Fight rape as we fought Aids

Remember Valencia Farmer? She was a 14-year-old girl who was stabbed 53 times, 40 times in the back, after being gang-raped by at least six men. Her throat was slit and she was left for dead in a derelict house in Eerste River in June 1999. Naked and seriously injured, Farmer managed to crawl to the street, where neighbours found her. She later died at Tygerberg Hospital.

When I heard about the brutal rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen last week, I thought, I have heard this before. The two cases have many similarities. Both stirred a national debate on rape. Alas, 14 years later, we are still here.

The scourge of rape calls for strong leadership, and President Jacob Zuma would have done well to centre his State of the Nation speech this week on how the government would lead the fight against rape. The reaction of South Africans across the board to Booysen's rape revealed that anger, fear and despair are the actual state of this nation of ours.

Zuma condemned the incident last week, and described it as an "extreme violation and destruction of a young human life".

"This act is shocking, cruel and most inhumane. It has no place in our country. We must never allow ourselves to get used to these acts of base criminality to our women and children," he said.

But the country needs more. The matter is in court and we have to respect judicial independence, but there is nothing stopping the president from announcing the reintroduction of the specialised sexual offences courts in the meantime. These were shut down a few years ago for no clear reasons and reopening them would go a long way towards deterring would-be rapists.

And for Zuma, who himself was acquitted of the same crime, addressing rape directly could go some way towards building the confidence of the country's women.

True number of rapes
Ordinary South Africans cannot sit back and wait for the government to take action in this matter. Rage alone will not stop the rapists. We have been here before.

The United Nations announced last week that South Africa has the highest rates of rape reported to the police anywhere in the world. It also said that the number of ­documented rapes is believed to underestimate the true number of rapes considerably because a large number of cases go unreported.

Chilling as this revelation is, the brutality with which Booysen died after she was gang-raped and mutilated calls on both the government and civil society to strengthen the fight against sexual crimes.

Civil society has, in the past, been able to make a difference. Take the burden that HIV/Aids once presented to this country: like rape, the HIV/Aids statistics were unclear but just as frightening. There was a debate about how to curb the spread of the disease and the stigma of being infected. Patriarchy, poverty, unemployment, lack of education and societal problems were cited as the reasons for the raging spread of the disease.

Unlike in the rape battle, however, there was a groundswell of activism in the HIV/Aids battle as the Treatment Action Campaign took the fight to the government and forced it to issue antiretrovirals to those infected.

The outcry and protests of the past week are enough evidence that South Africans are fed up with the scourge and that there is fertile ground for activists to plough.

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