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Rape in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Paloma Pitsillides, University College Maastricht 


Rape is an epidemic in South Africa. With one of the highest rates of rape globally (WPR, 2021); the rates have been increasing steadily since the end of the Apartheid regime in 1994. It is commonly known that rape as an act can be seen throughout many different social spheres, regions, and history. However, an understanding of the existence of rape, on the scale it is presenting, in a South African context is yet to have been analysed from a praxeological perspective. In this respect, this paper aims to discuss and understand rape within the context of practices of violence. The ultimate goal of researching practices of violence is the comparison of cultures along the dimensions of time and space concerned with the generation, existence, appropriation, and the (possible) opting out of practices (Gudehus, 2021). In this sense, by understanding rape as a practice – specifically in a South African context – researchers, policy makers, and change instigators alike will have a better grounding and thus a greater ability to figure out how to opt of out this practice.

In order to gain an understanding of rape from a praxeological perspective, it is first important to outline the scope of what is being discussed when one discusses rape. Following this, an understanding of the context of rape in South Africa – the narratives that exist when speaking about rape, historical legacy of the country, and the process of reporting and justice – will be analysed. Further, the factors associated with rape victimisation and perpetration will be examined as well as artefacts relating to this act. It is important to note that rape is not a singular act, it encompasses many different types of non-consensual sexual assault, for this reason the variations and special cases of rape also need to be discussed. Finally, rape as a violent practice will be discussed.

Defining Key Terms

Though rape is common throughout the world, it may be difficult to differentiate between rape and other forms of sexual abuse, specifically events of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

Sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape are terms that are often used interchangeably. However, these terms have different meanings. Sexual abuse can be understood as any unwanted physical invasion of an individual’s body (SSA, 2000). Sexual abuse ranges from touching and kissing through to forced oral sex, forced sexual penetration or rape and being forced to perform prostitution and bestial acts. Following this, sexual assault is legally defined as the unlawful and intentional application of force to another person or making the person believe that such force will immediately be applied with the intent to commit the sexual act (ibid.). Comparatively, ‘rape’ can be defined in several different ways. The legal definition of rape, according to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences And Related Matters) Amendment Act (2007), is “[a]ny person (‘‘A’’) who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with a complainant (‘‘B’’), without the consent of B, is guilty of the offence of rape” (p.30).

As the legal definition may suggest, ‘rape’ is a broad term. However, for the purposes of this paper rape has been defined using the legal definition. Although this may be limiting in terms of the scope of applicable cases of rape, it is important to use the legal definition as it may provide some insight into how rape has been shaped in a South African context. Understanding the way South Africa as a country responds to rape requires an understanding of how South Africa defines rape. A legal definition in this case is most applicable because it determines how government officials (such as police or court officials) perceive rape. Moreover, to acknowledge the limitations of the legal definition may provide additional insights into the perspective from victims; if the definition of rape is not known by everyone, some individuals may not view their encounters as rape, for example, if the perpetrator is an intimate partner.

Context: Understanding rape in South Africa

South Africa has one of the highest rates of rape incidence and prevalence in the world (WPR, 2021). Before discussing prevalence, it is first important to distinguish between prevalence and incidence. Prevalence refers to how many cases of rape there are at a given point in time. In this regard, the prevalence of rape could be examined by how many individuals have reported rape on the day of a population census. Incidence, on the other hand, refers to the number of rape cases over a specified time period. For example, the number of rapes per 100 000 of the population in a given year (SSA, 2000).

Recently, a summary of the sexual offenses in South Africa for 2018/19 and 2019/20 was published (GPSJS, 2020). The results show the number of incidences of sexual offences in 2018/19 were 26 000 (this translates to roughly 0.045% of the total population, and 0.088% of the total female population). Comparatively, in 2019/20 the incidences increased to 37 000 (0.063% of the total population, and 0.125% of the total female population). What these statistics reflect is a clear increase in the prevalence of rape and other sexual offences over time. The high prevalence and incidence of rape in South Africa points to a significant issue that is present in South African society.

