Fighting another wrong in S. Africa

High number of rapes spurs call for action

October 18, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- As if this country didn't have enough problems, it is confronted these days with the highest recorded incidence of rape in the world.

But in a violence-prone society in which women have traditionally been viewed as second-class citizens and subjected to widespread abuse, rape only now is attracting as much outrage as other violent crimes.

Steve Tshwete, the tough-talking safety and security minister, suggested last week that harsher laws might be needed to deal with the sort of criminal he described as "a prowling beast that mutilates, murders, robs and rapes with impunity."

In the first six months of this year, the South African Police Service said, there were 47.5 rapes per 100,000 South Africans, 14.5 percent more than five years ago, when the first democratic election was held.

That compares with 35.9 rapes per 100,000 in the United States in 1997, the latest figure available from the FBI.

"That rape is so prevalent denotes a culture of domination and discrimination that has prevailed in this country for too long," said an editorial in the Sunday Independent on Oct. 10.

So threatening is rape in today's South Africa that a leading insurance company started to market "rape survival" policies last week.

For $4 a month, Commercial and General Union will cover the cost of post-rape psychological counseling and medical treatment, including anti-retroviral therapy against HIV-AIDS infection.

Women's groups accused the company of trying to profit from women's trauma by offering coverage that poor women, who account for the majority of rape victims, cannot afford.

The growing outrage over the frequency of rape has been fueled by a court sentence. A 54-year-old father who raped his 14-year-old daughter received seven years in prison instead of the recommended life sentence.

Passing sentence in Cape Town, Judge John Foxcroft said that it was a first offense and that harm to the community was less because the rape happened within the family.

"This judgment harks back to feudalism, when men supposedly owned their daughters and wives," said Willy Madisha, president of the 1.8 million-member South African Congress of Trade Unions, calling for an appeal against the judgment.

Last year, 45 percent of suspects in rapes appeared in court, and 9 percent of those were convicted.

Sentence questioned

Parliament's committee on improving the quality of life and status of women moved to call Foxcroft to a hearing to explain the sentence. The country's top judges quickly stepped in and reminded the politicians of the judiciary's independence.

"A member of the judiciary cannot properly be summoned or even otherwise be required to explain or justify to a member of the legislature or the executive any judgment given in the course of his or her judicial duties," said Chief Justice Ismail Mahomed and Judge Arthur Chaskalson, president of the Constitutional Court.

Perhaps the biggest furor lately has been over the banning of an anti-rape television commercial.

The idea was simple: Make the men of this country so uncomfortably aware of the crime of rape that they would be stirred to do something about it.

Actress in banned ad

South African-born actress Charlize Theron, star of the movie "Devil's Advocate," was chosen to deliver the anti-rape message.

In the commercial, a floodlighted Theron, dressed in black, sits in a metal-frame chair on a dark, otherwise empty stage, stares into the camera and says: "People often ask me what the men are like in South Africa.

"Well, consider that more women are raped in South Africa than any other country in the world. That one out of three women will be raped in their lifetime in South Africa. And, perhaps worst of all, that the rest of men in South Africa seem to think that rape isn't their problem.

"It's not that easy to say what the men in South Africa are like. Because there seem to be so few of them out there."

That rankled those who saw in the ad an accusation that all South African men commit or condone rape. Twenty-eight unidentified men and one woman lodged an objection with the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry's self-regulatory body, saying the commercial was "offensive and derogatory to men as it creates the impression that the majority of men in SA are rapists."

The watchdog organization decided that the commercial was gender-biased because it "creates a negative perception among viewers that the men not included in the category of rapists are all complacent." It ordered the commercial off the air unless it is changed.

`Ultimate irony'

The angry reaction to the ban has done more to focus attention on rape than Theron, who donated her time to make the commercial in Cape Town, could have hoped to.

"Is not that the ultimate irony?" asked Jane Raphaely, publisher of Femina magazine, which, with the Rape Crisis and Trauma Center in Cape Town, started the anti-rape campaign. "It's made ordinary people stand up and be counted."

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