Violence in the villages: The quiet scourge of rural rape

She only heard women's voices calling after her as he dragged her further into the bushes.

Lerato* was 13 years old when she was raped by a man who lived in her rural village in Mpumalanga. Just 30km outside of Nelspruit, the village lies on 4.5 squared kilometres of hills that are covered with dense bushes and trees. Its population of just under 13000 people live mostly in small, grey homes of concrete blocks. Dirt roads wind in between the dwellings.

Twenty years after the attack, Lerato still lives here, metres from the graveyard where the man forced her to lie down in the dirt, where he covered her mouth with his hand to stifle her screams.

Before the course of her life was irrevocably changed, she was just another teenager walking to her grandmother's house. She ran into her sister's boyfriend and one of his friends. The men, in their early 20s, started making small talk. The friend offered to accompany her to her grandmother's house. She suspected nothing as he took her by the hand. But once the trio reached her grandmother's home, the friend insisted Lerato accompany him to his girlfriend's house. When they arrived there, he tightened his grip.

Lerato remembers the turning point clearly. "He said: 'I want you.' I was a virgin. I didn't know anything." Her sister's boyfriend, realising something bad was about to happen, ran away and alerted Lerato's family. But by then her aggressor was pulling her to towards the ­village graveyard. He told her to lie down. But when they both heard the voices of women in her family calling her name, he covered her mouth with his hand and stabbed her in the left forearm with a fork before he took her further away from her family's voices. She remembers that they walked for about 1km along a ditch with running water, until the voices finally faded. All she heard then was the sound of dogs barking.

He raped her at the edge of the river. She was bleeding as he swore her to silence and left her alone. Eventually she walked home and found her mother. But despite the blood, she found no solace.

"My brother and sister-in-law did not believe me. They said I was looking for it. They said so many things." Despite their doubts, her family reluctantly reported the incident to the police and took her to hospital. But they "never took it seriously", she says. "They never pushed the police."

In the end, no one was arrested, even after a local man told Lerato where the rapist lived. She received no emotional support, save from her mother. And it would not be the last time she was raped.

At the age of 18 and in matric,  Lerato says her brothers forced her to leave home and live with a male friend, though they were not romantically involved. For her brothers, says Lerato, it was simply not plausible that he could be just a friend, and it was not acceptable for her to stay at home if she had a ­partner. "They were furious. They said they can't live with another man's wife."

She didn't want to sleep with her friend, but he forced her to. She told him: "You are raping me," but he didn't stop. "I fell pregnant. It makes it so hard for me to love that baby. When I was 19, I left her with her father. I don't love her the way I should."

Lerato did not finish school. A steady job and a stable relationship were elusive. "I needed love and money, but not sex," she says. To survive, she would stay with a boyfriend until he asked for sex, sometimes enduring beatings and death threats. She always ran away.

At 23 she married a man who respected her. They had two daughters, and he had a steady job. Although they fought when she was reluctant to have sex, she says, he never forced her. She could never bring herself to tell him that she had been raped. Seven years ago, he died in a car accident. Her in-laws took all of her late husband's assets.

Without a home, Lerato and her two daughters, now both in primary school, went to live with her 70-year-old mother, where they still stay.

She remains haunted. "This thing is still in me. Rape repeats itself. I thought it would be a curse to my kids, too. I have three daughters, and I'm scared."

Rampant in South Africa

Lerato's life story is one of many played out in the patriarchal landscape of rural South Africa. Mbuyiselo Botha, spokesperson for the Sonke Gender Justice Network, says he suspects rape in rural South Africa is rampant – and largely under-reported.

Even so, police statistics show that the number of sexual offences (which include rape) reported at some of the police stations in the rural areas the M&G visited last year were among the top 20% reported at police stations around the country.

Of course, statistics can be interpreted in different ways. In these cases, it could be that the efforts of rape survivor groups are working particularly well in these areas.

But rural poverty is a major player; rape victims are often financially dependent on the accused, who may be a father, husband, brother or family friend living with them. Families collude to cover up rape and keep the breadwinner out of jail, says Botha. He says that families also want to avoid the shame and stigma surrounding rape and thus force the victim into silence. Rural areas also receive scant media coverage so, says Mbuyiselo, there is little pressure on police to improve services.

Avitus Agbor is a former access-to-justice officer at the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, an organisation that supports victims of rape and domestic violence in deep rural areas in the Limpopo.

Agbor says that within a patriarchal system, the social doctrine purports women to be objects for carnal pleasure. At the same time, women are often unaware of their rights to refuse sex. Far from help and shackled by poverty, it is difficult for a woman to reach a police station, so rape becomes a silent crime in the countryside.

"Sexual offences are trivialised," says Agbor. "Therefore they are under-reported, under-investigated and under-prosecuted."

