JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When news that a mob of men raped eight young women last summer during a music-video production set in an abandoned mining site in Krugersdorp, Sipehle wasn’t optimistic that the culprits would be prosecuted.
“My rapist walked free,” Sipehle said, explaining that it was because of a delay in DNA testing that her assailant was not convicted. Sipehle, 39, who asked that her real name be withheld for fear of her safety, told PassBlue that she was a victim of a rape that occurred in 2019 in East Rand, a district outside Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital. The shocking case in Krugersdorp, a city outside Johannesburg, that occurred in late July led to about 80 men, mainly foreign illegal miners, being arrested. Women who protested the rapes held placards calling for justice outside the court where the men were arraigned. Yet questions remain as to whether the police arrested the culprits, or just swept up those who lived near the crime scene.
Rape is considered by experts to be endemic in South Africa. Between April and June 2022, 9,516 rape cases were registered with police, according to the national minister of police. Among those cases, 3,780 of them were reported to have happened in the homes of the rapists or victims; 1,546 of them were reported to have occurred in public places, such as streets, parks and beaches or in public transport, including taxis and trains.
There is no single explanation why rape is considered endemic in South Africa. A study on “Why, How and When Men Rape,” placed such attacks as a violent residue of the apartheid system. High levels of alcohol abuse have also made women targets and victims of sexual attacks. Another study laid the blame on South Africa’s culture of male domination and aggression and framed rape as a male way of asserting control of women in the country. Moreover, weak law enforcement has created a sense of impunity, experts suggest.
South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, according to figures collated by World Population Review, a United States-based organization that gathers and collates data globally, although experts acknowledge that it’s difficult to quantify such numbers, given the widely varying definitions of rape from country to country and the prevalence of underreported cases by victims to avoid stigmatization. The number of reported rapes was about 72.1 rapes per 100,000 people in 2019-2020, according to the South African Police Service.
But survivors often do not report rapes and conviction rates are low, said Sheena Swemmer, a gender researcher at the Center for Applied Legal Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Victims and women justice campaigners contend that poorly run DNA technology repositories and an apparent lack of political will to prosecute rapists leave victims unable to receive justice through the courts in South Africa. Federal law makes it compulsory for police to extract DNA samples of a suspected rapist at the time of the arrest. The victim’s DNA samples can also be collected and submitted to a police forensics laboratory to analyze whether there is a biological match between the suspect and the reported crime.
“There is not the will and the willingness to put money into the long process that is involved in trying to fix these broken systems,” Swemmer told PassBlue. “There is lip service.”
Sipehle’s case is a prime example of the flawed approach to prosecuting cases of rape in South Africa. She lives in East Rand, the area outside Johannesburg where she was assaulted. She said that her attacker was a leader of a feared local extortion gang — groups who demand informal taxes from residents to provide land, electricity and other amenities that should be provided by the state. One evening when she was returning from drawing water at a burst pipe, the man who attacked her ambushed her in an alley with a pistol and forced himself on her. He was wearing a balaclava, but Sipehle said she recognized his voice. Neighbors hesitated to accompany her to a police station. Police arrested her suspected attacker two weeks later, she said.
For a while, she relocated to another neighborhood, afraid of reprisals from other gang leaders sympathetic to her alleged attacker. The police told her they had collected his DNA samples for processing. “He was eventually released from prison on bail; he actually had the audacity to threaten me before he relocated to another city and sort of vanished,” she said. “The case eventually dragged on slowly, and DNA test results are still pending because of the backlog. I fear if they re-arrest him, and if he’s bailed again and this time murder me in revenge.”
One problem in prosecuting sexual assault in South Africa is that its national DNA forensics technology system is slow in processing thousands of samples. Delays make it more difficult for authorities to keep a repository of samples, which could lead to quicker convictions and less lengthy court proceedings, according to Molline Marume, UN Women’s Pretoria-based program specialist on ending violence against women. In addition, quick processing of DNA samples enable courts and police to add convicted rapists to the National Register for Sexual Offenders database, a digital repository created in 2007.
“DNA evidence carries weight in court,” Marume said. So if there are problems with the technology, she added, “it gives the perception that they [offenders] can get away with committing such crimes.”
