Anene Booysens (1996-2013) RIP …. We failed you


“The entrenched culture of sexual violence which prevails in South Africa must end.”  … “It should not have taken this particularly atrocious case, involving rape, torture and murder, to underline the urgent need for a more thorough response across the spectrum of South African society to tackle the root causes of this pandemic of sexual violence.” Navi Pillay, UN Human Rights Commissioner

On the day Anene Booysens was laid to rest, I felt traumatized and outraged. But there was something else. I searched to put a finger on my discomfort, and realised that it was guilt. But why feel guilty? I realised that I felt guilty because, having followed the tragic rape case of “India’s Daughter” I–like many others–should have asked “how can we avoid this happening to a young women in South Africa”? We know that sexual violence is one of the most prevalent crimes in the country. So why, having been given a warning about how bad sexual violence can get, why didn’t do more in our power to take preventive measures?

Now, the country has been galvanised into action–by working collectively, we hope we can do more to save our daughters from the scourge of rape. This means a dialogue has to happen. It must go  must go wide and deep—with no “sacred cows”. This is my first contribution (and attempt to assuage my guilt!) to try to #stoprape

Undervaluing women’s contributions, suffering and voices

We live in societies where everything that is tagged “women’s affairs” is undervalued, trivialized, ridiculed or ignored. Women’s contributions in the domestic sphere–breastfeeding babies, cooking for the family, caring for the sick, tending vegetable gardens, making comfortable homes, praying for the bereaved–is neither counted as work nor considered part of the hallowed sphere which we call “the economy “or “the market”. These are all services the nation (the economy) can count on as freebies, or at least costing no more than some roses on Mother’s Day as adequate compensation. In the same way, the violations women suffer everyday are trivialized—these are lesser evils … misdemeanors really. The perpetrators are not real criminals, and even if women live in terror these are not issues of national security, like real terrorism. A spike in carjackings will cause national a national outcry, but rape? Barely a murmur. Till now, rape has barely ever occupied the columns of our high-minded “thought leaders” as a fundamental obstacle to our development and progress. How long has the women’s movement been talking about the scourge of sexual violence and rape only to be met by silence or dismissal because till today, these have not been “newsworthy”. That is the value we place on women’s voices. Ask activists and they will tell you about the loud “yawn”, the silent “there they go again” chorus when women speak about their rights. This constant trivialization of “women’s issues” in every aspect of life sends out the message to everyone that violating women is not a crime because “women’s affairs” are not national priorities, and crimes against women are misdemeanours rather than penal offenses. And that is why so many sexual crimes are unreported.

Defining the societal role of the state.

What should we look to the state to do and what is our private responsibility as citizens in solving the problem of sexual violence? In South Africa, we have a neoliberal state that is beholden to free market principles. Its general ideology of “non-intervention” has prevented it from conceptualizing its role outside the market and beyond the strict legal framework of the Constitution. By and large, the state in South Africa has forsaken its role to shape attitudes, values and communities. This has been left to cultural and religious institutions, or family or individuals—in the same way as the economy must be left to the market. The post-apartheid state has failed to put itself at the centre of forging dialogue on critical societal (non-economical) questions, never mind providing guidance on the same. In this discussion on how to prevent rape, we must put public institutions in the dock and talk about how to transform the state we are in from a colonially constructed machine built to facilitate extraction, maintain law and order and protect elite privileges (including male privilege) to a machine that is actually part of society it oversees: progressive in shaping a new society, and visionary about its role as an economic and social actor. The pandemic of rape manifests a failure to transform the state into an entity that is present, meaningful and relevant to people’s lived experiences. Sexual violence is not just about how parents raise their children; we must also understand violence, including sexual violence, as an indication of institutional dysfunction on a massive scale.

Inequality breeds violence

There is enough research to show that social problems are consistently worse in highly unequal societies than in highly egalitarian ones, regardless of their overall wealth. Violence—including interpersonal violence—and criminality are more prevalent in unequal societies. South Africa’s status of the most unequal country in the world correlates well with its horrific rape statistics. Because in our case, economic inequality is compounded by race, class and gender inequality, then we should expect that violence will be even more extreme. Egalitarian societies create a sense of solidarity and common destiny, which unequal societies do not do. More equal countries build institutions that enact redistributive policies so that  “social cohesion” is founded on a rights based framework, built from the ground. In post-apartheid South Africa, wealth—more than class or race or profession, authority or integrity—has come to define one’s status (and personhood). Economic inequality interacts with historical grievances to create a social powder keg. While exhorting “African values”  and “ubuntu”, our political elites have never dared tackle issues of redistributive justice—witness the tortoise like pace of land reform which leaves black people without any assets to build livelihood, the monopolies that still control almost every aspect of the South African economy, the appalling conditions of workers contrasted with aberrantly excessive displays of conspicuous consumption displayed by our struggle icons. The fact is that social dislocation, not social cohesion remains the overwhelming reality of South Africa today. The results will always manifest themselves in crises of one sort or another.

