Last April Eudy Simelane was murdered in South Africa. You know, the South Africa with the gay-friendly constitution, the post-Apartheid South Africa, aware of the shameful bigotry which dominated its history for decades last century. Eudy was openly gay, and not just an equality rights campaigner, but was one of the country’s best-known female footballers. Her death followed a brutal ‘corrective rape’:
Human rights campaigners say it is characterised by what they call “corrective rape” committed by men behind the guise of trying to “cure” lesbian women of their sexual orientation.
Despite the sudden high profile of Eudy’s rape and murder in this week’s news, lesbian rape is hardly a new phenomenon in South Africa. In 2003 IOL reported:
Lesbians are being raped, assaulted and victimised “every day” in the townships, in an attempt to force a change in their sexual orientation. Since January this year, 33 black lesbians have come forward with their stories of rape, assault, sexual assault and verbal abuse to organisations fighting hate crimes in Johannesburg townships.
Zanele Muholi, a reporter for the lesbian and gay publication Behind the Mask, has documented 12 rapes, four attempted rapes, six verbal abuse cases, three assaults with a deadly weapon, and two abductions.
Since then the scale has only increased. Non-governmental organisations reveal the terrible scale of the crime, an horrific affront to human rights in a country whose constitution is supposed to guard against it:
Research released last year by Triangle, a leading South African gay rights organisation, revealed that a staggering 86% of black lesbians from the Western Cape said they lived in fear of sexual assault. The group says it is dealing with up to 10 new cases of “corrective rape” every week.
“What we’re seeing is a spike in the numbers of women coming to us having been raped and who have been told throughout the attack that being a lesbian was to blame for what was happening to them,” said Vanessa Ludwig, the chief executive at Triangle.
Support groups claim an increasingly aggressive and macho political environment is contributing to the inaction of the police over attacks on lesbian women and is part of a growing cultural lethargy towards the high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa.
“When asking why lesbian women are being targeted you have to look at why all women are being raped and murdered in such high numbers in South Africa,” said Carrie Shelver, of women’s rights group Powa, a South African NGO. “So you have to look at the increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings. So when there is a lesbian woman she is an absolute affront to this kind of masculinity.”
This isn’t just an attack on women for their sexual orientation, it’s also because they don’t conform to traditional gender roles. Being black, female and gay in South Africa increasingly means punishment by homophobia and patriarchy, and the courts and police are lethargic in dealing with it according to Action Aid:
The murderers are walking free. Of the 31 cases, only two have ever made it to the South African courts and there has been only one conviction.
Tsidi, a hate crime survivor from Cape Town said: “Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians… they walk the streets as free men”.
South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, guaranteeing the rights of gay and lesbian people. However, the South African legal system has not caught up. Hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation are not recognised by South African law and the courts refuse to recognise that it plays any part in these cases. The police are reluctant to investigate hate crimes against lesbian women and there is inadequate support for the survivors.
One lesbian woman said: “We get insults every day, beatings if we walk alone, you are constantly reminded that…you deserve to be raped, they yell, if I rape you then you will go straight, that you will buy skirts and start to cook because you will have learnt how to be a real woman.
“It is clear that the South African government must put a stop to these crimes against women and fulfil the promises of the constitution. Worldwide, it is utterly unacceptable that millions of women and girls live daily in fear of their lives. The international community have a duty to address violence against women as the most serious threat to security in the world today,” Ms Turquet said.
But neither gender nor sexual orientation are universal battle grounds in South Africa. Samira Ahmed reminds us:
When you’ve listened to a woman describe every parent’s worst nightmare, risking offending men is the least of your worries. But what struck me during my filming in South Africa over the past week was the compassion and grief of so many men about the epidemic of rape in their country.
Eudy’s father revealed his own story. When he was a small boy his own father had spent 11 years in jail for his anti-apartheid activism in the ANC.
“We never got any compensation for that. Nor for Eudy.” He meant the recognition of the crime; not the money that compensation symbolised.
His family had sacrificed so much in the fight for freedom and now his own daughter had been killed for believing she could live openly in the new South Africa.
I guess in post-Apartheid South Africa the basis of inequality is changing. Where previously the majority of South Africans had at least been united in their struggle against the racism which afflicted them, more traditional inequalities perhaps largely once hidden, are now beginning to surface. It would be a mistake as Ahmed points out, to suggest that all South African men or all South African black men are homophobic and mysogynistic – the story of ‘corrective’ rape indeed doesn’t bear that out at all. It’s a country which until recently was run by a man who didn’t even accept that HIV caused AIDS, which remains politically paralysed and has not prioritised tackling negative social attitudes, which under continuing enormous social and economic inequality are only likely to thrive. Mary Robertson also notes:
A “culture of violence” has dominated South African society for years. Our current levels of criminal and political violence has it’s roots in apartheid and political struggle.The ongoing struggle and transition has left many men with a sense of powerlessness and perceived emasculation. Studies suggest that the majority of perpetrators of violence are male and the victims are frequently women and children. This may represent a displacement of aggression in which men of all races feel able to reassert their power and dominance against the perceived “weaker” individuals in society. In this context, rape is an assertion of power and aggression in an attempt to reassert the rapist’s masculinity.
Apartheid may be gone, but the destruction it caused lives on. It’s clearly not just poverty or inequality which are driving this – many countries are poorer than South Africa but do not suffer the same incidence of rape, but inequality doesn’t just have an economic dimension. In post-Apartheid South Africa there are new social winners and losers, which no doubt is also contributing to the rapid rise of such a disgusting hate crime. It’s a sad demonstration that you can set all the rights you like up in a progressive constitution, but for it to mean something takes development of civil society too, as well as having all governmental institutions enshrining the constitution’s ideals. South Africa has a long way to go.