Gang rape is starting to seem like a recreational activity in South Africa. This is, after all, the country where sex with virgins was widely thought to be a cure for HIV and the man slated to be the nation’s next president, Jacob Zuma, turned a rape trial into a public display of cultural misogyny.
Young men, known as jackrollers, prowl the streets of major South African cities preying upon women. Recently jackrollers have been targeting lesbian women, who are often considered a serious threat to South Africa’s patriarchal traditions. Instances of “corrective” rape – attempts to “cure” lesbians – have risen dramatically. According to ActionAid, an international NGO, corrective rape is happening ten times a week. Lesbians are also frequently harassed and threatened without legal recourse, because South African law does not recognize sexual orientation as a basis for hate crimes.
This issue goes much deeper than sexual orientation and violent homophobia. Despite a progressive constitution and history of overcoming inequality, South African society is revealing itself as an authoritarian and misogynistic culture in which women are discriminated as second-class citizens and in frequent danger of sexual violence.
Activists estimate that 500,000 rapes occur in South Africa each year (about one every minute), yet only one in nine is reported. Victims are scared to come forward because there are few resources to aid them. The police department is overworked and the justice system is weighted in favor of male defendants. South African culture in general is suspicious of women who claim they have been raped – approximately 24 out of every 25 accused rapists walk free. Likewise, 31 lesbians have been murdered in the past decade, but only one killer has ever been sentenced.
It is hard to imagine that rape is an ever-present threat in the country that just 15 years ago celebrated Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Yet despite these horrifying statistics, none of South Africa’s political parties have addressed violence against women in the lead-up to April’s general election. If anything, the opposite has happened.
According to Steven Robins, a sociologist at the University of Stellenbosch, “it is becoming increasingly clear that the promotion of sexual equality provisions is not endorsed by the majority of South African citizens.” Robins suggests that sexual equality rights would likely be removed from the Constitution if put to a referendum. And unfortunately, that’s just what Jacob Zuma, the man expected to be South Africa’s next president, wants to do. Zuma is popular within the ruling African National Congress because of his social conservatism and African traditionalism. He is also a vocal critic of homosexuality and once infamously remarked at a rally, “When I was growing up a gay would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out.”
This is the same Jacob Zuma who stood trial for rape just three years ago. During the trial his supporters burned effigies of his accuser, Fezeka Kuzwayo, outside the courtroom and chanted, “Burn the bitch.” Zuma bragged about his virility on the stand, while his defense team ruthlessly cross-examined Kuzwayo and suggested that she intentionally seduced him by wearing seductive clothing. Zuma was acquitted and Kuzwayo fled South Africa after receiving threats. She received asylum in the Netherlands.
Whether Zuma is a rapist is uncertain. He is, however, a Zulu traditionalist, who threatens to abandon post-apartheid progress towards gender equity in favor of patriarchal and heterosexual customs. Zuma will probably be elected president later this month. If he is, South Africans will have a new struggle before them: remembering the lessons of apartheid and avoiding another regime of inequality.