Zuma’s invisible victims

With so much attention focussed on Jacob Zuma‘s rape trial and the testimony emerging from the Johannesburg High Court, little has been written in our local media about the Zuma’s greater victims: the women’s rights movement and South African women generally.  This trial has highlighted the problems that plague rape trials nationwide.

According to the Boston Globe:

Already, most of South Africa’s many alleged rape victims do not press charges. Women’s rights activists worry even more victims will be too frightened to come forward after watching Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, which resumes Monday after a recess for most of the past two weeks.

“This case has sent out the message that if you report rape, you will have to be a virginal 19-year-old who has never had sex. Otherwise, everything you have done in your life will be held up to prove that you consented and are somehow to blame,” said Liesl Gerntholz, a legal adviser who is part of the “One in Nine” campaign launched to coincide with the trial. It draws its name from the estimate that only one in nine rape victims reports the assault.

One in Nine activists protested against the treatment of rape victims in front of courts around the country Friday.

“What happens in the Zuma case happens in many other cases all over the country on a daily basis,” said Johanna Kehler, who organized the demonstrations in Cape Town.

Just over 55,000 rape cases were reported to police in 2003-04, up from 44,750 in 1994-95. There were more than 9,300 cases of indecent assault. Based on reported cases, South Africa has 114 rapes per 100,000 people, compared to a rate of 32 per 100,000 in the United States.

Rates of other violence against women also are high. A study last year by the Medical Research Council found that a woman was killed every six hours by an intimate partner in South Africa, the highest rate reported anywhere in the world. Some 15 percent of them had also been sexually assaulted, it said.

Prof. Rachel Jewkes, director of the Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, described the findings as “completely outrageous” but reflective of the high rate of overall crime in South Africa.

People Opposing Women Abuse have posted some pretty alarming statistics on its website that emphasise what is at stake in this trial:


(i) 1 in 2 women have a chance of being raped in their lifetime

(II) A woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa

(III) More than 40% of perpetrators are known to the rape survivor.

(IV) Less than 2% of reported rapes are false

(V) Most rapes occur within the rapists community

(VI) 1 in 4 women are in an abusive relationship

(VII) A woman is killed every 6 days by her intimate male partner in South Africa.

(VIII) Women are more likely to be attacked by someone they know than by a stranger

The Rapist

1. A Jhb survey revealed that: 1 in 4 men had raped a woman.

2. 85% of rapists were armed (usually with a knife)

3. 85 of rapes are gang rapes: A woman is more likely to be raped by 3 to 30 men than a single rapist

4. For every 400 rapes reported last year- 17 became official cases, 1 perpetrator was convicted and for every perpetrator convicted, 1 case docket was lost/sold.

5. In 1998 just under 7% of reported rapes were prosecuted.


1. A child is abused every 8 minutes in SA

2. A child is raped every 24 minutes in SA

3. A child is assaulted every 14 minutes in SA

4. 85-90% of perpetrators are known to the child.

5. 1 in 4 girls & 1 in 5 boys under 16 yrs have been sexually abused.

6. 1/2 of 26 000 Jhb (Johannesburg) high school students interviewed believe that forced sex is not sexual violence.

7. In one SA township- all girls (mean age 16.4 yrs) had had sexual intercourse. 1/3 said their 1st experience was rape or forced sex. 2/3 teens said they’d experienced sex against their will.

8.The rape graph rises sharply from 3 to 25 year old girls and peaks at girls age 8 to 11 years.

HIV/AIDS & Violence against Women & Children

1. 40% of young men aged 20-29 (most common age of rapists) are infected with HIV/AIDS.

2. The incidence of HIV is highest in girls aged 15 to 25 years.

3. There are 1700 new cases of HIV infection daily in South africa.

4. Last year 20% of girls aged 13 to 19 were infected with HIV (six times more than boys).

5. 16% of Women raped are already infected with HIV (POWA is seeing higher percentages).

6. Approximately 1/3 of Women raped who do not receive anti-retroviral drugs will become HIV+

7. 1 in 3 children admitted to hospital are infected with HIV is South Africa.

One of the central legal difficulties to be addressed during the course of the trial is the manner in which rape is dealt with by our courts in the context of the outdated Sexual Offences Act (which has been criticised as inadequate given the prevalence of rape and other sex related crimes in South Africa).  The Act is simply not equipped to respect the rights women enjoy in the broader context of our Constitution including the rights to equality and dignity.  A rape victim must prove that she did not consent to sexual intercourse with the perpetrator and is liable to be cross-examined about her sexual history by the perpetrator’s lawyers.  This obviously imposes a massive burden on the victim of what is a humiliating violation of the victim’s body and psyche.  These requirements also fail to take into account the varied responses of a rape victim to her attack before, during and after it occurs and anything short of her actively and vocally resisting the attack and subsequently proceeding directly to the authorities to report the crime may be regarded as factors which undermine her credibility.  This particular case is more difficult given that the accused is none other than a former deputy President and high ranking official in the ruling political party, the African National Congress.

Women and men are, notwithstanding our Bill of Rights of over ten years on one form or another, hardly equals in much of South Africa.  This aggravates the disproportionate power relationships between men and women and which largely contributes to rape in the first place.    South African society is markedly patriarchal and respect for a woman’s right to bodily integrity is far from universal.  As you can see from the statistics quoted above, rape is prevalent and perhaps even a part of day to day life for many women.  This form of rape is generally regarded as “tame” given that a third to a half of rapes in South Africa are perpetrated by more than one male and are violent.

A further complication is the AIDS pandemic in South Africa and archaic beliefs shared by many men that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.  Zuma has played a very visible role in the South African AIDS debate and his recent comments about his perception of his chances of becoming infected with the virus (his accuser revealed that she has AIDS) are troubling especially given the response of what I can best describe as his unsophisticated supporters.  Zuma either chaired or played a leadership role in a number of public welfare organisations including the Moral Regeneration Campaign (which has advocated abstinence, faithfulness and using condoms) and the National AIDS Council and was challenged by the State prosecutor on this in light of his revelations during the course of the trial:

De Beer took a tough stance with Zuma, challenging him on the position of authority that he has occupied, not only as deputy president of the country, deputy president of the ANC, chairperson of the Moral Regeneration Campaign, but also on his capacity as head of the National Aids Council and the fact that, on many occasions, he had acted as president of this country.

“As president of the Moral Regeneration Campaign and at the opening address of the Moral Regeneration Summit, you referred to a lack of respect for authority, the abuse of women and children, a lack of respect for other people and a general attitude of self-centredness and not caring about other people?’’

Zuma agreed with this and affirmed her statements that people looked up to him in this position.

If this trial is to advance respect for women’s rights and for women generally, the Court needs to publicly take issue with Zuma’s behaviour.  In addition, Parliament must enact legislation to change the ineffective Sexual Offences Act and throw the weight of the State and the Constitution behind women and send a strong signal that rape and other sexual offences will not be tolerated.

While the outcome of the trial is not yet clear, what is clear is that this trial will have a dramatic impact on the recognition of women’s rights in South Africa and public perception of rape and rape victims.  If Zuma is acquitted for any reason other than a complete failure by the prosecution to prove that Zuma committed rape, we can expect the statistics to get even worse.

The Mail & Guardian has published a powerful article titled “You have struck a woman, you have struck a rock” which is inspiring and worth reading.  An important initiative to emerge from the controversy surrounding the trial is a call to action by some of South Africa’s most influential women.  Read this document (click on the link below), be inspired to take action.

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