Rape Culture in South Africa: Why are progressive men silent?

Have we grown complacent of the rape culture as a society? Have we grown weary of activism and accepted that the war on women’s bodies in South Africa is an inevitable part of our make-up? Moreover, why are men silent amidst the brutality that continues to haunt women? Women who are easily our sisters, friends, colleagues and daughters?

These are some of the questions that have dominated the media space this past week as reports of women being gang raped while using taxis (cabs) emerged. The most traumatizing tale, being that of a mother being gang raped for 4 hours in front of her 10 year old son. She was brave enough to reveal her ordeal on radio.

The most unsettling question for me, is the question on the silence of men, progressive men in particular. When the topic under discussion is anything else, men hog the conversations with their views. Yet for some reason, only a few men raise their voice when the topic involves sexual violence against women.

It could be that they are also shocked into silence. It could be that they think this is a “women’s issue”, even though women don’t rape themselves. I am of a view that some men keep quiet because they know they are complicit. What do I mean?

Well, you have the “garden variety” type of rapists; the strangers that prey with violent methods and brutalize their victims. These are the ones we are all scared and wary of. The ones society condemn with vigour. And then you have the “sophisticated rapists”. These ones wear suits, drive expensive cars, hold respectable positions in the private sector, government and academia. They profess to be progressive, feminist or pro-women empowerment. They are invited to speak on important social/national platforms and say all the right things.

Yet they move amongst women as trusted wolves in sheep skin. Their crime does not involve knives and guns. I am talking of men who use their economic and social status and power as weapons. These are men who sexually harass students or young women in the workplace. These are men who do not take No! for an answer from their secretaries, interns, girlfriends or the girl next door. These are men who are public heroes but private criminals.

They bank on several things; they enjoy the respect of society and a lax justice system. Secondly, they use the element of trust and familiarity to cause confusion and shame for their victims. Thus many of these men are never reported, the assault remains a private hell for the women and girls involved. How can they speak out against an “esteemed” man? A father, teacher, pastor, CEO, policeman, professor, politician or boyfriend?

Of course, we women and are also complicit in propping up this scourge with our silence and culture of shaming each other. We wonder out loud if “you were flirting with him, what were you wearing, why were you at his place?” We are quick to cast doubts on victims before we out known “respectable offenders”.

However the silence does not erase the fact more women and children get sexually assaulted by people they know and trust than those who are attacked by total strangers. The culture of rape ferments in these spaces of trust and intimacy.

Hence when radio talk show hosts ask why men are not speaking or acting against this war on women, I am not surprised by the silence.

How can these men speak against themselves? They have a lingering fear that the defense mechanisms they use to justify their behavior and differentiate themselves from the “street rapists” might not hold. They might expose themselves for either being perpetrators or accomplices protecting the brotherhood code.

What will it then take to change this culture that is becoming abnormally normal? What should women do when the men who should be allies are turning a blind eye and a deaf ear? When the police send victims from pillar to post? How do we expose the wolves lingering in the chicken coops?

I suspect we might have to engage in the type of radical activism last seen in August 1956 when thousands of women marched to the seat of power at the Union Buildings to protest the unjust pass laws. We might have to bring the country to a standstill again.

Meanwhile, ‘good’ men can continue to stand up, speak up and act to end the war on women’s bodies. It is the humane and right thing to do.

God bless Afrika!

Pearl Pebetse


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