It doesn’t take a genius to know that in South Africa, black women are more likely than those of other races to be victims of sexual offences as a result of socioeconomic conditions and other factors. But researchers at Statistics South Africa have missed the memo, and the plot.
Last week, Stats SA released its analysis on its Victims of Crime Survey, which produced findings based on surveys with victims of assault, sexual offences and other crimes. In its section on sexual offences, Stats SA makes a dazzling finding that “[w]hites are 24.3 more times likely to experience sexual offence compared to black Africans”.
“That’s simply ridiculous,” says Rachel Jewkes, director of the gender and health research unit at the South African Medical Research Council. “We know that white [people] are relatively protected from violent crimes compared to other racial groups, and actually it is most common among black Africans. All our survey results show that and all the police statistics also show that.”
Jewkes is one of South Africa’s foremost researchers on gender-based violence. She has worked with Stats SA in the past and has produced research on sexual assaults. Activist groups Sonke Gender Justice and Gender Links have made similar findings to Jewkes.
But exact statistics are difficult to determine because gender-based violence is severely under-reported to the police, a result in part of the low conviction rate for sexual predators.
According to Mbuyiselo Botha, Sonke’s media and government liaison officer, violence against black people has less to do with race than it does with poverty: impoverished women live in areas with a high prevalence of crime and where predators take advantage of unlit streets and a culture of silence.
There is nothing new about what Botha and Jewkes say, yet Stats SA seems to have conjured findings that state otherwise. Pali Lehohla, the statistician general at Stats SA, told the Mail & Guardian that the findings were based on police statistics and surveys conducted at 30 000 households in the country.
Yet, as Jewkes says, police statistics indicate sexual violence against black people is more prevalent in South Africa than against white people.
Sexual assault against any person should be condemned, particularly in South Africa, where rape culture has become so deeply entrenched. In her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola writes on the historical context of rape in the country: how colonisers raped slaves in the Cape and the way in which white men were let off the hook for sex crimes against black women during apartheid, while black men were hanged for the same crimes against white women.
“I wish that I did not have to think about rape, that it was not so close to home, that I did not have to think about the many times I have felt the combination of rage and tenderness as they talked about how someone had raped them,” Gqola writes.
Violence against black women has become normalised in South Africa. We have read about victims such as Anene Booysen – the Bredasdorp teenager who was raped and disembowelled before she died – shouted our outrage and then gone back to our daily lives.
At the time, people asked: What was Booysen doing out late at night? What was she wearing? Had she been drinking? A white victim would face similar questions, and gender activists have long warned about the victim-blaming nature of these assumptions. Stats SA seems to have lost the memo on that, too.
“The results [of the survey] show that victims under the influence of alcohol or drugs played a role in most of the incidences of sexual offence that occurred in the street (63.9%),” the agency’s report says. Jewkes states that the statistic itself is unlikely and “definitely is a victim-blaming statement”.
Lehohla explained what Stats SA really meant. “Given that drugs and alcohol impact on how rational individuals are in their actions, that creates possibilities for such offences to be more pronounced where alcohol and drugs are involved,” he told the M&G.
Victims of sexual assault should not have their actions put under the microscope. It is this kind of assertion that maintains a legacy of rape culture in South Africa, that allows men to feel entitled to women’s bodies, because women are the ones who “provoke” them. Instead, the perpetrators – and the way they use women’s bodies to stoke their masculinity – should be blamed.
This should be told to Stats SA because it is this kind of research that helps nongovernmental organisations, other activist groups and the government determine where to direct their resources. If that goes wrong, how will a society that already protects sexual predators learn to do better?