Echoes of Apartheid: Socio-demographic Profile of Rape

A study conducted on the socio-demographic profile of rape in South Africa (Abrahams et al., 2020), highlights several interesting points; firstly, that women who have experienced rape were more likely to be less educated, secondly, these women were more likely to live in informal housing or rural areas (ibid.). Informal housing and informal settlements are characterised by poorly developed infrastructure – often lacking built roads, working plumbing, and safe and legal electricity- these settlements trace their origin to the Apartheid system wherein residential areas were segregated (and ultimately, excluded).

The congested socio-physical environment of informal settlements with multiple deprivations creates numerous points of vulnerability to gender-based violence such as poor lighting, shared communal sanitation, and poor access to safe public transport systems. Similarly, under-development and poor infrastructure are features of the South African rural landscape. Both settings have high levels of unemployment among young men, and social norms supporting gender inequality and use of violence. These provide two known key drivers of gender-based violence (Abrahams et al., 2020, p.7).

This echo of Apartheid exposes how rape is still influenced by the historical legacy of this country; it is, quite literally, built into the structure of the cities. This suggests that women, specifically women living in more vulnerable areas and/or from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to be targeted. Moreover, because of the history of racial segregation that was enmeshed into the apartheid system, people in less advantaged positions in South African society are more likely to be people of colour who were historically discriminated against.

However, when reporting a recent rape, women who are employed full-time were more likely to report the rape. This can be attributed to several factors including the fact that full-time employees were more likely to live in an area with an established police department (one that they feel is reliable and worth reporting the issue to), these women are also more likely to be educated and thus aware of their legal position (meaning they are aware of the fact that the event that just occurred was in fact a crime), and finally, because of their position in society as fully employed and somewhat more established, their trust in ‘the system’ is likely to be higher than those who the system has failed (those who are unemployed and/or in informal housing). Here, a clear link is established between gender-based violence – up to and including rape and intimate partner violence (IPV) – and poverty (Abrahams et al., 2020). This is further emphasised in a study that examined the relationship between men who had perpetrated IPV and men were had experienced food insecurity which found that “[a]mong 2,006 currently partnered men, nearly half (48.4%) perpetrated intimate partner violence and more than half (61.4%) were food insecure” (Hatcher et al., 2019, p.767). In this way a clear link is seen between the structural limitations – low levels of education, the need to travel long distances by public transportation, poor infrastructure, etc. that still exist as a result of the apartheid era – and women’s vulnerability to get raped (Abrahams et al., 2020).

Moreover, the apartheid era was characterised by extreme violence, backlash, and suppression, both in terms of the regime itself and the armed struggle against it. As a result of this history, violence in South African society is normalised (Kindra, 2017). While violence takes many forms, and has different impacts and effects on a society; to be accustomed to any violent occurrence points to a clear issue within any given society.

Narrative of Rape

Possibly more troubling is the narrative of sexual offense in South Africa. With little pressure on individual perpetrators to stop raping, the onus of preventing rape is displaced on women and other victims, moreover, the use of coercion including violence and the threat of violence, is tolerated unless it breaks certain cultural norms, for example, where the victim “has a higher social standing” (Rumney et al., 2010, p.829). The case of a young student, UyiNene Mrwetyana, who was raped and murdered after visiting her local post office by a postal worker provides an interesting example of this. In his own words, Luyanda Botha (the perpetrator) describes how the events took place:

I contacted the deceased to inform her the parcel was available for collection. … The deceased used the Taxify taxi service to travel from her residence, Roscommon, university student accommodation in Claremont, to the Clarenreich Post Office. She arrived at the post office after closing time. …I unlocked the front door and the deceased entered. When she entered the post office, we were alone in a locked post office….When the deceased searched her bag to pay the requisite customs fees, I started making sexual advances towards her…The deceased did not respond and looked scared. I grabbed her by the waist and forcibly pulled her closer to me…I proceeded to sexually touch the deceased against her will. I inserted my fingers into her vagina. I then inserted my penis into her vagina….The deceased fought me whilst I sexually violated her…. She managed to run to the door but I caught up with her and knocked her to the ground…I dragged the deceased to the safe inside the post office. I locked her up inside the safe. The deceased screamed while inside the safe…I choked the deceased and she fought back and kicked me…I took a 2kg weight, used to weigh the packages received at the post office, and used it to bludgeon the deceased to death. I targeted her head….I left the post office and consumed alcohol outside a nearby liquor outlet….I returned to the post office shortly thereafter. I covered the body of the deceased with cushions, a blanket and a jersey as she lay in the safe (Nombembe, 2019, n.p.).

