South Africa: Examining the Roots of Rape

(Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/UN)

In December last year Jyoti Singh Pandey, a student on the cusp of her adult life, stepped into a bus in Delhi. She was with a friend. They had been to see the film version of the Life of Pi and were on the way home. And then, without warning, their passage through the night suddenly dropped out of the flow of ordinary life and into hell.

The bus went off the expected route, the doors were closed and Jyoti's friend was beaten unconscious by the six men in the bus. In what sounds like a ritual performance of absolute domination and absolute sadism Joyti was raped and attacked with such violence that most of the entrails were ripped from her body.

Violence, much of it gendered, is central to the regulation of the social order in India. There is often implicit state sanction for rape as a form of social control by, say, Indian soldiers in Kashmir or high caste men in villages.

But this rape, perhaps because it so strongly evokes the idea, the ancient idea, of the rapist as a demonic figure descending on us from some other reality was the one that broke acceptance, silence and submission. Thousands of people took to the streets of Delhi amidst an upheaval that, amongst many other consequences, led to many South Africans asking why it is that we accept rape.

And now, although we don't have our own upheaval, we have our own Jyoti. At 17 years old Anene Booysen is dead. She too was raped, her intestines ripped out of her body in a ritual performance of male power. Most rape is committed by a neighbour, a teacher, an uncle, a boyfriend, a husband, a father or someone known to the person who is attacked and Anene, unlike Jyoti, knew at least one of her attackers.

But they were both subject to a sort of ritual violence taken to the point of absolute annihilation, a performance of desecration, that, like the rape and murder of lesbians in South Africa, evokes the horrors of war.

During a war or a pogrom the normal rules are suspended. The lines between friend and enemy are drawn with lunatic precision. Typically the idea of the male soldier on the front and the female who keeps the home exaggerates the more ordinary conceptions of what it is to be a man or a women.

And in a time of mass violence, be it organised by the state or society, it is often assumed that 'our' women are to be protected while 'theirs' are to be desecrated. As violence is waged by men in the name of women they are presented as the property of men.

But as we saw in Abu Ghraib when women are given power over men that have been dehumanised and turned into enemies in the midst of war there can also be ritualised forms of deeply gendered sexual abuse.

Ritualised public violence that is particularly targeted at women is not only central to the horror of the war or the pogrom. For instance witch hunting has, across space and time, been closely associated with moments in which young men find that their path to the material basis for full adulthood has been blocked by social transformations outside of their control. In the witch hunt a woman is presented as the source of evil and publicly tortured to death.

We need to ask what it is about our societies that is producing the ritual torture and murder of women, the absolute annihilation of their independent personhood? Are we, perhaps, in the midst of a social crisis that has some of the character of an undeclared war? Are women being scapegoated for our social failings?

Or are our societies simply organised in such a way that some people count for very little and can be abused with impunity? It is clear that in any situation in which a group of people are, as in a prison, a refugee centre or a transit camp, placed beneath the rules that more usually govern social interaction sadistic abuse, some of it gendered, is inevitable.

We can't answer these question adequately when the rapist only appears as a demonic figure stepping into our ordinarily decent world from hell.

And we certainly can't answer these questions when our thinking about rape, including some of our thinking about rape by authorised experts in places like universities, is deeply distorted by assumptions about race and class that are driven by prejudice rather than any serious investigation of reality. We need a clear eyed examination of our societies - societies in which a considerable part of the horror of rape, and the cultures and institutions that support it, is that it is, precisely, normal.

The world does contain senseless forms of sadism and violence. Some people are just wired differently to others. There are also people that have been damaged by what has been done to them in their families, or communities, or by being on either side of the dehumanisation on which all oppression is founded.

But while psychopaths or people that have been damaged in various ways may be attracted to circumstances in which their desires to wound, control and destroy can be actualised - including roles in authorised forms of state and popular violence, and including violence legitimated in the name of emancipation - they are not solely responsible for the creation of those conditions.

While we must investigate the nature of the conditions that enable rape to become an everyday reality we must, of course, be absolutely clear that no culture, no context and no degree of suffering and humiliation justifies rape or other forms of abuse.

In every context - the drunken party; the possibility for impunity that comes with the power of the police officer, the priest, the boss, the professor or the rich man; the corrosive desperation of poverty - there are men who don't rape and men who oppose rape. There is always a choice.

As happened in India some people here have responded to the horrors visited on Anene Booysen by presenting her as our collective daughter. It's not a bad thing to remember that every person who is raped is someone's son or daughter rather than a statistic abstracted from society but there's a real danger in the language that wants a victim that can easily be presented as virtuous - as a good girl, a family girl - in a manner that doesn't challenge our collective assumptions about gender.

We have to be very careful to hold the line on the principle that all rape, irrespective of what the person was wearing or doing at the time, irrespective of their family circumstances, how they make their living or who and how they love and desire is an outrage. As one of the placards on the streets of Delhi declared 'I don't need to be someone's daughter or sister to move freely on the street.' Our outrage should not imply that anyone is more or less rapeable than anyone else.

Some of the language that was used by politicians at Anene Booysen's funeral - demanding that we 'make sure that our women and children are safe' - is itself deeply gendered. Our outrage should not imply that the wrong men are exercising domination and that its time for the right men to exert their authority.

In some of our newspapers the horror of rape is presented by giving a list of older women, young girls and disabled women who have been raped. The implication here is that there are more normal forms of rape. This too needs to be resisted. Sex is a gift of self to be freely given and freely accepted. All rape is perverse.

And, and again this also happened in India, many of the responses to the rape and murder of Anene Booysen have taken the form of demanding more effective policing and stiffer sentences. But the reality of our society is that the police often rape - they habitually rape sex workers - and often respond to complaints of rape by gay people with contempt.

Judges, including our Chief Justice, have often made appalling statements and decisions about rape. And our prisons are arguably the site where rape has been most firmly institutionalised in our society.

It is clearly vital that, as feminist organisations have been doing for years, we engage with our criminal justice system to make it more sensitive, responsive and effective when dealing with rape. But the comforting assumption that our criminal justice system is a virtuous set of institutions that must simply be wielded against demonic rapists with more force is dangerously deluded.

If we are going to confront rape effectively we'll have to deal, seriously, with how it has come to be an everyday horror - a horror that festers within our society, at all its levels, rather than being visited on it from the outside.



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