Why is sexual violence so endemic in South Africa and why has it been so hard to combat?


This essay will firstly lay out government legislation which is meant to protect women’s rights, arguing that the legislation itself is progressive but that the implementation of these rights is significantly hindered for numerous reasons. Firstly, the example of Zulu culture and the rape trial of President Zuma (2005/2006) will be used to show the justification and acceptance of sexual violence, particularly with the re-traditionalisation of South African culture. Secondly, the essay will show how the legacy of apartheid has normalised violence and entrenched mistrust of the police services, the latter being one of the main obstacles to overcome in order to achieve efficient combatting of sexual violence.The conclusion will be reached that sexual violence is so complex to combat due to the numerous cultural and traditional beliefs present in South Africa. Despite the strength of the legislature there are too many barriers present to combatting sexual violence.


Accused of being the ‘rape capital of the world’ by Human Rights Watch, a woman is supposedly raped in South Africa every 26 seconds( (Anderson 2000, 790) (Kapp 2006, 719)), some claim every 17 seconds (Everett 2014).  Moreover, 1 in 3 women can be expected to be raped in her lifetime (Moffat 2006, 129). These shocking statistics are worse still by the fact that many sexual attacks in South Africa are not reported; the Medical Health Council suggest only 1 in 9 attacks are (Rape Crisis, Cape Town Trust 2015). The Women’s Health Project, 1992, survey showed 50-60% of marriages involved physical and sexual violence (Hassim 2009, 66), showing violence against women is a normalised part of society, including in intimate relationships.

After twenty years of democracy, South Africa should have a state which enforces rights for all its citizens but the country has struggled to move on from apartheid. This is shown by high unemployment, poverty, unequal land distribution and worryingly high rates of sexual violence against women. This essay will focus on the latter subject of sexual violence, showing whilst legislation is sound, there are several cultural barriers to overcome, for example the influence of traditional tribal cultures and mistrust of the police arising from the apartheid era.

Firstly, it is vital to understand what is meant by the term ‘sexual violence’. This essay will work within the World Health Organisation’s definition which regards sexual violence as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, but not limited to home and work” (Krug, et al. 2002, 149). This definition is inclusive of rape, attempted rape, gang rape as well as assault including forced sexual contact.

South Africa’s democratic constitution of 1994 (introduced in 1996) was very advanced for its time ensuring equal rights for all, promising considerable change after the apartheid. The constitution incorporated one of the most progressive sex offence acts in the world, inclusive of marital rape, consensual sex acts involving a minor and restrictions in the making of pornography.

Rape was seen to be a man having unlawful sexual intercourse with a woman without her consent. In 1999, changes were made to include sexual penetration in coercive circumstances, including force, threats, abuse of power or authority. In addition, penetration by other body parts, such as fingers, and objects were also included in the new definition (Jewkes and Abrahams 2002, 1232). Furthermore in 2007, changes were made to the Sexual Offences Act to broaden the definition of sexual violations and rape itself, including ‘direct or indirect contact’ such as the mouth of one person upon another person’s genital organs (for example, forced oral sex) (Department of Justice 2007, Ch2).

Whilst legislation is strong and sets the basis for good protection of citizens, “rape law is defined by male standards. The perspective is informed by male perspectives of female behaviour” (Reddy and Potgieter 2006, 514). As many view this to be a woman’s issue, the lack of political will in implementing these changes on a practical basis is disappointing. Safety Minister Steve Tshwete “dismisses with contempt this whole notion that South Africa is the rape capital of the world as a very silly notion” (Anderson 2000, 819). It seems unlikely this view is genuine ignorance, due to the vast amount of rapes reported, but more genuine lack of interest in addressing the issue. With sexual violence being ‘brushed under the carpet’ by officials, it does not set a good example for the rest of society. It also does not give the victims of sexual violence the reassurance they need that they can come forward to the authorities. This is further emphasised in a latter section of this essay.

