Tlaleng Ketumile lives in the town of Kuruman, home to dusty furniture stores, cellphone shop-containers, tired restaurants and garish newer ones.
“I dress the way I want, it’s my body and it’s not an excuse to rape me,” the 16-year-old Northern Cape pupil says into her cell phone while she is walking home from school.
On its edge is a township and further out are rural villages connected by a web of dirt roads splayed out over one of South Africa’s lesser-populated semi-desert provinces.
Walking through the town, as I did two years ago on a different assignment, it seemed similar to many of the other small, beat towns I’d been to. Progress had arrived late and didn’t do too well.
There was the unmoving stiffness between the conservative aunty who ran the “tuisnywerheid” and the teenage girl listening to Beyoncé on her cell phone while waiting to catch a taxi.
There was the “Jesus saves” poster in the café on the corner and the Snoop Dogg graffiti on the concrete bridge.
Conservative cultural traditions and religious beliefs went into battle with the future, and won, it seemed.
But Ketumile and her peers think Kuruman and its small town atmosphere have been quiet for too long. Most importantly it’s been quiet on the thing that no small town is immune to: rape.
Earlier this year the not for profit organisation Empowervate Trust called for entries for its Youth Citizen Action (YCA) programme’s competition. Ketumile’s teacher at Wrenchville High School, Tsepo Kgatlane (26), asked her and her grade 10 classmates to accept the challenge to identify a social issue in their community and find ways of tackling it.
So Ketumile and 10 of her peers sat down and talked.
“We saw a lot of teenage pregnancies, especially in our school,” Ketumile says.
“Yoh, yoh yoh, about 10 to 15. Most of them are impregnated by older men, not their boyfriends.”
So, these pupils have sugar daddies then?
“Yes, they have them because of their home situations. They come from poor backgrounds, their parents aren’t working and they rely on social grants. But these men give them clothes, money, nice things … things they don’t get at home.”
Kgatlane says he and the pupils asked themselves: “what does the law say about statutory rape?”
“It says sex with someone under the age of 16, even if that person consents to it, is against the law.”
But no one in Kuruman really calls it that, he says. No one talks about it honestly and these “arrangements” continue.
Cultural practices and myths play a big role in keeping the lid on sexual violence in the town, Charmaine van den Heever, co-ordinator of the Northern Cape Non-Governmental Organisations Coalition, says.
“Most rapes happen at the hands of someone you know but it’s still taboo to speak [about this] outside of your bedroom.”
She says the myth that having sex with a virgin will cure you of HIV still persists. Ketumile says many of the sugar daddies “don’t like to use protection”, so the girls fall pregnant and in turn many of them meet the end of their education road.
Ketumile and her peers knew that they alone could not fix the socio-economic reasons for the proliferation of this phenomenon, but talking about them and their effects was a good place to start. And so they launched the Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) #Bua campaign. (“Bua” means talk in Tswana.)
Ketumile talks about crime a lot. She left her home in Potchefstroom in the North West and moved to Kuruman to live with her aunt and uncle at the beginning of this year because “a lot of young people were being abducted and murdered in Potchefstroom”, she says.
It just wasn’t safe there, she says, and her family thought Kuruman would be safer. Crime was messing with her future and “degrading our country”, she says. “It’s really going to take [set] everything back.”
She got the chance to do something about the problem she thinks so much about and threw herself into the STAR campaign.
“We’ve done a lot of marches, around our town. We stand on street corners and taxi ranks. We hold banners and posters.”
We talk to people and try to get the message out there that if they have been raped they must feel free to come forward and talk about it.”
Little did they know that their efforts would win them the YCA’s national championship trophy and R5 000. The pupils had also successfully asked the local police station to set up a separate desk especially for people who have been raped.
“It’s important to have a separate desk… It’s more private and you don’t have to stand in the queue with everyone else.”
National police spokesperson, Solomon Makgale, says 49 376 rapes had been reported to the police, nationally, between April 2012 and March 2013.
But Sisonke Msimang from Sonke Gender Justice says there is actually quite a lot of talk about sexual and gender-based violence in South Africa.
“What we lack is a strong focus on preventing it so the issue is that the quality of our conversations about sexual violence is not great. Even where we do have informed discussions, the issue is that we need people [like] teachers and community members and parents who are able to talk and act,” she says.
Ketumile doesn’t hesitate when she talks about gender stereotypes and how this links to sexual violence.
She says if she feels comfortable with what she’s wearing then she’s going to wear it. “Nobody has the right to talk to me in a disrespectful way no matter how I dress, act or speak and there is never an excuse for rape,” she says. She grew up in a home with a mother “who was a strong woman”.
“I saw my father look up to that and I wish more men were like that. But they think women are stupid and you see it in group work at school. The boys will tell you ‘keep quiet, you’re a girl’,” she says.
“Women are not stupid, they add value just like men do, but men think women are weak and they take advantage… that’s when sexual violence happens.” Msimang says gender inequality and sexual violence go hand in hand.
“Because we live in a society where women and people who don’t conform to rigid ideas about… how men and women should relate to each other, are disrespected, they are often abused. This is compounded by economic status and when violence occurs and the victims are women, gay people or poor people, it is taken less seriously than when the victims are more ‘respected’ members of society.”
One day, Ketumile wants to be a gyneacologist with her own practice. She wants her nine-year old sister to have the same freedom to pursue whatever career she wants. In fact, she wants all women to have that.
“We will carry on with our work and carry on trying to put the message out there… [that] we mustn’t just teach girls how not to get raped, we must [teach] men that they need to stop raping.”