Friday, 17 July 2009

Don't give up.

On June 12 2007, the day Sonwabo Mangcongoza grabbed Nomthandazo Radebe - a girl at his school - held a knife to her throat, took her to his house, tied a scarf around her mouth and, for the next eight hours, sexually assaulted her over and over again, there were things he assumed to be true.

1) Nomthandazo would remain silent, as though the scarf were still stuck in her mouth.

2) It wasn't a crime.

3) The police wouldn't investigate.

4) Nobody cared what happened to this 18 year old girl in the Eastern Cape town of Lusikisiki, located in an impoverished rural area.

5) All the men he knew behaved this way.
Sonwabo was wrong. Things didn't turn out the way he thought. On March 25 2009, the judge gave him a 13-year prison sentence after a lengthy trial, the toughest ever imposed by a court in that region.
“Such an offence can never be tolerated by any community,” the judge said.
What happened to change what could have been another "private" tragedy among the thousands and thousands of such occurences in a country where rape is not considerered to be a public safety issue? The women of the Treatment Action Campaign vowed to make an example of Sonwabo, to set a legal precedent and an admirable benchmark of community activism. Women would no longer accept sexual assault as a banal evil rampant in South Africa, but hold the men engaged in this form of gender terrorism responsible for their crimes.
1) Nomthandazo and her family worked with the community activists to ensure that knowledge of the circumstances of her sexual assault and her legal pursuit of her assailant became visible and heard as typical of the violence to which all women in South Africa can be subjected, young or old.
2) & 3) There are laws against rape though they are not vigorously enforced by the police.

When the terrifying ordeal was over, Ms. Radebe called a friend who happened to be a TAC leader in the town. Together they went to the police station and to the hospital so that Ms. Radebe could be examined. ...

The women soon discovered the police did not have any rape kits. The kits, which provide the forensic instruments and legal documents necessary for a proper rape investigation, are supposed to be stocked at every police station in the country.

“The doctor at the hospital said he couldn't do anything without the rape kit,” Ms. Gqamane said. “So it was our duty to put pressure on the police.” At the urging of TAC, the police agreed to get a supply of the kits from another town, and the kits arrived the next day. The problems, however, were just beginning.

“After six days, the TAC people came to me at home and asked if the police had visited me yet,” Ms. Radebe said. “But they hadn't come yet.” The TAC volunteers went back to the police and insisted they investigate. But after two months, the first investigator in the case was transferred to another town. The second investigator went on vacation, and then on a training course, and nobody replaced him.

The police claimed they didn't have enough resources to investigate all rape cases. Court appearances in the Radebe case were repeatedly postponed because of the investigator's absence. The TAC activists went to the police station repeatedly to look for the investigator, but he was never there. They spoke to his supervisor and warned him that they would publicize the inaction. ...

Meanwhile, the TAC activists were holding rallies – known as “mobilization days” – in the neighbourhood where Ms. Radebe and her rapist both lived. With loudspeakers, they urged the residents to break their silence and report any evidence of rape. They handed out leaflets and talked to anyone who came out to the street.

4) TAC and many other people across South Africa cared, because they had personally suffered some form of sexual assault or a sister, mother, daughter, neighbour or friend had.
5) Not all South African men are rapists or potential rapists. The ones who do sexually assault and terrorize women are repeat offenders and they have harmed thousands upon thousands of women.

South Africa's epidemic of rape, which has raged for decades with near impunity for the attackers, has finally triggered a revolt. Sexual assaults, often dismissed as a ritual of manhood, are no longer ignored so routinely.

Women's groups and other activists are breaking the code of silence and insisting on police investigations and convictions. With more than 50,000 rapes reported annually – nearly 150 every day – and many more cases that are never reported, South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world. The incidence of rape in South Africa is the highest of any of Interpol's member states, yet only half of the rapes lead to arrests, and only 7 per cent result in convictions.

In a recent survey, 28 per cent of South African men admitted they had raped someone at least once in their lives. Almost three-quarters of them had committed their first rape before the age of 20. The study, which surveyed a representative sample of men from 1,700 households in two South African provinces, concluded that sexual assault is linked to South Africa's strongly patriarchal society and is “deeply embedded in ideas about manhood.”

The study shocked many people in this country and around the world, but it was no surprise to those who lived in Lusikisiki and similar towns across South Africa.

Years ago, Audre Lorde said:

"I have come to believe over and over again, that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood....

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.... and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us. The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken."

From The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, Sister Outsider.

2 comments:

Alison said...

With a small revision, the quote loosely attributed to Burke could be your signature here : "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Thank you, once again.

deBeauxOs said...

Merci Alison.

The story of the work accomplished by the women of the Treatment Action Campaign is awesome and inspiring, is it not?

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