By Clare Carter, July 27, 2013
South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of sexual assault. According to a 2009 government survey, one in four men admit to having sex with a woman who did not consent to intercourse, and nearly half of these men admitted to raping more than once. An earlier government study found that a majority of rapes were committed by friends and acquaintances of the victim.
Just as disturbing is a practice called “corrective rape” — the rape of gay men and lesbians to “cure” them of their sexual orientation.
In one of the few cases to attract press attention, in 2008, Eudy Simelane, a lesbian, was gang-raped and stabbed to death. Her naked body was dumped in a stream in the Kwa Thema township outside Johannesburg. A soccer player training to be a referee for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, she was targeted because of her sexual orientation.
In 2011, Noxolo Nogwaza, 24, was raped, and stabbed multiple times with glass shards. Her skull was shattered. Her eyes were reportedly gouged from their sockets. Ms. Nogwaza had been seen earlier that evening in a bar with a female friend.
I read of these killings and began to research them. I was shocked by the contradiction between South Africa’s law — it was the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage — and what was actually happening on the streets. With horrific apartheid in recent memory, the country’s 1996 Constitution committed itself to equality for the entire nation. But the new constitution could not erase deeply held biases and even hatred toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. If anything, the extension of formal legal protections exacerbated some people’s worst homophobic inclinations.
Over two years, it became evident to me that multiple layers of South African society were responsible for the epidemic of corrective rape and that bias, apathy and culpability ran deeper than I could have imagined: in educational and religious institutions, the criminal justice system, and even within families. I met victims whose loved ones let rapists back into their homes, or even abetted the sexual assaults, sometimes under the influence of local ministers. Police officers did not document or investigate these assaults.
I believe South Africa can have a bright future. Part of the legacy of Nelson Mandela will be his support for equal rights for sexual minorities. Given its historical travails with race, the country can be an example to the world of tolerance and pluralism. But 17 years after the adoption of the post-apartheid Constitution, gay rights remain more an aspiration than a reality — especially in the townships on the outskirts of the cities.
One woman I met, Simphiwe Thandeka, was “correctively” raped three times. A tomboy, she was raped at age 13 by an uncle who didn’t approve of her “boyish” ways. “I didn’t know at the time it was rape, because I was only 13,” she told me. The next morning, she awoke bleeding and in severe pain. She spoke to her mother and grandmother, who insisted it was a family matter and was not to be spoken of again.
Some years later, Simphiwe’s uncle decided that marriage would “cure” his niece of her sexuality. So he arranged a marriage for her. “He took me to his friend’s house and told me I must have sex with this man, because I was going to marry him next month,” she recounted. “I had no idea what was going on.”
The friend raped Simphiwe multiple times, and beat her with a clothes hanger. “He told me I was going to be his wife and not a lesbian,” she said. The following morning, the friend returned her to her uncle’s house. “He told my uncle he couldn’t marry me because I was still a lesbian, and returned the money my uncle had given him,” she said.
During a hospital visit, Simphiwe learned that she had contracted H.I.V. from her uncle and had become pregnant by his friend. “My Mum had known my uncle was positive, but she never told me,” she said.
After giving birth to a son, she was raped again, this time by a priest in her township — who also impregnated her. She gave birth to a daughter. She gave her children Zulu names: her boy Happiness, and her daughter Blessing.
“I opened a case against the priest but nothing happened,” she said. “They kept losing documents; there was a lot of confusion. There were a lot of people against me, this man was a priest, and they love him so much so they took his side.”
She added: “I don’t have any support from my family or the community, so what could I do? I just left it like that. The only thing I can do is love my children.”
Pearl Mali did not have even that option.
As an adolescent who experienced same-sex attraction, she was raped in her bedroom by an elderly man her mother had brought home from church one evening in 2005. The mother, who heard her daughter’s screams, shouted: “Pearl, you are making noise. Shut up.”
The next week, Pearl’s mother invited the man over again and asked Pearl to cook for him. Once again he raped her. This happened regularly over several months until, eventually, the mother asked him to move in and be Pearl’s husband. “He raped me almost every day from when I was 12 to 16 years old. My mother didn’t want me to be gay so she asked him to be my husband and hoped it would change me.”
Pearl fled her home but, in March 2009, learned she was pregnant. She tried, and failed, to abort the pregnancy — and to kill herself. Then she gave birth. “I had to go back to my Mum’s house because the police said I was too young to take care of the baby,” she said.
But Pearl’s mother kicked her out of the house and took her baby from her. “I cannot touch the child, I cannot bathe him or feed him because I am ‘going to make him gay too.’ I cannot touch him or kiss him or anything,” she lamented.
When Pearl went to court to fight for her parental rights, her mother turned up — along with the rapist. At a second hearing, neither the mother nor the rapist appeared, so the court could not proceed with the trial. “My son still lives with my mother and I cannot see him because I am still gay,” Pearl told me.
Last year, Funeka Soldaat, a founder of Free Gender, a black lesbian activist group in the Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town, described to me an atmosphere of pervasive fear: “It’s as if you are sitting like a time bomb. You don’t know when it’s going to explode. You are just waiting for it to be your turn. And you won’t get any support from the community, as the community thinks homosexuality is un-African. Homophobia is going to take time to go away, if it ever does.”