Licky Thusi is the counsellor co-ordinator at the Greater Rape Intervention Project, or Grip, a non-profit organisation that always has counsellors on duty and rape survivor support rooms at 16 rural police stations in Mpumalanga. Thusi has to drive from the Grip head office in Nelspruit to remote villages, including Bushbuckridge, Hluvukane, Acornhoek, Thulamahashe, and Duiwelshoek to lend support to counsellors. The furthest is Hluvukane, a two-hour, 132km drive on pothole-riddled roads.

Thusi and I visit several villages and hear counsellors tell similar stories over and over again. In most cases, the accused was known to the survivor, and was often a family member or someone living with the victim. Many obstacles prevented survivors from taking legal recourse, and the accused did not discriminate: victims included the elderly, girls, boys, babies, women and men.

At Hluvukane, we speak to five counsellors at the local satellite police station that is housed in a shipping container. The Grip office, funded and set up by the organisation, is a wooden bungalow twice the size of the station. The grass is overgrown and an electric extension cord carries power from the container to the bungalow about 10m away.

The counsellors sit in the shade of an old Morotso tree in the sweltering heat and start telling their stories.

A 55-year-old woman who was kidnapped on her way to the clinic on October last year. She withdrew her case because the accused was her own brother. In January a five-year-old was raped and her mother refused to open the case because the accused was a relative – the girl's 12-year-old cousin. A boy of nine was raped in October by a man who he knew from his village. The police have yet to catch the accused.

These cases, says Thusi, are the ones that made it to the police station, after which they were immediately referred to the Grip office for debriefing. But, says Thusi, she suspects that rape is often unreported because of pressure put on police stations to "squeeze crime to zero". If they do not open a case, that is one less rape statistic on their books.


Graphic: John McCann

Police spokesperson Colonel Tummi Shai emphasises that South African Police Service policy is clear that any person reporting a sexual offence has to be treated professionally and that police are obliged to reassure complainants that their report will be taken seriously and  thoroughly investigated.

"Noncompliance by [an officer] must be reported to the station commander, cluster commander or even provincial commander for his attention and investigation," Shai says.

But it is not only the police who are at fault. All the counsellors say they suspect that family members choose to cover up the incident. For example, if the woman's own husband is the accused, says one counsellor, reporting him could mean a loss of income.

"People try to keep the issue in the family setting because it's taboo if people involved are related," says another counsellor.

Alternatively, they say, the accused or their family members could bribe the survivor to stay silent. A bribe to the police can also seal the deal. Sometimes, they say, all it takes is a can of Coke to prolong a case.

Forced into silence

The day after our visit to Hluvukane, we travel to the Hazyview Police Station. This is a small town with a busy, dusty strip mall and taxi rank, and a tidy tourism centre where you can sip Illy coffee and buy leather hats. The Grip office is in a room inside the police station. Here we meet another group of eight counsellors, and similar stories emerge.

One of the counsellors, Sindine Mathebula, tells of a 17-year-old girl who was raped earlier in the year by her uncle who was giving her a lift to town to go shopping on a Friday afternoon. After the rape, he took her to the shops and then dropped her off at home.

She did not speak to her family about the incident. Only on the Monday, when a teacher at school found that she was not concentrating and started questioning her, did she tell her story. But as the girl was giving her statement to the police, her uncle's wife telephoned and told her to keep quiet. As yet, no case has been made.  

By law, a case must be opened because the girl was younger than 18 at the time of the rape. Grip has referred the case to the Mpumalanga department of health and social development without results. The department has not responded to questions despite numerous attempts to obtain a response.

"We are battling to get the social workers to open a case. They keep referring us from the one to the next, saying: 'It's not my area.' One social worker did say she would follow up, but now she is sick," says Thusi.

Khesani Khoza tells of a case in September where an 8-year-old girl was raped by the family gardener, seemingly over a period of time. Her parents only found out when her younger brother witnessed an incident and told them. The girls' parents protected the gardener and at first did not want to open a case with the police because they are all Congolese.

"They [the girl's mother and the gardener] call each other brother and sister because they are from the same country and it is against the culture to report against countrymen," says Khozi.

Though the mother opened a case, she wanted to withdraw it four days later. The child's parents warned the gardener to leave, and he boarded a bus out of town. But since the victim is a minor, withdrawing the case was not an option; the gardener was apprehended and is still in jail.

But even if an accused is jailed, conviction rates – as well as reporting rates – are disturbingly low. National police statistics for December 2007 to June 2011 show that of the 65083 complaints of rape made to police, only 11% of all accused were convicted. Meanwhile, a 2002 study by the Medical Research Council found that eight in nine women who were raped and had physical force used against them did not report the case to the police.

Aside from trying to keep the rape a family matter rather than a police matter, there is also the issue of the stigma attached to rape, and the rejection and humiliation that goes with it. One of the counsellors says  that protection belongs to those who can afford it. "If the person has a high profile in the community, the case is less likely to be made, because the accused can bribe the police or the victim."    