This was clearly an act that required forethought, the victim needed to be lured into an area where the perpetrator could carry out this practice. The perpetrator knew to wait until after hours, when there was no one in the post office, making sure to lock the door once the victim had entered. Moreover, the fact that the victim fought back, against the perpetrator’s ‘sexual advances’, shows that this act was not consensual. In this regard, there is a level of premeditation that suggests an awareness of the act requiring forethought.

The case of UyiNene Mrwetyana is also significant because of the response to her death.  UyiNene’s disappearance and the subsequent discovery of her body took place in August (women’s month in South Africa), she was a young black university student with a private school background. In this regard, she traversed the lines of race, class, and gender identities in a way that allowed a broader range of South Africans to connect and relate with her personally. The public outcry that happened as a result of the rape and murder was country-wide; many women and allies protested against the rates of femicide, rape, and gender-based violence.

Women are never at fault in these situations and she [UyiNene, the victim] knew that. But she knew that, like, there will always be places that are riskier to be around (Mngandi, 2019, n.p.).

This quote from a friend of UyiNene highlights the way in which the threat of rape has become so normalized that individuals within South African society have altered their everyday practices around avoiding rape. What UyiNene’s death represented to many women was the relinquishing of another ‘safe space’, a post-office, to the threat of this violent act. What this quote also makes clear is that sexual violence, as an action and as a point of discussion, is ignored or avoided. In other words, sexual violence has become so normalised that it is able to enter the daily lives of South Africans; women do not walk alone at night, men do not see forcibly having intercourse as rape.

Rape reporting and justice

What is apparent, from the case above, is the flawed narratives that exist in the current discourse on rape. These attitudes are pervasive in all aspects of South African society and appear in a wide range of settings, including the criminal justice system. “A 1995 Human Rights Watch report… argued that the police ‘often subscribe to stereotypes of raped women’” (Rumney et al., 2010, p.832). Moreover, when victims do come forward, the police do not necessarily handle the case with the necessary empathy or respect that the victims coming forward require.

There were two policemen and a policewoman. So, this lady was like …, she was not interested niks [not at all] in the case. It was issues of ‘hey man, let us … we will see that person; hey we are wasting time. Heh! This …, this and that’. So, I was asking myself, because she is a woman, she is supposed to at least be more attentive and sympathetic in this case, but she was the one who was saying hey, let us go. We won’t get this person, this case is difficult, such things (Sebaeng et al., 2016, p.5).

In this account, a victim was attempting to report an incidence of rape to the police. Both the policeman and policewoman in this case, are dismissive towards the victim and make it clear that it is unlikely that they will catch and persecute the perpetrator of the rape. This is, unfortunately, not uncommon and is something which many victims are weary of when deciding whether or not to report their rape. As explained by other rape survivor:

I was raped by my intimate partner when I was 24. I trusted him and, at the time, believed he was the best person I knew. But one night, I was drunk and he raped me. I’ve been asked why I haven’t reported it and I have many reasons; I have no physical evidence or witnesses, the police will probably be less inclined to believe me because I was dating him at the time, it happened so long ago and he’s a white male so it’s likely that he would be believed over me (Jones, 2021, n.p.).

Here two interesting points are expressed that need to be unpacked further. First, the victim believed that the police would not believe her because she was dating the perpetrator and was drinking at the time of the rape. This speaks volumes with regard to the narrative of rape in South Africa; intimate partner violence is the most common form of sexual abuse and yet, victims are still afraid of being believed. Second, the victim believed that because this man was white, he was less likely to be perceived as a rapist. This racialised perspective can be attributed to the historical legacy of apartheid, wherein non-white South Africans were viewed as second class citizens. The privileges that this position in society holds, still stands today. White men are far less likely to be convicted of a crime when compared to people of colour; this apparent flaw in the criminal justice system has clear ties to apartheid and the legacy of violence and inequality that accompanies it (Louw, 1997).

