History helps find better ways to talk about rape in South Africa

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History helps find better ways to talk about rape in South Africa

by Elizabeth Thornberry on Monday, July 18, 2011 - 1:23am

In late nineteenth century South Africa, accusations of sexual violence made by white women against black men became a tool for strengthening racial segregation policies.

Over the last decade, South Africa has seen several public crises over the issue of rape. In 1999, the South African Advertising Standards Authority sparked a public row when it banned a public service announcement featuring South African-born actress Charlize Theron. Censors believed that Theron’s anti-rape ad unfairly implied that all South African men were rapists, but others perceived the ASA’s ban as denying the reality of women’s experiences of rape. In 2006, current state president Jacob Zuma stood trial for rape. Although he was acquitted, the trial sparked vitriolic public protests at which anti-rape activists and Zuma’s supporters accused each other of trying to subvert the country’s judiciary.

Clearly, the issue of rape provokes heated passions in the South African public sphere. Women's activists decry the country's sky-high rates of sexual assault. More than one third of critics, including former president Thabo Mbeki, have accused anti-rape campaigners of maligning African culture and calling all African men potential rapists. These debates escalate heated passions but do not point to a solution. I believe that my research on the history of sexual violence in South Africa suggests a way to bring civility back to these heated public debates.

A Historical Look Into South African Attitudes Toward Rape

To begin, my dissertation provides some clues to how public discussions of rape became politically charged. My research, which focuses on the Eastern Cape region, reveals that the Xhosa communities who inhabited the area before European colonization thought about sexual assault differently than the British and Afrikaner colonizers.

Xhosa Couple

A Xhosa couple in the early 1800's. Source: H. Lichtenstein/Wikimedia Commons

In the precolonial period, archival sources indicate that Xhosa communities generally assumed that women who complained of rape were telling the truth. The European colonial authorities who arrived in the 1850s were, by contrast, extremely skeptical of rape accusations. They also attached more shame to sex outside of marriage than did precolonial Xhosa culture. As a result, colonial judges were likely to assume rape accusers had engaged in consensual sex and had later changed their minds and “cried rape.” The development of a colonial legal system, staffed by European judges, made it much more difficult for Xhosa women to successfully bring charges of rape against men who assaulted them.

In the late nineteenth century, accusations of sexual violence became a tool for racial segregationists. White women’s accusations of rape by black men caught the attention of South Africa's white public in a series of sensational cases. Panics over the "black peril" played a major role in the strengthening South Africa’s racial segregation policies. Segregationists warned of the danger posed to white women by black men in order to garner support for residential segregation, to pass laws against black men, and for a wide range of other discriminatory legislation.

By the early twentieth century, the state responded to sexual assault in ways that were bad, not only for black men, but also for black women. The state ignored rape accusations from black women, and it used white women’s rape accusations as an excuse for racial discrimination against black men.

Race, Politics, and Contemporary Anti-Rape Campaigns

In this context, it is not surprising that many black South Africans in the early twentieth century came to mistrust anti-rape campaigns. Members of the emerging black political elite worked to counteract pervasive stereotypes of black men as sexual predators. As part of their strategy, they not only contradicted accusations of black-on-white rape, they also avoided discussions of black women’s experiences of rape within their own communities. The skepticism of the white-dominated judicial system towards black women’s complaints of rape created a lingering suspicion that anti-rape rhetoric was little more than a pretext for segregation.

As my research shows, we can look to the history of South Africa to find more productive ways of talking about rape. The precolonial Xhosa cultures were supportive of women victims of rape and did not condone or encourage sexual violence. By going back to these early conversations, we can find common ground between the women activists and the black South Africans who want to eliminate the false stereotypes on their communities. I hope that my research will make it easier for anti-rape activists to form alliances with some of their critics. It should be possible for activists to frame some of their major goals, such as retraining police officers to be more sympathetic towards rape victims, as in keeping with, rather than in conflict with, the “traditional cultures” of South Africa.


Liz ThornberryElizabeth Thornberry is a 2010-11 Clayman Institute Graduate Dissertation Fellow. Elizabeth completed her PhD in History and is preparing for her new position as Assistant Professor, History, at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.