We are deluding ourselves by thinking incidents such as the gang rape of a Braamfisherville teenager last month are exceptional in South Africa.
Many will remember the notorious Jackrollers gang, which abducted and raped Soweto women in the late 80s. Although at first associated with a gang of about 10 men, the term became a commonly used one in township vocabulary, according to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Researchers have also documented the not uncommon practice, known as “streamlining”, involving the collective sexual coercion involving a group of male friends and one or more women.
In a 2005 paper titled Contextualising group rape in post-apartheid South Africa University of London researcher Kate Woods noted the group rape scenarios that youths from the former-Transkei described to her.
The scenarios described are difficult to reconcile with the gender-affirming views espoused by public figures on public platforms.
An opportunistic and alcohol-fuelled group might fall upon an unsuspecting girl, a group of friends may take sexual advantage of a girl who is drunk beyond the point of being able to resist them, a girl who has refused a group of men’s sexual advances may be “punished” by the man who’d propositioned her and his friends, and — in another scenario, which brings to mind the “corrective rape” of lesbian women — a young man organises a group of his friends to rape a girlfriend to discipline her for some perceived wrongdoing and to reinforce group bonding by “sharing” her with his friends.
“The fact that young men talked about their involvement in streamlining partially lies in the politics of legitimation. While admitting that women ‘do not like it’, many young men insisted that streamlining was not ‘rape’, deploying arguments relating to the tactics used ... the lack of voiced refusal on the target’s part, and the fact that the targets ‘deserved’ it,” wrote the author.
Personal experiences with group rape
Journalist Isaac Mangena has written candidly about his introduction to group rape on the Mail & Guardian‘s blogging platform Thought Leader. His experiences closely reflect Wood’s paper.
Mangena said he was exposed to group rape — known in his boyhood circles as lepanta — while growing up in rural Limpopo during the 80s.
“I grew up with lots of boys and you do find that these kinds of things do happen, in the bushes and the mountains,” he later told the M&G. We’re now only too aware that they happen in the open fields of peri-urban Braamfisherville too.
Asked how one would have gotten to the point where six or seven boys think it’s alright to force themselves onto a girl, Mangena said: “You talk to your older brothers or your elder cousin and he will say to you, ‘This is how it’s done’.”
You go to a local tavern, find a woman and ply her with drinks. She may feel indebted to you and agree to have sex with you. But then you go to your friends and ask them to join you, he explained.
“When they were talking about it, you just thought, this is the way it’s done. This is how you lose your virginity,” said Mangena.
For the unsuspecting woman, there is little choice involved. “When you are naked with your boy, there’s nothing you can do because you’re outnumbered and maybe they have knives, so you’re scared and you just give in,” he said.
Mangena himself never took part in this lepanta but the last month’s incident in Braamfisherville made him think back on the ideas he imbibed from his peers as a boy, and how they still pervade society today.
“Obviously justice has to happen [in this incident] but we’ve arrested only seven. How many boys are still in Soweto, who think jackrolling is a way to prove [they’re] a man? It’s endemic. It probably happened last night, it just wasn’t caught on cellphone,” he said.
Gang rape endemic in SA
No doubt much of the outrage sparked by the Braamfisherville incident stemmed from the fact that it was caught on camera and was passed from person to person for weeks before it gained widespread attention from the media and the authorities.
But it would be disingenuous to pretend that gang rape is exceptional in this country. According to Lisa Vetten, director of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, one in five reported rapes involves two or more perpetrators. In large urban areas such as inner city Johannesburg, the number is closer to one in four. In many other cases, rape is perpetrated with the quiet complicity of onlookers.
Reactions to the Braamfisherville incident, particularly from the groups who’ve gathered outside the courts to protest against the boys actions, show the reactive — and not very helpful — response that such cases always elicit.
Vetten said these reactions suggest that as a society we believe that the only reason people will behave well is because they’re afraid of being punished and not because they’ve internalised good values.
“What we need to do is shift the conversation away from punishing and just talking about moral decay to how we [can] encourage good values in others,” she said.
“It’s very easy to blame monsters and a sick society but that doesn’t bring us any closer [to an answer]. As long as you call people monsters and sick, you’re saying they’re not normal and therefore not part of us. And actually, that is us. We are all part of both the problem and the solution,” she said.