed, but destiny served them the same experience from hell – and they survived it.
Samantha Smit, 28
In 2013, three days after South Africa celebrated Women’s Day, Smit was drugged and raped by three male friends she had known for seven years.
When we meet her on a warm Thursday evening in January, the neighborhood is quiet, and her home warm and secure with high security fences. Wearing an oversized t-shirt and jeans, she leads us to the pool area her father helps set up for us.
Underneath Smit’s warm exterior is the aching heart of a woman still trying to comprehend a disturbing episode in her past.
“When you read statistics about women who experience violence, whether it’s sexual violence, domestic abuse or interpersonal violence, I would think I was lucky to not have experienced anything before I was 18 years old. And [this state of the country] is a sad reality,” says Smit.
What was an ordinary night out with friends ended up being her worst nightmare.
“They asked us to come through to their flat which was nothing strange, because we have all been friends for a long time. We trusted them, we knew them and often went to each other’s houses.”
They offered her a drink, which she didn’t know was spiked with Liquid E, a date rape drug.
Fifteen minutes later, she felt dizzy.
The next thing, they were stripping her in the kitchen and dragging her into the bedroom.
“The more I put my clothes back on, the more they were taken off. They found it amusing,” she recalls.
Smit was powerless at the time.
“It was like a ragdoll effect. I knew it was happening, I didn’t black out, I didn’t lose consciousness. But I wasn’t able to do anything about it. I felt like I was looking into the situation. The next morning, I had a cup of coffee and left,” she tells us.
She was in denial and did not want the stigma attached to being a victim.
“I think a part of me knew all along, but did not want to accept it. I also felt like maybe if we don’t give it a name it won’t have the impact… Because at least you still have a little bit of power and it is not completely stripped from you,” she says.
Her life was never to be the same again.
“Suddenly I couldn’t stand people touching me. It would suddenly repulse me. I was startled incredibly easily,” she says.
She suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and checked into a clinic five months after the incident.
“It’s a difficult thing to admit to yourself… I realized I was spiralling out of control.”
But she soon reclaimed her power by writing a letter to the three men and confronting them individually.
Though the scar will never completely heal, counselling, and opening up to other women, has helped.
“Every woman I opened up to had a similar story to share. That helped me a lot in breaking down the stigma.”
Bukelwa Moerane, 25
Moerane has been more vocal about her “near-death experience”. She lost her teeth trying to escape from her abductor in February last year.
She was on her way home in a taxi one night from Maponya Mall in the township of Soweto. As she stepped out at the Bara taxi rank in Soweto, it was near empty; then out of the blue, a man driving a navy Polo came up from behind and shoved her into his vehicle.
“What was going through my mind was ‘I don’t know if this guy has a gun behind me or a knife’. He said to me, ‘don’t do anything stupid, you will get hurt’. Instantly, as he said that, my mind stopped working,” shares Moerane.
The abductor drove off with her, holding on tightly to her wrist.
“He was swearing at me, and saying ‘I will rape you, I will kill you, don’t even try anything funny’!”
Moerane started saying her last prayers thinking of her mother and four-year-old daughter. Then, she noticed the door was unlocked.
“My heart started to beat faster. I started thinking ‘I need to get out, I need to get out, there is something I need to do’,” she says.
The kidnapper headed down a dark road she knew.
“I knew if he did something to me in that area, no one was going to find me. I know there are most [probably] thousands of bodies in that area not checked for. I was not going to be one of them,” says Moerane.
She pretended to be relaxed.
“I then looked at him, and noticed he was scared as well. His voice was shaking. I think he had gone through something and felt the need to revenge on me.”
She was no longer frightened.
“So if this person is scared, why should I be scared? I told myself to calm down and I started calming down, because he was holding on to my right hand at the time,” says Moerane.
She somehow mustered the courage to jump out of the moving vehicle kicking the door until it opened.
“He was slapping me and was trying to hold my hand. With the other hand, he was trying to drive and there was oncoming traffic.”
Her biggest fear was for the kidnapper to grab a weapon and kill her, so she leapt out. She lost two of her front teeth, and was bruised and injured.
“I could see my skin peeling off, and dark particles. My glasses fell off. While this car was dragging me, I don’t know for how long, I landed with my hands trying to protect my face, but I guess I was too late,” she says.
Bleeding, she got back up and ran for her life. She tried to stop moving cars, pleading for help, but none did. At the nearest garage, she was taken to Baragwanath Hospital.
Moerane still fears traveling by herself, but finds solace speaking out.
She was a participant at the #NotInMyName march last year to the Union Buildings in South Africa’s capital Pretoria sparked by the death of Karabo Mokoena, the young woman allegedly stabbed 27 times by her ex-boyfriend.
Moerane also took to Twitter to speak out against gender-based violence in the country. She posted images of her after the kidnapping and sought crowdfunding to fix her smile.
That’s when celebrity dentist Alexander Faizi Rawhani, known as Dr Smile, helped put the smile back on her face.
“I believe God kept me safe that time and he [the abductor] could do it again. But one thing I know is if he comes back, we go out together. I don’t go out alone. We die together this time,” says Moerane.
Physical violence against women
• 21% of women over the age of 18 reported they had experienced violence at the hands of a partner. That’s one in five women.
• Divorced or separated women are more likely to experience physical abuse.
• The Eastern Cape has the highest rate of physical abuse (a whopping 32% women reporting it).
Sexual violence against women
• 6% of women over the age of 18 reported they have experienced sexual violence.
• 16% of divorced or separated women experienced sexual violence by a partner.
• 10% of women living with a partner reported sexual violence against them.
• The North West Province reported the highest rate of sexual violence (with 11.8% of women reporting).
[Source: South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016]