CW: Violence, sexual assault

In South Africa, women are shining a spotlight on the government’s glaring failure to halt the sustained and rising tide of sexual violence against women. After days of demonstration at the start of September, in which protesters blocked the entrance to the World Economic Forum, South Africans took to the streets again last Friday in the wake of a spate of high-profile murders that has attracted coverage from newspapers across the world.

Under the hashtag ‘#AmINext’, social media has been flooded with images and videos of the protests, calls to reinstate the death penalty, suggestions that the state should make people #PayPatriarchyTax and a seemingly endless stream of missing posters for those whose cases are yet to be resolved. After two days of protest, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was met with boos from the crowds when he delivered a speech on 5th September. Admitting that the statistics for gender-based violence amounts to a national crisis, he promised ‘Enough is enough.’

Against a backdrop of endemic sexual violence against women and girls, the protests were sparked by the rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old student at the Univeristy of Cape Town (UCT). On August 24th, Uyinene, known as ‘Nene’, went to collect a parcel from the post office in Claremont, a short distance away from the campus. She was told by a postal worker there that the card machine was not working, and to return later in the day. When she did, she found the same employee alone there. Offering to help her find the parcel, he locked her in the empty office where he raped her and, when she fought back, bludgeoned her to death. Her body was later found buried in Khayelitsha, on the other side of town. The postal worker (a devout churchgoer, according to neighbours) was charged following a private investigation and has now confessed in court to rape and murder. Some have suggested a private investiagation was necessary to solve the case due to lack police support. It has now emerged that his employers at the state-run post office were aware of his previous criminal record, which includes carjacking.

In a painful irony, August is Women’s Month in South Africa. Events were organised to honour the 20,000 women who marched on government buildings in 1956 to protest the extension of the country’s ‘Pass Laws’ (requiring black citizens to carry an internal passport). As the commemorations ended, the violence continued. Less than a week after Uyinene’s death, South African female boxing champion Leighandre Jegels was shot dead by her partner, a police officer, despite having previously taken out a protection order against him. Across town, fourteen-year-old Janika Mallo was found beaten to death in her grandmother’s garden, after another suspected rape. The next few days after that saw the death of two more women in Cape Town following serious assaults and a female nursing student was raped.


Every three hours in South Africa, one woman is murdered. The names continue to stack up in what is an all-too-familiar story. Is the government finally starting to listen?

Ramaphosa was meant to celebrate 100 days in office that week. However, his speech on the 5th September was meant by a hostile reception from the thousand-strong crowd. His commitments to strengthening the state’s approach to sexual violence were deemed too little too late.

“Our nation is in mourning and pain,” he began, speaking of the country as “deeply traumatised by acts of extreme violence perpetrated by men against women and children.” His rhetoric implied an understanding of activists’ demands that men, as the perpetrators of the vast majority of such crimes, need to be called on to solve the problem, rather than the focus remaining on women as victims. Ramaphosa was emphatic: “Violence against women is not a women’s problem. It is not a problem of what a woman said or did, what a woman was wearing, or where she was walking. Violence against women is a men’s problem. It is men who rape and kill women.”

Yet critics argued that the solutions he proposed were unrealistic, such as reviewing closed cases, when many current cases go uninvestigated, or have been unsuccessfully attempted before. While he pledged to ensure every police station has the necessary equipment to investigate sexual assault cases, some on social media criticised his lack of action to date. In some provinces the current number of police stations with access to a ‘rape kit’ is less than 10%. Across the country, only one-quarter of all police stations have access to this equiptment. Accusations that the president was being disingenuous were underlined by the later use of water cannons and stun grenades against protestors.

Though Ramaphosa’s pledges did not go far enough, his messaging around sexual violence, is a vast improvement on his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, who resigned in February last year, was notoriously accused raping a lesbian AIDS activist in 2005. During the trial, he told the court that his accuser had dressed provocatively, and appealed to a Zulu cultural taboo against leaving a sexually aroused woman unsatisfied. He was later acquitted. He had also stated at the trial that while he knew the alleged victim was HIV positive, he had showered afterwards, implying that this would reduce the risk of contracting it. This statement was a major setback in the ongoing battle against AIDS in the country, where over 20% of the adult population are HIV positive.