In addition, issues in reporting rape to the police come with additional threats when compared to other forms of violent crime. Not only are survivors of rape often dismissed or treated without the necessary empathy their experience should require, but police themselves are often linked to this crime. For example, in the Western Cape province at least 12 police officers in the Western Cape province had been arrested on charges of rape in 2013 (EWN, 2013). This illustrates another factor in why rapes are so underreported, it seems antithetical to report a crime to an organization with a history of perpetrating this crime.

Moreover, underreporting can also be attributed to stigmatization of the crime of rape itself. Indeed, there is an established link between the long-standing issue of sexual violence across all aspects of society that has intertwined with strong impulses to conceal it socially and marginalize it politically (Posel, 2005). This inconsistency in reporting suggests not only that the general public’s trust in SAPS is weak but also that rapes are not necessarily associated with crime, both from the perspectives of those directly involved in the crime (victims and perpetrators) and those adjacent to the crime (policemen, prosecutors, and individuals associated with either the perpetrator and/or the victim). Furthermore, rapes are traumatic and many victims may not want to discuss or relive these events, especially if they are uncertain of the outcome of the criminal procedures.

Felicia Johnson, 28, was 16 years old when her rape happened. She blamed herself. ‘I felt for a very long time that I had asked for it. We kissed and fooled around and the next day when he wanted have sex and I protested, he forced himself onto me saying I was a tease. I couldn’t tell my mom about it. And many, many years later when I was able to go for therapy and actually say what happened to me was rape, I felt like it was too late to do anything. I was scared… Scared of telling my mom, of going to the cops. Scared of him. I think the process scares me now a bit too. Even if he came up to me now and I remembered him, I don’t think I would report him`, says Felicia (Jones, 2021, n.p.).

There are many barriers to justice in rape; police ineffectiveness, victims being unwilling to relive their trauma, and insufficient evidence. Furthermore, the reporting statistics also suggest that people’s belief in the South African justice system is low; this is evidenced by the rape cases that were reported, proceeded to court, and ended with a conviction.

Prosecutors declined to prosecute in 1 217 of 2 579 cases (47.7%) referred by police for prosecution, i.e. 34.4% of all cases included in the study. They placed the other cases on the court roll but before trial half of the enrolled cases were also withdrawn. Documented reasons for declining to prosecute were that the victim wanted to get on with their life (67.6%), followed by insufficient evidence (32.4%), and sometimes both. There was also some evidence of police inappropriately referring to cases in which a suspect had not been identified to prosecutors. Prosecutor decisions not to prosecute were influenced by the rigor of the police investigation and collation of evidence, and perceived severity of the rape incident. Cases of victims aged under 12 years and disabled victims were more likely to be placed on the court roll and never go to trial than those of older than 12 and those without a disability (Machisa, 2017, p.14).

Moreover, the likelihood of revictimization for rape victims is high (Abrahams et al., 2020). This points to a deficit in the justice system as well as suggests a pattern of recidivism. In the most recent data sets released, rape had reportedly increased by 72.4% in the first quarter of 2021 (Cele, 2021). While this number appears shockingly high, in reality this dramatic increase can largely be attributed to the ‘crime holiday’ that was the result of the Coronavirus pandemic. When placed in context, the number dropped to a 2.8% increase. While this is far smaller, it still shows an upward trend suggesting that rape prevalence is still on the rise. What this also points to is the possibility of severe underreporting of rape during the more extreme lockdown period.

Finally, stigmatization of rape often prevents people from coming forward. This is often the case with child rape where families try to keep the rape secret because of the belief that once your child has been raped it mean that no one will want to marry her and that – if reported – she will become an easy target for future rapes (Posel, 2005). The impact of this exists in many different spheres. Rape has become so normalized that a game called the ‘rape-rape game’ was popularised in South African primary schools (Sesant, 2016). This shows us that the indoctrination process of normalisation occurs or takes effect from a young age. It also clearly shows a pattern that is emerging of sexual violence.

Factors Associated with Rape Perpetration and Victimisation


In a publication of the crime statistics of South Africa for 1997 (SSA, 2000)., several key details about rape are highlighted. When examining the profile of victims of rape, the statistical release showed that 2.7% of the female population between the ages of sixteen to twenty-five said they had been raped within the past 5 years. Of these incidences, 34.6% of the females who had reported, were raped by relatives or men who played an intimate role in the victims lives. This includes family members, friends of the family, or any other individual who may have played an integral role in the victim’s life. Conversely, 24.4% of the reported victims were raped by a stranger. The remaining percentage knew the perpetrator but not on an intimate level. What is interesting is that the percentage of females who have been raped by strangers increases as the victims get older. Furthermore, the likelihood of being raped – by a stranger or a person with whom the victim was familiar – decreases with age. This suggests a disturbing truth about the sexualisation of younger women and girls that is echoed in the legal age of consent (twelve). On a wider level, 55.3% of the cases reported to SAPS were rapes committed by strangers to the victim (Machisa et al., 2017). This is interesting because it is not consistent with the data discussed above. What this may suggest is that victims of rape are less likely to report the incident to the police if they are familiar with the perpetrator. This suggests that there is a social effect of rape that extends beyond the act itself.

In most instances, intimate partner rape only forms a fraction of other controlling behaviours and violent acts perpetrated by the partner, who feels sexually entitled. There is also evidence that non-violent sexual coercion in adolescent sexual relationships can result in unwanted sexual intercourse. … Societal factors perpetuating the incidence of rape include societal norms that reinforce patriarchy, male dominance and male sexual entitlement. A woman’s right to refuse to have sex is deemed unacceptable, making it difficult for women to refuse sex. Thus, women often fail to disclose marital or partner rape (Machisa et al., 2017, p.18).

What this makes clear is the fact that rape is an occurrence that has developed over time, it is an appropriation or an extension of other examples of sexual violence and gender-based violence.

Finally, what is made clear when examining the factors associated with victimization is the fact that women in more vulnerable social positions are more likely to experience rape. Women in poorer health conditions, were more likely to experience rape and were less likely to be using a method of contraception. Moreover, the use of condoms or other forms of protection, are not commonly used in rape occurrences, thus making the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, a common problem (Abrahams et al., 2020). What this makes clear, is the link between poverty and past trauma to rape exposure and revictimization.


When examining the perpetrator profile the statistics reveal that 88.1% of the rapes that occurred in 1997, were carried out by a single perpetrator (SSA, 200). Furthermore, when looking at the data shared by the Department of Correctional Services, the data reflects that of the perpetrators of sexual offences, 9.2% were under the age of twenty, 31.6% fall between the ages of twenty to twenty-five, and the remaining 59.2% of rapes were committed by people over the age of twenty-five (ibid.). This data shows a pattern of rape beginning to form: men are more likely to rape when they are over the age of 25, these rapes are more likely to occur in a one-on-one setting with one perpetrator. When examining the motivating factors to rape; entertainment (i.e. to have fun, to relieve boredom), reasons stemming from ideas of sexual entitlement (e.g. sexual experimentation, or wanting so see if they could), and rape from anger and a desire to punish the victim (or someone close to her) were also very commonly reported (Machisa et al., 2017).

Gang-rape, on the other hand, is more common in younger individuals, this is largely attributed to younger individuals wanting to prove their virility to each other, gang-rape being viewed as a ‘bonding’ experience, the sexual gratification from voyeurism, and the influence of negative peer pressure among their peers (ibid.). In a study that examined the perspectives of men with regard to rape, one participant explained:

[S]ometimes you do things not knowing their repercussions or even because of age, because it is something that I would not do now, maybe then it was because of my age (Sikweyiya et al., 2007, n.p.).

In this regard, rape is not something that is viewed critically by younger individuals, this coupled with the current narrative on rape (as discussed above), suggests that younger perpetrators of rape are doing so without much thought of the long-term consequences, both to themselves and to the victims of these acts.



While rapes where objects are used to penetrate the victim are less common, rapes where the victim is coerced into sexual intercourse with the threat of a weapon (gun or knife mostly) are common. Where we see weapons being used, an element of intentionality becomes clear. The perpetrators of these rapes knew to use weapons. In most cases, women were raped with the threat of physical injury and often with the use of knives (68%) or at gun point (16.5%) (SSA, 2000).

He closed my throat with his hands. He was having a press button knife, giving me orders using his knife but he did not stab me. He only hit me on the head and it was swollen. He raped me for the first and second time. Now when he tried for the third time, I managed to escape. I ran and get through a barbed fence to my neighbours and got scratched on both legs. I was having cuts all over. I got through the door of my neighbours holding my panty in my hand. I was bleeding and my night dress was soaked in blood (Sebaeng et al., 2016, p.3).

This shows how the practice of rape often involves the use of artefacts, if not for the act itself (i.e. penetration using a weapon or any other object other than a penis), then as a threat to ensure victim complacency. Not only weapons but even just threats of physical violence are commonly used as a means of coercion.

I screamed. They plugged my mouth and said: ‘voetsek you are making noise …!’ They dragged me to a secluded area and then said ‘take off your clothes otherwise we are killing you [crying]’. I said to them ‘don’t kill me please, do what you want but please don’t kill me (ibid., 2016, p.5).

In this regard, it becomes clear that the weapons do not serve a sexual purpose, rather, they are used as a means of coercion. This is something that can also be achieved through threats.

Interestingly, there is a distinct difference between acquaintance rape and stranger rape. Stranger rapes are more likely to involve other violent actions by perpetrators such as threats with a weapon or other crimes such as car hijacking (Machisa et al., 2017).


When examining venues, the statistics highlight that rapes are more likely to occur inside the home of the victim; 47.3% of the rapes occurred inside the victim’s home (SSA, 2000). This can logically be explained, specifically in the context of acquaintance rape and rape by an intimate partner, if you are already familiar with the perpetrator, allowing them into your home is not an unusual act. Moreover, once inside the home, fewer people are likely to witness the rape and thus fewer people are likely to intervene. Finally, when examining locations of rapes and the use of artefacts, a 2017 study shows:

Most adult and adolescent rapes occurred during weekends and in the evening, but rapes of 0-11 year olds occurred during weekdays. Children aged 0-11 were more likely to be raped during the hours coinciding with after school and when caregivers were at work, highlighting potential for rape prevention through subsidized aftercare and greater supervision. Most rapes by known perpetrators occurred in residences and most stranger rapes occurred in open spaces, by a road or in alleys. In two thirds of cases perpetrators used physical force, most commonly among adult victims. In 31% of cases perpetrators had weapons and this was a firearm in 7% of cases (Machisa et al., 2017).

This again, points to a pattern that is emerging. There is an element of predictability when examining rape prevalence, namely that rape is more likely to occur on weekends in adults and weekdays in children. The use of artefacts, specifically weapons, to threaten or coerce victims also suggests an element of premeditation.

Variations and Special Cases

There are two different points of departure when understanding the variations in rape cases. Rape when the perpetrator is a stranger and rape when the perpetrator is known to the victim. Cases where the rape was committed by multiple individuals, while still present, are distinctly less common. Within these two main sub-categories, the ‘type’ of victim who is raped plays a significant role in how the rape is perceived. The action of corrective rape and the historical rape of black women, for example, is perceived completely differently from the rape of a white woman or a woman from a higher socio-economic position. In this respect, class, race, socio-economic position, as well as sexual history and the level of understanding of the narratives regarding rape play a significant role in shaping how this act is perceived.

The following cases can be considered ‘special’ cases because they lie outside the typical or most common types of rape; specifically these cases focus on gang-rape, corrective rape, and the rape case involving former president, Jacob Zuma.

Corrective Rape

Instances of corrective rape, by its nature, specifically targets individuals who lie outside the boundaries of prescribed social norms. In this regard, corrective rape can occur as a means to ‘cure’ individuals of qualities that differ from the prescribed social norms. This was the case for Eudy Simelane:

The partially clothed body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa’s acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. As well as being one of South Africa’s best-known female footballers, Simelane was a voracious equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema (Kelly, 2009, n.p.).

This case provides a clear example of rape designed to alter the victim’s core identity. Eudy Simelane was raped to try and ‘cure’ her of her lesbianism. However, what is made clear by her murder is that the logic behind the idea of corrective rape did not necessarily play a part in the act itself. What this case also illustrates is that location does indeed play a significant role in occurrence. Kwa Thema is a township area, occupied by low income levels and informal housing. Finally, corrective rape is not viewed in the context of a hate crime. This is interesting as it suggests a failure to recognize the motive behind this type of rape as prejudicial.

Rape by a Known Perpetrator

This next account is very interesting as it places the significance of the perpetrator in the spotlight. Former President, Jacob Zuma, raped a woman, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (Khwezi), after inviting her into his home. As she describes the event:

‘At that point I opened my eyes. That was when I saw that he was naked’, the tearful woman told a hushed courtroom. ‘I thought ‘Oh no, uncle cannot be naked. He is on top of me and I am in his house.’ I thought ‘This can’t be happening.’ And at that point I faced reality that I was just about to be raped. She said he proceeded to rape her while holding her hands above her head. The plaintiff said she waited for two days to report the alleged rape to police because she regarded Mr Zuma as “family” and had later come under pressure from various people, including one who offered money, to drop the case. One said: ‘Do you know what this will do to the ANC? It will rip the lives of people.’ I felt very pressured. The woman said she had discussed the fact that she is HIV positive with Mr Zuma several times. She said he had not used a condom (Meldrum, 2006, n.p.).

Here, it is apparent that Khwezi was hesitant to report her rape because she regarded the perpetrator as ‘family’ and was afraid of the implications such an accusation would have on the ANC (the political party to which Zuma was affiliated). What this says about rape is that it has surpassed the level to which individuals feel in control of the effects of this action. This power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim, not only in the physical sense but also in terms of the power that comes with presidency, was a deterring factor when deciding whether or not to report the crime. 

What is also interesting here is the effect of different levels of celebrity and its impact: many people chose to support Zuma after Khwezi eventually came forward. This level of blind support for public figures was not echoed in support for Eudy Simelane. What this highlights is that the level of fame does not provide any additional advantages when you are a victim, but it certainly does if you are the perpetrator.


The final variation that will be discussed is gang-rape. This phenomenon involves multiple perpetrators, usually involving younger individuals, this act requires some level of planning and shows a collective response to a group setting. In this respect, gang-rape goes beyond the individual intent and can be considered something that is defined through group-participation.

On 20 September 1998, a group of young men – the applicants together with their co accused – went on a rampage in the Umthambeka section of the township of Tembisa in Gauteng. … The terror that poured out onto this community was well orchestrated and meticulously calculated and during all this, the men raped eight women occupants. Some of the women were raped repeatedly by members of the group. The youngest victim was a 14- year-old girl. Whilst some of the men raped the women, the others stood as look-outs (SAFLII, 2019, p.4).

What this case shows us is that rape goes beyond the act of penetration. The perpetrators involved in this case, specifically those who were not directly involved in the rape itself but were look-outs, were tried and convicted under the doctrine of common purpose. For rape to be considered within the scope of the doctrine of common purpose, as it was in this case, it means that all individuals who were complicit in the rape must face the same legal consequences. This means that rape, when practiced in a group setting, includes not only the act of penetration by the perpetrator but additionally practicing compliance in the form of ‘standing guard’ while the rape occurs. In this regard, rape can be seen as an action that goes beyond the scope of individual intent.

Conclusion: Rape as a Practice

The discussion above has highlighted some of the many ways in which rape occurs in South African society. What has been made clear above is that there is indeed an increase in rapes in South Africa. This suggests that pre-existing factors that perpetuate rape have not been dealt with, at least on a systematic level, since the dismantling of the apartheid regime in 1994. Moreover, this increase in incidence rates suggests a pattern or culture of rape has been formed. In addition, it is clear that the environment plays a distinct role in shaping the likelihood of the act occurring. Rapes were most commonly occurring within the residence of the victim, this can be understood as an environment of opportunity, to be behind closed doors and away from public viewing. Other environments, specifically areas of lower income such as townships or informal housing, characterised by low lighting, poor security, and lacking in good infrastructure, provide the environment for opportunistic rapes to occur. Environment provides the opportunity to rape that many individuals know to be aware of and consequently avoid. In this regard, rape can be seen as a socially entrenched phenomenon. This applies both to perpetrators and to victims. Women are aware of the ‘riskier’ environments and the threats they pose; as outlined by the fact that women know to avoid specific areas at specific times because of the threats they associate with it. In this regard, rape is a threat that many people fear, even in typically ‘safe spaces’ such as university campuses:

