The Truth Will Out

Sexual abuse and racism remain burning issues in South Africa – the leading African economy and the continent’s only representative in the G20. Remaining silent or ignoring them is a very risky strategy.

At the beginning of May, a post by South African journalist Gillian Schutte caused a stir in the local media and blogosphere. She shared details on her Twitter account of her private exchange with High Court Judge Mabel Jansen from almost a year ago. The post contained (white) Judge Jansen’s utterances concerning the ‘legalised’ sexual harassment of women by black South Africans. “I am shell-shocked. In their (black men’s) culture, a woman is there to pleasure them. Period. It is seen as an absolute right and the woman’s consent is not required,” screenshots of Jansen’s post say. “Sexual abuse against a baby, daughter or mother is no more than a ‘pleasurable pastime’ and even a murder ‘is no biggy’.”

The outcry the post caused in the blogosphere, accusations of bias, insults, expostulations, and direct threats, especially on the part of black men, forced Jansen to explain herself. She stated publicly that what she said had been taken out of context. But truth will out: Crime in general and sexual abuse in particular have always been rampant in South Africa. By the estimation of the South African Institute of International Affairs, up to 40% of the female population suffer sexual abuse during their lives. According to official statistics maintained by local police, the number of rapes has been steadily declining in recent years: The number of recorded cases fell from 46,600 to 43,100 a year between 2008 and 2015.

Yet the real picture is likely to be more gruesome. There is every indication that the official statistics cover only a small fraction of such cases. Specifically, according to the National Victims of Crime Survey, the number of women who were sexually assaulted and reported the assault to the police dropped by 21% between 2011 and 2014. Dee Smythe, author of the recently published Rape Unresolved: Policing Sexual Offences in South Africa, states that roughly 150 women appeal to the police to report rape on a daily basis. Meanwhile, less than 30 cases are actually investigated, with no more than 10 rapists eventually ending up behind bars.

Meanwhile, official police statistics have nothing to say regarding the ethnicity or race of criminals, which makes it impossible to validate reliably whether what Judge Jansen said about the “cultural predisposition” to sexual assault among black South Africans can be mathematically confirmed. But then, her statements and the media response they received plainly exposed another serious issue: After its successful struggle against apartheid, South Africa is still facing profound racial tensions, which manifest themselves, among other things, in violent outbursts of xenophobia.

The problem surfaced last spring when the country was overwhelmed by a wave of violence and protests against white people and foreigners on the pretext that they were stealing jobs from the indigenous black population. To bring the situation back to normal, active police measures were required, as well as interference by President Jacob Zuma and even the reigning King of the Zulu nation, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu. Curiously enough, the latter was initially thought by the local media to be calling on foreigners to leave the country.

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