Generally speaking, the constitution and laws of South Africa are very liberal, yet the reality is that “beneath the heroic façade of the constitution”¦a vicious cocktail of violence, sexism and hatred brewed” (Hassim 2009, 57). The realisation of the rights promised in the constitution is limited for several reasons, such as lack of political will and cultural beliefs. Whilst updated legislation is encouraging, legislation itself is useless if it is not implemented effectively. There have been attempts to combat sexual violence by legal means but the issue appears to be deeply embedded into South African culture which is a difficult obstacle to overcome. The realisation of these rights are hindered by certain barriers. Two examples are explored below.

The first example used will be the importance of traditional cultures present in South African society and the patriarchal systems which they establish. This has been made particularly relevant in contemporary South Africa due to the 2005/2006 rape trial of (then, Vice-) President Jacob Zuma.

Prior to colonisation, South Africa was made up of many tribal cultures such as Swazi and Zulu. However, it appears contemporary South Africa is made up of a ‘patchwork of patriarchies’- women being subordinate in the majority of Southern African societies, subject to their chiefs or heads of the family (Bozzoli 1983, 149). Whilst many cultures have helped to make up contemporary South African society, this section will focus specifically on Zulu culture due to the 2005/2006 Zuma rape trial in which he used his Zulu culture as a significant part of his defence. Moreover, Zulu cultural traditions still hold influence, particularly in isolated rural areas, such in the KwaZulu-Natal province where government services are less effective than in urban areas.

Whilst many cultures have a patriarchal structure, Wright highlights that Zulu society incorporates ideological controls which “served to socialise females into accepting a position of inferiority” (Bozzoli 1983, 150), limiting them to the traditional roles of mother, wife, daughter, accepting themselves as ‘second class citizens’. This idea of women as second class citizens has been carried through into contemporary society; in general, society conditions women to believe themselves at the disposal of men. Importantly in regards to the rape trial, “the relationship with/between the accused and the complainant could have been culturally and politically structured in such a way as to make it extremely difficult for the latter to reject and resist sexual advances and demands of the accused” (Robins 2008, 424).

Nevertheless it is vital to note that, in regards to sexual learning, traditional Zulu culture was reasonably liberal; young people’s advances into adult sexuality were monitored. This incorporated puberty rites, sexual education and the encouragement of ‘ukusoma’ (non-penetrative sex) amongst young couples (Harrison 2008, 177).  However, during colonisation in the late 19th century, Christian missionaries attempted to stop ‘backward’ practises, in particular, as many colonists found sexual subjects’ offensive to discuss. Therefore, throughout colonisation and into contemporary society, many traditional Zulu practises lost their popularity, such as polygamy. However, the patriarchal structure remained throughout society.

Zuma was accused of the rape of the daughter of a family friend. He argued that earlier in the evening the complainant had been wearing a Kanga; a traditional African cloth which usually symbolises modesty and respectability. Throughout the trial this was“sexualised and transformed into an object of seduction” (Robins 2008, 415). Importantly, the use of the Kanga within the trial can be used to “entrench stereotypes and the rape mythology that dress is a key marker in the potential for rape” (Reddy and Potgieter 2006, 519). This is worrying as these stereotypes should be abolished rather than normalised.

Additionally, the woman was sitting without her legs crossed which, to Zuma, symbolised she was sexually aroused. He claimed that it was his responsibility, as a Zulu man, to have sex with her (Reddy and Potgieter 2006).  If he had not, he claims he would have disrespected her dignity. Throughout the trial, Zuma used Zulu culture as his defence. Additionally he spoke in Zulu throughout, despite his fluency in English and this being the usual courtroom language, to emphasise he was Zulu.

Critics of the complainant claim there were very few signs of a rape, the woman did not cry out for help, which would have been readily available, and she did not present ‘normal’ victim behaviour. However, as mentioned above, the patriarchal system in South Africa limited the woman’s power in her relationship with Zuma, meaning she was subject to him, thus, less able to navigate her sexual experiences. Furthermore, this is relevant in the majority of rape cases where either economic or physical power limit the ability of the woman to come forward, or be believed by society that she was sexually violated. Moreover, the legal system places importance of the sexual history of the woman, if she has a tainted reputation then she is more likely to be viewed as having loose morals and be a liar. Despite public knowledge of Zuma’s interest in younger women and participation in the practise of polygamy, these were not brought into the trial. These practicalities are overlooked by legislation, but are vital in the difficulties in overcoming sexual violence. With the case of Zuma, the trial was widely reported. He should have been treated as an example to other men in the country that rape was not acceptable.

Importantly, Zuma especially, has made an attempt of ‘re-traditionalisation’ within South African society. As Harrison indicates the “re-legitimisation of cultural pride has fostered belief that returning to past traditions can resolve contemporary problems” (Harrison 2008, 177). These traditions, such as polygamy or ‘virginity testing’[1], are symbols of an unbroken connection with the past. Re-traditionalisation seems to be an attempt, to some extent, to reverse apartheid and colonisation and the effects it has had on society. However, it must be emphasised that culture should be viewed as constructed and malleable, practises which were appropriate in the 18th century may no longer be suitable in contemporary South Africa.  During the trial, cultural lines appeared to have been drawn; Zuma representing the reclaiming of traditional culture (in this example, Zulu), the complainant “represents modernity, change and the questioning of cultural beliefs related to consent, sex and the law” (Reddy and Potgieter 2006, 517).One vital criticism of Zuma is that in his attempts to re-traditionalise South Africa, he has justified unconsented sex with a woman. As the Vice-President at the time, this did not set out a good example to others within society. Moreover, Nomboniso Gasa highlights “if you see yourself [Zuma]as a father figure in the struggle, what message does”¦the strategy adopted by your defence give to South Africans?” (Robins 2008, 415).

The rape trial revealed many within the country openly sided with Zuma. On the opening day of trial, Zuma supporters were more than 1000 strong. His support was mostly organised by the ANC Youth League. (Kapp 2006, 718) This highlights the attitudes of those within South Africa, especially the youth who, generally speaking, tend to be the ones to push through liberal reforms and fight for change. Their support highlighted that many viewed “the accused [Zuma] to be considered a ‘victim’ and the complainant to be viewed as an ‘accused’” (Reddy and Potgieter 2006, 520). The complainant was heavily scrutinised and following the trial, she was forced to leave the country. Zuma was acquitted of the charges against him. These attitudes against rape victims highlight key difficulties in overcoming sexual violence.

The Zuma trial publically, and internationally, exposed the barriers to the fulfilment of the promises made in the constitution. Whilst the constitution is forward looking, attempts to re-traditionalise the country enhance patriarchal views which use culture to justify sexual violence. The trial can be seen as “a lens onto a deeply embedded authoritarian culture of patriarchy, misogyny, and sexual violence” (Robins 2008, 422) which further normalises and embeds sexual violence into South African society, making it complex to combat.

The second example used will be the legacy of apartheid which has not only led to the normalisation of violence within society but also mistrust of the police by women, meaning they are less inclined to report rapes[2]. Moreover, general police incompetency means even if women do come forward, their claims may not reach court or be taken seriously.

Many commentators maintain that “the brutal history of apartheid in South Africa facilitated the current rape crisis now facing the country” (Anderson 2000, 790). Both the apartheid government and pro-democracy forces legitimised the use of violence in their campaigns. Over the nearly 50 year period, violence became a normalised part of society. The government used violence to keep control over the ‘non-white’ population, whilst the pro-democracy campaign encouraged violence as a means to further their goals. Not only did apartheid normalise violence but violence was, also, used as a tool of political control. Often the police used brutality, including violence against women, therefore perpetuating the fear women had of the authorities. These sentiments are still felt by many women.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has revealed reports of women “giving birth in front of laughing warders, being detained while still breast feeding, being threatened with rape and being given drugged food which”¦might result in a detainee’s foetus being aborted” (Goldblatt and Meintjes 1998, 8)during apartheid. This overall lack of respect by police officials led to increased distrust and hatred of the authorities. White supremacy was characterised by sexual violence; however, the supremacy of men in general is now enforced by sexual violence. This results in women being unlikely to report sexual violence to the authorities.

