/ 6 September 2013

Rape? Looks more like genocide

Intolerance: A black South African lesbian is considered lucky to have avoided rape
Intolerance: A black South African lesbian is considered lucky to have avoided rape, even murder, by the age of 30. (Madelene Cronjé)

We have become accustomed to talking about violence. But, for many, it is real.

South Africa is layered with contradictions. On the one hand, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community forms part of the progressive movement and the "rainbow nation" that is South Africa today. On the other, the right to sexual and gender identity is often challenged. Those who transgress the boundaries often get punished in the most gruesome way. Among black South African lesbian women, you are considered lucky to escape rape – even murder – before your 30th birthday.

We live in a state of loss. A sense of losing youth, hope and the future. The feeling almost makes you numb to the experience of life. It blinds you to possibilities and opportunities. You walk, sleep, drive and mostly gamble with its imminence. It follows you. You calculate the chance of it approaching you violently. You respond by minimising the risks. Your movements change to dodge its strike. Then it hits you unexpectedly.

Most of the time, you are all alone. No one is there to hear you cry. When someone is there, they soon become a victim. They can't respond for fear of it happening to them.

Stoned to death

Such was the fate of Zoliswa Nkonyane. She was barely 20 when her peers stoned her to death in a township outside Cape Town. Her father watched from a distance, not knowing it was his daughter being murdered. No one cried "Stop!"

The lone pedestrian who tried to end the violence knew it would turn on him. The nine men arrested for Nkonyane's murder were from her township. They killed her because she was a tomboy and a lesbian. They said she "wanted to get raped".

Phumeza Nkolonzi's murderer followed her into her family home. In the bedroom, with her aged grandmother and five-year-old cousin watching, he shot her three times. The first shot he fired, her grandmother said, was to silence them. The second was aimed at Phumeza. She asked: "Ndikwenzeni? [What have I done to you]?"

The murderer responded with a third shot that sent her to the ground, splattering her blood on the walls, the bed, her grandmother and cousin. The neighbours heard her grandmother’s screams, but were too scared to leave their homes to help. They watched from their curtained windows as the murderer roamed around the street.

Phumeza was known to everyone in the community as a humble and respectful tomboy, whose best friends were all boys her age; she died two years after her 20th birthday.

The list keeps growing. Who would remember Zoliswa, Phumeza, and many like them? They were not famous. Their names do not ring bells worldwide. But some of us do remember them. We cannot forget them because we know that, like them, we could be next, for the choices we make, the life we want to live, and the love we want to express.


The use of terms such as "corrective rape" to describe the violence wreaked on black women is highly problematic. When we name rape so, we do more harm than good to black lesbians.

By using such language, we become complicit in silencing the resistance black women have shown. Their lives as black women and black lesbians remain in the domain of inhumane experiences violence, torture and humiliation.

I beg us to return us to the question of what makes us human. The many forms of violence in our country highlight the fact that many in South Africa are not yet human. The conditions in which we live – racial, class, gender and sexual inequalities and injustice – need to be challenged every day.

We must refuse to have a generation wiped out before the age of 30, a generation that ends just as it begins to taste freedom and democracy. Rather, we must ensure that, when that generation passes, it has at least tasted what it means to be fully human.

Zethu Matebeni is a faculty member at the University of Cape Town’s Institute for Humanities in Africa. This is an edited version of her keynote address to the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies Transformation Conversation on ending gender-based violence.