In the context of South Africa’s history of apartheid, unpicking the country’s problem with rape is not simple. Academic analysis has focused on the normalisation of violence, with patriarchal understandings of gender intersecting with a racist history of sexual assault against black women women going unpunished. A 2006 survey of rural South African men found that a fifth admitted to committing rape, and that the mean age of their first rape was 17. Pumla Gqola, author of Rape: A South African Nightmare, saw Zuma’s trial as emblematic of public opinion on the issue. Gqola described it as: “a watershed moment for what it highlighted about societal attitudes that had previously been slightly out of view… Under colonialism and apartheid, adult Africans were designated boys and girls, legally and economically infantilised.” She argues that South Africa’s history has bred a brand of toxic hypermasculinity that encourages violence as a way of asserting power.

The data on sexual violence around the world is extremely inadequate, but the statistics that do exist suggest a stark reality. In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) placed South Africa fourth in the world for female interpersonal violence death rate, with only Honduras, Jamaica and Lesotho ahead of it. Both murder and sexual assault rates are rising, with sexual violence increasing by 4.6% between 2018 and 2019. However, despite the increase in reported rapes to just over 40,000 in 2018, studies suggest that the true rate is vastly underreported, with as few as 1 in 9 informing police. A 2017 study found that, of those reported, only 6% resulted in a conviction.

As news of South Africa’s protests hit international headlines this month, the UK is facing a crisis with its own handling of sexual violence. Last year, rape conviction rates in the UK went down 27%. For the second year running, rape charges are also substantially down. This has been blamed on a number of factors: the Crown Prosecution Service adopting a “merits-based” approach to prosecuting rape, vastly reduced police numbers and reports of women being required to hand over their phones or face charges being dropped. A study by the Office of National Statistics in 2017 revealed that 20% of women in the UK reported being sexually assaulted since the age of 16, and 4.5% of women reported being raped.

The hashtag which protestors are using to broadcast their movement across social media, asking the question ‘#AmINext’, is not without controversy. It was first used in 2013 in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin in the US, before being adopted to protest the high murder and disappearance rates of indigenous women in Canada. The hashtag’s use in Canada was simultaneously criticised for moving the focus from actual victims to potential victims. People were also worried about imposing a sense of victimhood on a marginalised group, which risks furthering their marginalisation. This resulted in a counter-hashtag ‘#ImNotNext’, which was itself criticised for implying immediate action was not needed.

The campaign’s success cannot be denied: after international media picked up the story in 2015, Justin Trudeau committed to a national inquiry on the issue. In the words of academic Sarah Hunt, “The impact of both campaigns lies in the fact that they have been initiated by Indigenous women, and are examples of self-determined approaches to resisting violence.” They also brought into focus issues of representation for the ‘Two-Spirit’ population: people indigenous to North America who fulfil a ceremonial role in their traditions as a ‘third gender’. Hunt continues: “Social media is revealing the ways in which individual women, men, Two-Spirit and trans people are actively resisting colonialism in their everyday lives, not just waiting for state officials to ‘save’ them.”

The Cape Town protestors, who have also adopted the hashtags #NotInMyName and #SAShutDown, do not deserve any criticism for their passionate and successful attempts to bring the issue into sharp focus. The problem of framing the issue, when it comes to discussing rape, is a global one. The question ‘Am I next?’ exposes pervasive problems in society’s response to sexual violence. The need to focus on who will be the next victim betrays the tragic fact that to capture the media’s attention, the facts are somehow not shocking enough; campaigns need to bring it ‘closer to home’. Often what that really means is closer to the lives of people who are more powerful, or more enfranchised, than the victims.

Paraphrasing the question reveals its subtext. When we ask, ‘Am I next?’, we ask, ‘What if this happened to a different human?’ The rape of one human is no more or less horrific than the rape of another. If we are only empathetic to the issue when we imagine it happening to someone different, we betray the apathy inherent in our outlook.

We do not have to look far to see this logic writ large in the rhetoric of our politicians. Even Barack Obama, in a speech publicising his tough approach to sexual assault in 2014, led with the line: “It’s about all of us – our moms, our wives, our sisters, our daughters, our sons.” Women here, as critics noted at the time, are defined exclusively by their relationships (subtext: to men). They are defined by somebody’s ownership of them by association: “our… our… our… our.” The person excluded from the “all of us” is the woman in her own right as a human. What of the woman who does not have children, is not married, has no siblings and, for whatever reason, does not form part of a community or family who feel that she belongs? Often these are the people most vulnerable to sexual assault and rape. Yet to shock ourselves into action, it still appears it is necessary to imagine it happening to a different human, someone closer to home.