Naturally, a woman who has been raped is not inclined to recall in detail events which were painful to her. Rape Crisis claim numerous reasons why women do not come forward to report sexual violence such as retaliation by the perpetrator, lack of access to services, pain to loved ones, the stigma attached and not being believed by the authorities (Rape Crisis, Cape Town Trust 2015). In the way the police services treat women, it is no wonder they “lack faith in the ability of the South African Criminal Justice System to look after her services, to protect her, to treat her with dignity and respect and, above all, to support her claim to justice and to act as a deterrent to rapists” (Rape Crisis, Cape Town Trust 2015). Particularly in rural areas, there is the fear the police will simply not believe the victim, this view is further perpetuated by the police assertion that many women lie about rape. It appears “justice usually works against the complainant” (Reddy and Potgieter 2006, 520), as seen in the Zuma trial, which further normalises sexual violence, making it all the more difficult to combat.

Moreover, general police incompetency further implants the reasons why women do not rely on the justice system.  On the surface, the police are ineffective due to budgeting problems, resource issues and failure to properly train personnel but there is general lack of will by the services to address sexual violence.

It is estimated only 14% of perpetrators of sexual violence are sentenced, these are mostly for offences against a minor, the rate is only 3% for offences against an adult woman (Kapp 2006, 719). Additionally, just one in four hundred rapes in South Africa end in a conviction due to the incompetence of the police, often losing evidence (Anderson 2000, 793). In Soweto, between 5-50% of reported rapes go to court but out of that number only 7-13% result in a conviction (Jewkes and Abrahams 2002, 1232).  Moreover, there are suggestions the police will take bribes by the accused rapist to make the charges ‘disappear’. In Southern Johannesburg, it is estimated 1 in 20 pieces of evidence is lost in a fraudulent manner (Jewkes and Abrahams 2002, 1232). It is, therefore, no surprise women are not inclined to report sexual abuses and why sexual violence is still so prevalent within South African society.

Moreover, the police do not just fail over women’s rights but, also, 80% of murders and robberies go unsolved (Anderson 2000, 792). This is a shocking figure, showing that structural issues are also problematic in the general fight for justice. Sadly, the police are seen as“more likely to engage in crime as to solve it” (Anderson 2000, 820). Violence has become institutionalised, therefore threatening the ability of the youth to move forward peacefully and to rebuild a safe society – a society which is free from sexual violence against women.

After consideration, it can be viewed that South Africa is a society of profound contradictions, particularly between the promises of the constitution and the realities of contemporary society. Legislation can be viewed a success; however, formal legal change is only a start. Implementing mechanisms for cultural change is essential but there is no easy way to change the culture of a society.  Sexual violence is endemic due to the apartheid legacy, the formal abolition of apartheid has not abolished the mechanisms which kept society under control. Violence remains a part of everyday life for numerous groups within society, particularly women.

It is essential to combat the violent legacy of apartheid but the encouragement by Zuma of re-traditionalisation only further entrenches the patriarchal system of governance. It is this system of governance and its mechanisms, such as the police service, which mark sexual violence as an accepted norm rather than creating any real attempts to combat it, continuing sexual violence. 

It appears that South Africa is “living in an aftermath” (Goldblatt and Meintjes 1998, 13) of the apartheid, still living with the cultural beliefs about sexual violence and the structural barriers which prevent women from gaining effective rights. A failure to see the country “will carry the scars of apartheid for generations to come is naÁ¯ve, dangerous and counterproductive”¦to transforming our institutions in accordance with those values” (Rape Crisis, Cape Town Trust 2015). It is vital to consider how a culture of peace can be created especially as culture is so difficult to change - this barrier being the most difficult to overcome in tackling sexual violence.


[1]An inspection of a woman’s hymen, which is generally viewed to be broken if a woman has partaken in sexual intercourse.

[2]As shown by estimates that only 1 in 9 rapes are reported (Medical Health Council)

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


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