While South Africa’s rape statistics are grim, some hopeful changes have emerged in recent years, Marume said. “Some positive inroads have been made,” she said, such as the establishment of a joint project between the South African National Prosecuting Authority and the South African Police Service Forensic Science Laboratories. The project has helped prioritize court-ready cases, she added, noting: “A total of 12,283 cases of rape and murder were prioritized as per requests and responded to, from August 2021 to July 2022.”
The lack of political will in South Africa to combat rape has long been cited by activists as a source of the continuing violence. A recent trend is to blame foreign men for the crimes committed. When the July gang-rape occurred, the response of the South African police was to round up dozens of undocumented foreign miners. Statements from the police indicated that in addition to the rape suspects, they rounded up men suspected of being illegal immigrants who work in illegal mining. Quickly the national focus shifted from the eight abused women to the immigrants. Leaning on the speeches of some officials of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party, angry mobs hunted and tortured miners.
“Currently in South Africa, there is political scapegoating against individuals who are not lawfully in the country,” Swemmer, the gender researcher, said. “Xenophobia is rife at the moment.”
Indeed, in a study on gang rapes in the country, issues around illegal mining and violent crime have been developing for more than a decade, said Mark Shaw, a producer of a September 2022 risk-assessment report on strategic organized crime in South Africa. (The report was done for the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.) “Yet it took the horrific gang rape of eight women before police acted and launched a crackdown for the cameras,” Shaw said in an email to PassBlue about the Krugersdorp attack.
“It is an indictment of the police and law enforcement agencies and the reactive, short-sighted nature of policing in South Africa that a situation like that could develop over such a long period of time,” Shaw added. “Sadly, the stock response to criminal atrocities so terrible they can no longer be ignored seems to be a show-of-force until the headlines dissipate. South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of rapes and sexual assault, yet conviction rates remain shockingly low.”
Piers Pigou, a senior consultant covering the South African region for the International Crisis Group, said in an email to PassBlue: “I think the deeply condensing levels of sexual violence also represent wider challenges of patriarchy and entitlement, and cultures that accept, even embrace violence as a ‘problem- solving’ option; providing what some may interpret as ‘remedy’ (i.e. we see this with spike in community justice/vigilante violence) and/or as a ‘legitimate’ means to attain certain ends.”
As the dust settled after the mass rapes in July, in what activists called a moment of madness, the national minister of police, Bheki Cele, said that at least one woman was “lucky” during the gang-rape because only one man violated her.
“Being a victim of rape, I felt an electric jolt of disbelief and fear, hearing him waffle that on radio,” Sipehle said.
Swemmer told PassBlue that such comments damage public confidence in the police and the ability of victims to come forward. “This is a problem as, even if not intentional, it creates the impression that this is the ‘view’ of our criminal justice systems,” she said. “It does give the message that our police system does not understand gender-based violence and that the system is not a safe space for survivors of violence. It leaves individuals with hopelessness and a lack of a pathway to justice.”
DNA and a lack of political will are not the only problem in victims pursuing justice against their rapists. Police themselves have been accused of such abuse. Since 2012, South African police officers have been accused of committing nearly 1,000 rapes, some of which allegedly occurred within police custody, according to the South Africa Independent Police Investigating Directorate, a government body. A report from the directorate in 2020-2021 registered 95 cases of rape by police nationwide, 15 of them allegedly having taken place in police custody.
“It’s him I fear, but it’s the police I fear even more,” Sipehle said of the man she alleges raped her. “I have lost hope that he’ll be punished properly. I fear what he can do to me if he goes to jail, serves his sentence, and comes back to our slum and joins up with his gang. Lots of women in South Africa share my disappointment.”
This article was updated to include the comment from Piers Pigou, which was sent after the story was published.
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Nyasha Bhobo is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she is a freelance journalist covering tech, immigration, climate emergencies, women’s rights and other topics in the region. Her work has been published by The Africa Report, Newsweek, The New Arab, Reuters, CNBC TV Africa and Canada Globe and Mail. She has a B.S. degree from Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe.