India gang rape death prompts soul searching in South Africa
The death of a young Indian woman who suffered organ failure after being gang-raped reverberated beyond Asia to South Africa, a country battling its own epidemic levels of sexual violence.
News of the 23-year-old’s tragic death in a Singapore hospital where she had been taken for treatment prompted a groundswell of anger and a good deal of introspection about why South Africa persistently has some of the highest incidences of rape in world.
Official statistics show there were almost 65,000 sexual offences in South Africa last year, but police estimate only one in 36 rape cases is reported.
Based on those figures it is possible 2.3 million South Africans were victims of sexual offences, out of a total population of 50 million. So South Africa is all too able to empathize with the victims of horrendous acts of sexual violence. In addition it also has a large Indian population.
But events in Delhi and Singapore appear to have struck a painful chord in large part because of the subsequent protests in India, which raised difficult questions about whether South Africans were doing enough to come to terms with their own crisis.
“Here rapists attack everyone — from babies up to grannies and we sit and do nothing. A revolution is taking place in India,” said commentator Pinky Khoabane.
“We need the good men to stand up,” Khoabane said, decrying what she said was systemic pattern of femicide.
An estimated 28 percent of South African men have committed rape, according to data from the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the International Center for Research on Women.
That compares to 24 percent of Indian men according to the same data.
South Africa often appears to have become accustomed to levels of sexual violence that would be considered intolerable in other countries.
In November six South African village boys, including one aged 10, were charged with rape and the murder of three other children, in a case that hardly made the newspapers.
South African President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial — at which he was acquitted — and the filmed gang rape of a 17-year-old girl with a mental age of four were notable exceptions, and both sparked a national debate.
But analysts say that the general resignation about sexual violence has partly to do with who the victims are.
Based on statistics from Gauteng — which encompasses Johannesburg and Pretoria — researchers have shown that almost 89 percent of reported rapes involve black women, who are predominantly poor.
Some 58 percent of the victims were unemployed and 15 percent were under the age of 11, according to figures published in the journal Crime Quarterly.
The same data showed 16 percent of reported rape cases in South Africa involve gang rape.
In a heated Twitter debate on Saturday Zwelinzima Vavi, head of the union umbrella group COSATU — which is part of the ANC-led tripartite alliance that governs the country — angrily dismissed claims sexual violence was caused by poverty or apartheid. “No one can tell me that raping a three-month-(old) baby or 87-year-old granny or burning a library or vandalizing a school is caused by poverty,” he wrote.
“Poverty can’t lead to an erection when seeing a 90-year or three-month-old.”
“Yes, apartheid humiliated, dehumanized and made people feel valueless — its existence in the past is no excuse for current moral degeneration,” he added.