JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The public outcry in India over the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus has prompted soul-searching in South Africa, where some people are asking: “Why not here?”
In the seven weeks since the trainee physiotherapist was raped, assaulted with a metal bar and thrown bleeding onto a highway to die, nearly 9,000 women and children will have been sexually violated in South Africa.
In one recent case in the capital Pretoria, five men dragged a 21-year-old woman into the bushes and took turns to rape her as she walked with friends at dawn to secure a spot in a university enrolment queue.
Nearly four weeks on, police have made no arrests.
Violence against women is also endemic in India, but the brutality of the recent attack shocked even those inured to the rising wave of sexual crimes and prompted thousands of protesters into the streets. The cabinet has since fast-tracked tougher new penalties for sex crimes.
In South Africa, such cases barely make a stir. In a country long known as the “rape capital of the world”, women’s rights campaigners say sexual violence has almost lost the power to shock.
“We are not the only country faced with crime, sexism, patriarchal attitudes and poverty. But we seem to be the only country that goes to sleep when a rape happens,” popular radio presenter Redi Tlhabi wrote.
Comparing data across countries is difficult because of varying reporting requirements, but by any measure South Africa’s sexual assault rate is off the charts. Its statistics agency concluded in 2000 that it had the highest reported rape rate of all 120 Interpol member countries.
“It points to a fundamental kind of sickness in our society, that causing extreme and life-long pain to other people is a way in which some people have fun,” said Rachel Jewkes, acting president of the Medical Research Council (MRC).
“We’re still dealing with a patriarchal society, where men see themselves as privileged and doing anything they can get away with, and that includes raping.”
Although researchers cite many reasons for South Africa’s high rates of sexual crime, including extreme poverty, they also point the finger at decades of white-minority rule under which many black families were broken by the need for fathers to leave home to work as migrants in apartheid-run mines and factories.
“The impact of apartheid on families is probably the most important area - the way in which apartheid destroyed family life,” Jewkes said.
Mindsets have not evolved significantly post-apartheid, and the police and justice system have failed to do their parts to protect victims and prosecute perpetrators.
In the year to April 2012, more than 64,000 sexual offences, including rape, were reported in South Africa, which has a population of 50 million people. Of these, more than 25,000 were assaults on children.
The figures could be much higher as research suggests only a fraction of rapes are reported given that the police force is seen as unsympathetic to victims. Even when suspects are caught, only 12 percent of cases end in conviction.
“It is so frustrating because when you go to the police you get the second victimization,” said Funeka Soldaat, a lesbian community activist in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township, who was gang raped by four men 17 years ago.
“The frustrating thing also is the silence among ourselves as women in the community, (the failure) to say this is not okay.”
Rape became front page news last year when seven men aged between 14 and 20 went on trial on charges of raping a mentally handicapped 17-year old girl and recording it on a cell-phone video that later went viral.
But even that incident did not spur anything like the kind of public protest seen in India.
“If the gang rape of a mentally handicapped 17-year-old failed to get thousands on the streets in protest, what will?” columnist Rachel Davis asked in January in the online publication Daily Maverick.
Last month police in North West province arrested a 43-year-old man for raping his 10-month-old niece while the baby’s mother was at work. After the arrest, another female relative came forward to lay a charge against the man for a prior rape.
Some South African women believe sexual assaults have been tolerated for so long that men do not even seem to be ashamed to admit to it.
Johannesburg receptionist Luleka told of a male colleague at work who recited during a casual lunchtime discussion how, as teenagers, he and friends forced reluctant girls into sex.
“I listened to him and thought, ‘He doesn’t get it’,” said Luleka, who did not want her family name published. “He virtually raped a young girl twenty years ago and sees nothing wrong. His defence is that girls will never say ‘yes’ outright to sex.”
Such attitudes make it harder for women to come forward.
“A lot of police believe rape victims are responsible for their own rape,” said Gareth Newham, head of the Crime and Justice Programme at the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria.
“They must have been wearing provocative clothing or been in a dark area when they shouldn’t have been. They blame the victim a lot.”
RAPE “THE NORM”
Johannesburg businesswoman Andisiwe Kawa is still looking for justice after she was gang raped by five men in 2010 only to see the case against her suspected assailants dropped for lack of evidence.
Kawa, one of a tiny minority of rape victims who have publicly spoken about their attacks despite the stigma it carries, has founded a project that campaigns against rape of women and children.
“Rape has become a norm. We’ve become very apathetic about it. There’s this silence that gives an upper hand to perpetrators because we don’t tell on them,” said Kawa, who is spearheading South Africa’s part in a February 14 global march against gender violence.
Kawa, who is in her 50s, has lost faith in a justice system that she says allows rape cases to drag on for too long, with suspects often released on bail.
“We have a constitution that promises us the right to safety and security and justice but in reality we don’t have those,” she said.
“We have this nice, world-class legislation but it is not implemented for the people on the ground who require it. It is useless legislation.”
Additional repoting by Catherine Rice in Cape Town; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall