Engaging, terrifying, celebratory
Despite its desperately serious subject matter this is an immensely readable book, and I recommend it to all those “avoiders” who would previously have preferred not to know about any of this, as well as to all survivors — and perpetrators— of sexual violence, and the world out there in general. Those who have read Smith’s articles will know that she is a thorough researcher, does not flinch from controversy and debate, and that she can write. From the word go she plunges in with blazing energy and verve, and surprisingly, humour.
She begins with an account of her own rape story, and though it is told with considerable restraint, nevertheless conveys the horror of the experience, both at the time (April 1999) and subsequently.
But by far the greater part of the book is given to other people’s stories. Her own story resurfaces to link her examination of the treatment of rape survivors by the police, district surgeons, private hospitals and the criminal justice system, through the investigation, and the trial of the rapist.
Her purpose in this book was to call for action against the Aids pandemic, which she calls a holocaust, in Africa.
She has interviewed very many people: police, doctors, prosecutors, and rape survivors from all walks of life, and she draws on international research as well. There is nothing self-important in this story, and she lavishes praise and thanks on people of all races and genders. Those who were obstructive, disrespectful or malevolent have also been identified, often by name.
In the earlier chapters in which she explores the trauma of rape survivors in detail, she cautions survivors not to dwell on why they, personally, were raped. But further on she examines the whys of rape in society, touching on family, notions of masculinity, whether rape is, or is not, about power. She attributes the staggeringly high incidence of rape in South Africa to police ineptitude (so rapists think they will probably get away with it), societal disrespect for women and children, and a nation “schooled in violence” from the apartheid era. Inter alia, she proposes that peer mediation and conflict resolution become an essential part of school curricula.
With her journalist’s savvy, Smith threw herself bravely into issues surrounding rape and HIV/Aids, and achieved considerable success in improving the post-rape treatment of survivors, especially with regard to the provision of anti-retroviral drugs as a prophylaxis immediately after a rape. She is as concerned with the provision of these to HIV-positive pregnant women, the very issue that the Treatment Action Campaign is currently taking to the Constitutional Court.
Throughout she raises questions, and picks up on unexpected, but important, issues. Why, for example, is the suffering of raped women and children not universally mourned and acknowledged? Why are South African children not shown the respect of having textbooks provided? Why are our police stations, magistrates’ courts and district surgeon’s offices often so filthy? Her answer is that it is all part of the culture of disrespect, for ourselves and others, which is at the centre of the violence in this country.
Her final chapter, “Chief Undertaker Mbeki and the Mosquito” examines not only Mbeki’s role in the HIV/Aids catastrophe in South Africa, but also the ANC’s as a whole. The obfuscation around Thami Zulu’s death is part of her argument, as is Paul Trewhela’s comments on Lysenko and the formation of the president’s mindset. She summarises the debate over whether there has been proper research on the efficacy of post-rape prophylaxis, quoting the “most authoritative Aids research organisation in the world”, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, as well as Mbeki’s correspondence with Tony Leon, and some of South Africa’s top doctors and scientists. Finally, she allows certain Aids dissidents to embarrass themselves by quoting from their correspondence with her.
Probably for reasons of space and focus, Smith does not include in her narrative all the South African warriors against HIV/Aids. The Western Cape Health Department, which has been quietly preventing mother-to-child transmissions for longer than anyone in South Africa, is not mentioned, nor the TAC. But Smith’s personal quest is nevertheless an achievement of note.
This book, engaging and terrifying, but also celebratory and hopeful, costs R80.