Thusi recalls a case in a traditional community four years ago when the chief's 14-year-old son allegedly raped a 12-year-old girl. The girl's family opened a case, but were served an eviction order, coupled with a R100000 fine. According to traditional law, the chief owns all the land in his or her kingdom, including the property the victim's family lives on.

"Remember, the chief has money like dust. He can drive to [the North Gauteng High Court in] Pretoria and just get the order," says Thusi. Grip took the case to Legal Aid South Africa to obtain free representation. In the end, the family won the case.

Although the majority of those interviewed in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Free State say that traditional leaders usually refer rape and sexual assault to formal courts, this does not always happen.

A counsellor tells of a case where a man accused of raping a woman had to give the chief a cow as compensation. The victim received nothing. In another instance, she says, a man was fined R300 for beating his girlfriend. The money went to the chief.  

Concern for safety

If you drive north from Hazyview for about 400km, you will reach the ­village of Masisi in Limpopo. You have to take it slowly because herds of cows often cross the red, dusty roads. Masisi is nearly 90km north east of Thohoyandou, and about 20km from the border. On a clear day, you can see Zimbabwe.

Fhatuwani Mathanda, legal officer at the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, takes me to the small village. We visit the Masisi Police Station, where we speak to the station commander for victim empowerment, Ronald Mungai, who is responsible for the safety of 36 villages.

Mungai suspects that rapes in his villages are under-reported. There were 154 reported cases of domestic violence from the middle of June to the middle of October last year. There were only two cases of sexual assault and one case of attempted rape  reported, but zero reported rapes.

"It [rape] is happening, but they don't report," he says. "We hear about it in gossip."

Fear is a factor: victims keep quiet to avoid shame. But there is a darker side to the silence. Mungai says it is common for families to sort out the issue among themselves. Outsiders are afraid to report for fear the accused's family may kill them if they do. "When people phone me [to report] they say: 'Don't say you heard it from me.' We call it sedza zwau – mind your own business."

But in the village of Boiketlo in Qwa-Qwa in the Free State, women do mind each other's business. The village is surrounded by the Drakensberg, Maluti, and Qwa-Qwa mountain ranges. Between the narrow dirt roads are modest concrete homes. Children play in the road and cows take their sweet time to cross it.

In a small community hall, I meet 10 women who have formed a self-help group for survivors of rape, assault, abuse and domestic violence, with help from the Thusanang Advice Centre, a local non-profit organisation that lends support to victims of assault and rape.

The women say they do not feel safe in their village. Diana Shezi (73) has lived in the village for 30 years. She says she has never felt safe: "Anytime, anywhere, women can be abused." Thethiwe Dhlamini (21) who was born here, agrees: "You can't feel protected. Things are happening and the perpetrators are all around. The law does nothing."

One of the women [who, to protect her child's identity, can't be named], has first-hand experience of this fear. Her child, now 12, was raped when she was eight. "The accused is still free. The police and the doctor did not take it seriously."

Each of these women knows someone who has been raped or assaulted. For some, it hits close to home. Dhlamini tells of a sister who was raped. "When she told my mom, we did not believe her." The rape occurred in 2006, before Dhlamini joined the Thusanang self-help group to learn about women's sexual rights. Since then, Dhlamini has changed her views. But at the time, she told her mother not to believe her sister because she reasoned that if her sister was home and not at a party, nothing would have happened. Later, a doctor's report confirmed the rape. The accused, a family friend, got out on bail, did not attend court and the case died.  

While we are talking, one woman excuses herself. She returns a few minutes later, crying outside the door of the hall. The women go out to comfort her and we stop the conversation. She was raped by a family member; her family defended him and he was never convicted. The conversation became too much for her.

Mistrust of men

At Bolata Village, also in Qwa-Qwa, another Thusanang self-help group gathers in a tiny corrugated iron shack. The only light in the room streams in through the door, and the women sit in the dark and tell their stories.

One woman paints a dark picture of the relationships between genders. "When we see men, we think of abuse," she says. Another laments: "Most of them are perpetrators. They live that style." Mistrust is clear. "Even if you know him, he can abuse you. Maybe you stay with him. When others are not around, he can do anything he likes."

The women say that with all the abuse they have witnessed they would not encourage their daughters or friends to get married. "It is not all men who abuse," says one. "But we do not encourage marriage because we see what other women live like."  

Here in Bolata, the women have at least found some hope because of the work of the Thusanang group. They say they feel safer because they can now insist on their rights. Brought together by tragedy, it is clear that these women will need each other for a long time to come. As one woman puts it: "In this village there is no love."

* Lerato is not her real name

Heidi Swart is the 2012 Eugene Saldanha fellow for social justice reporting.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Heidi Swart
Heidi Swart is an independent investigative journalist. Since starting her reporting career in 2010, she has written for various national publications.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday