South Africa’s “Corrective Rape” Problem

In Johannesburg in April 2008, Eudy Simelane’s naked body was found face-down in a ditch. She had been stabbed nine times. She had been raped. Eudy had also been one of South Africa’s foremost female soccer players. She had dreamed of becoming the first female World Cup referee, and through her successes on the field, had lifted up her entire community. That day, those dreams died with her.
Neither violent crime nor rape is uncommon in South Africa. In fact, Eudy was one of more than 18,000 murder victims in South Africa in 2008. However, what happened to Eudy was not random. Rather, Eudy’s attackers shouted, “We will teach you [that] you are not a man, we will show you, you are a woman!” Eudy died because she was a lesbian.
In South Africa, the horrendous hate crime of “corrective rape”—in which a gay woman is raped to change her sexuality—is destroying the lives of lesbian women in the townships. Their attackers believe that if lesbian women are raped they will learn to be straight or “normal” again. These rapes, often committed by gangs, involve savage beatings and torture that the prey may not survive. Many victims contract AIDS and other debilitating diseases. They suffer post-traumatic depression and often attempt suicide. Some women and girls are married away either to hide their sexuality or their rape.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of these cases of violence is where they occur. South Africa has some of the most progressive LGBTQ rights laws in the world, with equal employment protections and legally recognized same-sex marriage. However, in practice, such laws mean little, particularly for women in the poorer and generally non-white townships. Already affected by poverty and racism, the lesbian occupants of these townships live in constant fear. With little chance of being protected by a corrupt and bigoted police force, they are often left at the hands of their attackers. In Cape Town alone more than 500 cases of corrective rape are reported each year. In the last ten years 31 women later died from the injuries they sustained while being raped. Countless more were deliberately murdered.
The Story of Luleki Sizwe
Despite these dark circumstances, some lesbian women in the country’s townships are willing to fight. Ndumie Funda, raised in the Xhosa townships outside of Cape Town and still a resident of them, started Luleki Sizwe, an organization to help her community fight the epidemic of corrective rape. According to Funda, the name Luleki Sizwe is derived from two sources: the name of Funda’s close friend and the name of her former fiancée. Both were killed after being correctively raped, one from the diseases she contracted, the other in the murderous hands of her attackers. Spurred on by this personal suffering, Funda started Luleki Sizwe and committed herself to fighting the corrective rape epidemic.
In an interview with the HPR, Funda described how she has been chased from house to house, tormented by those who want to kill her since she has become an outspoken and recognized activist for the cause. Her home has been repeatedly robbed, her car has been stoned, and her neighbors constantly yell threats at her. In fact, a man who raped a lesbian lives next door to her. On the day of the interview, one of her puppies was in the hospital instead of at home, because her neighbors had beaten him for being a “lesbian” dog.
Stories like the ones that are affecting Ndumie, and that affected Eudy before her, abound.
Funda told the stories of many more women. “I had a friend … she went to the toilet and apparently when she came back this guy had put something, a drug, in her drink. And then he raped her, and she went unconscious. The following day the very same guy showed her the video … of him raping her, so she was scared to tell her girlfriend. Now she is two months pregnant.”
In a different interview, Funda translated for a father. She pointed to a patch of earth between a house and a chain link fence. There, just a few meters away from their house, was where they finally caught his 19-year-old daughter. She was raped and killed just moments before reaching the safety of her home. Nothing was there to memorialize her, and Ndumie warned that such events could only be talked about in whispers.
Ms. Funda also showed the HPR the grave of another woman who lost her life to a similar hate crime: Sihle Sikoji, a teenage member of Luleki Sizwe. “She was very active … she helped us big time in the organization. She got killed by gangsters.” Sikoji knew they were coming for her because of her openness about her sexuality. After Sikoji’s death, much of the lesbian community was driven underground. Sikoji, according to Funda, has been symbolic of the community’s flourishing—and then of its destruction.
“It Isn’t Safe Here”
In 2006, Zoliswa Nkonyana was stabbed to death and raped. Ultimately, five of her attackers were found innocent. When the rest of her attackers came to court, protesters organized by Luleki Sizwe awaited them. In a rare victory, that set of attackers received 18 years in prison. Still, that brief success is the exception, not the rule. Most men are never even arrested, much less prosecuted. Of those men who are prosecuted, very few are convicted. The bigotry of police forces and juries either prevents conviction or results in a short sentence, as was the case in the death of Ms. Nkonyana.
Women’s attempts to fight back against these abuses have proven extremely difficult. For instance, one organization attempted to organize a protest on National Mandela Day, a time of service throughout the country. A gathering of approximately 20 women stood in the center of a local market area, singing protest songs with signs memorializing friends who had died. Still, upon leaving the protest Ms. Funda warned, “This is making them recognizable. It isn’t safe here, and we can’t be sure they will be safe tonight.”
Similarly, a group of lesbians in Cape Town’s townships tried to create a lesbian soccer team, but it was dissolved after the star and most beloved player died. Ms. Funda tries to provide medical services to women, but she herself is at constant threat and so finds it difficult to provide safety or anonymity to these women. Still, many local priests, religious organizations, and other small community councils have helped find women places to stay or provided them with some counseling services after they are victimized.
A Government Response?
These community organizations, including Luleki Sizwe, also garnered national attention by creating a petition urging the South African government to take action on the issue. The petition received more than 175,000 signatures and has drawn increasing national attention to the issue. Finally, last September, the South African government announced that they would introduce hate crimes legislation and for the first time actively spoke out against corrective rape. In February they released a policy framework to start to study and eventually pass these laws. Still, it is unclear to what extent such legislation will help, or if the current African National Congress government will actually pass the said laws. Real change will require both community action and strengthening of the checks on police forces, not just symbolic statements. After all, Ms. Funda, and others in her community who choose to remain anonymous described how the police often ignore their claims or even help perpetrate acts of violence. While Funda said there were one or two police officers who they could trust to help them, the larger institution was completely unreliable.
With the long delay in action on the government’s part coupled with the inefficacy of enforcement, it is clear that more than a mere symbolic gesture is required to effect real change in this issue. Solving this problem requires a serious campaign, not just to pass hate crimes legislation, but also to educate juries so that these men can be prosecuted. Most of all, it will require greater equality throughout all South African society, so that laws do not just apply to a few.
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