It’s a man’s world (and so it shall remain, nudge-nudge-wink-wink)

The idea that it is a man’s world runs deep in the national psyche and is a defining element in structuring power relations, defining privilege, and allocating resources. As women have gained more and more freedoms and access to spaces hitherto denied them, politicians know that they must tread delicately in containing the ire of their still impoverished male base. The solution has been to allow men to preserve their last bastion of male power—the household, family or clan. So it is for example that traditional and customary laws remain a no-go area for reform, however discriminatory they may be. Elite women will have access to high political positions, but the poorest women are denied rights to land. Public spaces remain dangerous for women because that way, the public space is a male domain. Women are violated at a taxi rank for wearing miniskirts, but no significant action is taken to secure their rights and freedoms in that space. (Logically, since men are the majority perpetrators of violence and crime, why are they not placed under curfew at 6 o’clock to make sure women can walk in public safely?). Male silence over rape and women’s abuse has largely been because of a consensus that men are hunters and women are prey. It gets worse. We are not just a patriarchal society, we are also an extremely phallocratic society. However little a man has, he still has his penis to remind him that he is part of a ruling class–the top 49 per cent as it were. Little wonder then that the penis has been a weapon of war since time immemorial. In addition to being a weapon of conquest, the penis enjoys the unquestioned rights and entitlements of a monarch whose needs and desires must be met with instant gratification. We are so bound in this thinking that we can only accept polygamy as a husband having multiple wives (polygyny) but never as a woman who has multiple husbands (polyandry). Why? Because in many respects, our society understands matrimony as a property relationship rather than an emotional one. An unfaithful woman should expect to pay for her  violation of penile pride with every type of violence. Without making concerted efforts to dismantle this “cult of masculinity” we will not address rape.

“But they are lying, to themselves and to you. Even if they have an entire culture to back them up, they are still lying. We must never forget that. There is a cult of masculinity, and there is a man box, and we can leave them. We can not only leave them. We can destroy them. We must. With all the world at stake, we must.”  (Derrick Jensen,

Being practical and empirical

When one hears discussions on the radio about rape and sexual violence, the generalisations are so immense that the problem seems intractable. 65,000 rapes were reported in South Africa last year, we know. But where are these rapes taking place? Who are the worst affected groups? Who are the perpetrators?  Surely this is as important as calculating how many rapes 65,000 makes in a day, in an hour, in a minute? Statistics are manipulated for dramatic effect in the media, who do not care to undertake a more detailed examination of the figures so that they we have a better understanding of the problem. So statistics numb us, instead of spurring us into action. Who can blame those (like me) who believe that the media has headlined sexual violence because of its commercial, sensationalist or ANC-bashing value? Or is that not their role? Likewise, South Africa’s public policy making tends to be based on more on high-sounding rhetoric, big ideas and manufactured sound bites, than it is based on well-researched data and lived realities on the ground (the National Development Plan is a case in point, but I will attack that in my next blog). I have listened to many government ministers on the radio, the only one I heard who seemed to know the facts and figures about his sector was our current Minister of Health, who could probably tell you the number of clinics in every province in South Africa. And then there is us, the general (phone-in) public, who never care to read, understand or question, but prefer to bombard the airwaves with solutions based on anecdotes, emotional reactions, personal prejudices and biases, offering up silver bullet solutions for a complex problem that has festered for too long. We will not be effective in this battle unless we take the time to read and understand. Otherwise this country wide campaign becomes one where we use use women’s bodies (once again) to promote personal agendas.

Navi Pillay (quoted above) has described sexual violence as a pandemic. An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease. A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease everywhere. And that is where we are at. Hopefully we will now open an honest dialogue on rape, sexual violence, women’s rights, sexism in every space of human activity—in politics, traditional institutions, bureaucracies, places of worship, schools, workplaces, families, sports fields, bars and beaches. Because we know that sexual violence is happening everywhere  and there can be no sacred cows.


Dedicated to all victims and survivors of sexual violence, and the brave sisters who have fought alongside them over the decades.

The struggle for women and girls’ equality continues. We shall fight and win.

Written in support of