You never know what may happen. Sometimes you hear cases of rape. So and so has been raped or so and so has been robbed of something or anything of the sort then you, you then start to wonder what may happen to you in the days to come or the few months to come (Gordon & Collins, 2014, p.97).

As has been made clear throughout this paper, actions of rape surpass individual intent but are the result of a combination of complex socio-demographic, regional, and political factors. The narratives surrounding sexual abuse up to and including rape in South Africa have become normalized, to such a degree that rape is perceived as a game by young children. When the act is not considered as something that lies beyond the norm of appropriate behaviour, it is more likely to become more common. This is emphasised when looking into the justice system and its ineffectiveness; rapes are underreported (suggesting a lack of faith in the justice system) and the statistics reflect that this is an issue that is increasing over time. It is clear that rape is an act which one is likely to get away with committing (at least in a legal sense), and a clear pattern of rape survivors failing to come forward serves to outline this. This points to the existence of rape as a self-maintaining system: perpetrators are aware that they are able to commit these acts (justifications vary widely) and thus continue to do so, in contrast, victims are aware that reporting their rape is unlikely to result in any affirmative action and thus continue to remain silent.

Other patterns of rape were also made clear, specifically the likelihood of weapons being used as a means of coercion (rather than as artefacts used directly in the act, such as to penetrate the victim). What is also made clear by examining the data is that perpetrators of rape vary in many different respects: age, race, class, and so on. This points to the fact that this phenomenon is not only intergenerational, but is an intersocietal phenomenon. 

The central elements of many definitions of violence comprise notions of intention, harm, acting against the will of the harmed, and knowledge on part of those who harm that they are acting against the will of the harmed (Gudehus, 2021). Rape, without a doubt, is a violent event; it often involves physical and or psychological trauma to the victims.

‘When he realized that I am fighting back, he grabbed me by the neck and throttled me. So, I don’t know as to whether I ended up having a blackout because when I woke up, I was lying on the ground on my back and he was already on top shouting: Hey! What’s wrong with you, don’t you see that I want to ejaculate? I tried fighting him again and he grabbed and held my hands down, forced himself on me and finished’ (Sebaeng et al., 2016, p.3).

While the scope of rape as a practice is very wide, encompassing many different variations, including acts such as gang-rape, corrective rape, stranger-rape, etc., the broader understanding of rape remains consistent. An act of sexual abuse, conducted without the consent of the victim, with the specific goal of exercising control and power over the victim by forcing them to engage in sexual acts. In this respect, victims of rape are hurt by virtue of experiencing the act. In case of gang-rape, participants are acting out of a sense of group-belonging. Moreover, “(many) practises of violence are not part of what is commonly considered as normal or usual (anymore)” (Gudehus, 2020, n.p.).  What is interesting when examining rape in a South African context is that it is both normalized and denormalized; normalized in the sense that this occurrence has become so common that individuals reformulate their habits (where and when they exist in certain spaces, for example) and are simultaneously shocked and abhorred by its continued presence (as illustrated by the protests that erupted after the rape and murder of UyiNene).

Ultimately, rape can be considered a practice of (collective) violence. This – as has been illustrated above – is because rape can be understood as a collection of norms, conventions, know-how, and requisite material arrays (Shove & Panzar, 2007, p.155, as in Gudehus, 2021). In this regard, rape can be viewed as the product of reactions or actions that relate to a specific social and or physical environment. Finally, the close relation between rape and other forms of sexual abuse points to an appropriation of pre-existing forms of gender-based and sexual violence. In this regard, rape can be viewed not only as a consequence of certain factors but rather as a performance of pre-existing practises.

Paloma Pitsillides studies a combination of peace and conflict studies, law and public health at University College Maastricht  (May 2022)


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