Daughters of South AfricaCover April 25, 2011
“South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
The constitution of South Africa is one of the most progressive constitutions of the world. The theme is noble. While it calls for equality in diversity, and respect for all, it does not forget to champion justice and freedom. This beautifully worded constitution echoes other great constitutions, like that of the United States, with impressive goals to “lay the foundations for a democratic and open society,” and with promises that “every citizen will be equally protected by law.” Yet, seventeen years after the end of apartheid, this rainbow nation is again headed straight towards a reality fuelled by violence, hatred, and phobia.
In 2009, ActionAid reported that a massive 500,000 women were estimated as raped each year in the country. According to a survey by the Medical Research Council of South Africa, 28% of the men who were interviewed had raped a woman. One in twenty said that they had committed sexual crimes in the past years. In a control group of 487 men, around 7% admitted that they had taken part in gang rapes.
Meanwhile, in recent years, homophobia has increased dramatically in small black townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town. According to ActionAid, in 1998, thirty-one women were killed in homophobic attacks. Among the victims of homophobic violence, are lesbian women who are suffering the onslaught of corrective rape. Corrective rape is based on an outrageous notion that a lesbian woman will become heterosexual, if raped by a man eager to “teach her a lesson,” or “show her how to be a real woman by getting the chance to know what a real man tastes like.”
To comprehend corrective rape and the deep-rooted sources behind this phenomenon is hard, as accurate statistics and studies are hard to obtain. “Most of the victims do not report,” says Javu Baloyi of the Commission for Gender Equality. “Under-reporting due to stigma and discrimination is the main problem. We are trying to encourage them to open up, be brave enough, but most of them are scared of the repercussions that might follow if the attackers come to know.”
The very first case of corrective rape to get wide media attention was the rape and murder of Eudy Simelane. She was thirty-one, an international footballer training to become the first female referee in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. In April 2008, Eudy was gang-raped and stabbed twenty-five times. She was the first woman to live openly as a lesbian in the Kwa Thema township near Johannesburg.
Her mother, Mally Simelane, told ActionAid that she lived in fear for her own safety constantly, “I am scared of those people, that they are going to come and kill me too. I do not know what happened. Why did they do this horrible thing, because of who she was? She was a sweet lady, she never fought with anyone. Why would they kill her? She was stabbed, twenty-five holes in her. The whole body, even under the feet.”
Despite all the global media coverage, Eudy’s case could not get the justice she deserved. In February 2009, twenty-three-year-old Thaoto Mpithi, one of the accused, was sentenced to prison for thirty-two years. He implicated three other men. Two of them were acquitted due to lack of evidence. The third man, twenty-four-year-old Themba Mvubu, got a life sentence. Mvubu showed no signs of remorse throughout the entire hearing. When questioned by reporters, he muttered, “I am not sorry,” as he was led away.
In a 2009 documentary on corrective rape, the men who are interviewed display strong opinions about women’s role in the South African society, and how a woman should be like. One of them says, “If there is someone out there who is trying to rape those lesbians, me, I can appreciate. It is just to let them know, they must be straight. Once she gets raped by a guy, I think she will want to know a way which is nice.” He then on camera goes on to add how much the idea of homosexuality irritates and hurts him.
“We are fighting the effects of patriarchy world over, the idea that men get to decide how the world is, and how women are supposed to be in their world. Corrective rape is a vile manifestation of this. That said, many men in Africa do treat women with the highest respect,” says Antony Hebblethwaite, the founder of African Activist, a LGBT rights group.
Given the staggering number of rapes, South Africa has already been branded as the rape capital of the world. With such huge number of rapes each year in a country, the only way to combat the problem would be a deeper understanding of the motive that drives the perpetrators to commit such crimes, especially when men decide to rape lesbians for sexual correction as lesbian women are perceived as unnatural. Yet, the South African courts and the justice ministry insist that motive is irrelevant, in crimes like corrective rape.
In an effort to raise awareness about corrective rape and also to push for concrete government actions, a handful of activists are now campaigning in South Africa. One of them is thirty-six-year-old Ndumie Funda, from Cape Town. Ndumie is the director and founder of Luleki Sizwe, a non-profit organisation working for the victims of corrective rape.
Ndumie named Luleki Sizwe after her close friend Luleka Makiwane and her fiancée Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana.
“The organisation is named after two women who were very important to me,” says Ndumie. “Luleka was a strong and powerful woman. She was not ashamed of her sexuality, and tirelessly worked to stop violence against all women. Despite being so independent, she was raped by her cousin who was HIV positive. After that, Luleka also became HIV positive, and died in 2005.”
Ndumie met her fiancée Nosizwe Nomas Bizana, through a common friend, “It was love at first sight. She was a beautiful woman. She was a strong-willed person who would not take any nonsense. She taught me to be humble, to stand up for my rights. We had a nice, respectful, and God-fearing relationship. Nosizwe was raped by five men, because of her sexuality. As a result, she contracted cryptococcal meningitis, and died on December 16, 2007.”
Ndumie takes a minute to fight back her tears, “She was my princess.”
Talking about her own life, Ndumie says, “I grew up in a strict Seventh Day Adventist family. From a very early age, I knew I was a feminist, and that I was a lesbian. It was hard for my family to understand and accept the fact that I did not choose my sexuality, I was born this way. It was only after I turned twenty-one and got a job, I got more freedom. Finally, I could stop pretending and be myself. During the apartheid regime, I was also involved in anti-apartheid activism, but my mother persuaded me to stop.”
Back to the question of corrective rape, she says, “To understand South African men, one has to understand the culture we have here. Boys go to the bush, and come back as men. This transition from boyhood to manhood gives them the false belief that they can do whatever they want to do, and get away committing a crime even.”
After Nosizwe’s death, Ndumie felt the urge to put a stop to corrective rape, and help the victims – that was why Luleki Sizwe took shape, to protect and support the victims of corrective rape, “We provide corrective rape survivors with a safe-house and medical care, we help them and their families by providing them with healthy home-cooked meals and necessary home supplies. We also run educational programs and computer classes. Our objective is not only to help the victims and educate them, but also to change the existing negative perception about lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual women in our society.”
Luleki Sizwe operates in the heart of the problem, as Ndumie puts it, “We believe that in our struggle against corrective rape, the change needs to happen in the areas where we live. So we are not running away, instead we are based in the black townships, because we are trying to take ownership over the problems that affect our lives.”
Ndumie’s organisation has managed to open a little window of hope for all the survivors. On March 14, Luleki Sizwe, in cooperation with Change.org, submitted a total of 170,000 signatures collected from 163 countries, urging the South African government to put a stop to corrective rape.
This was in response to the unwillingness of the government, to prioritise this crime in its list of concerns. Previously in 2009, for example, the national prosecution authority stated, “Whilst we are mindful of the fact that hate crimes – especially of a sexual nature – are rife, it is not something that the South African government has prioritised as a specific project.”
Just two years after that statement was made, Ndumie got the opportunity to meet senior officials at the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development, “The meeting was great. It was very productive, and they have agreed to work with us. Many victims who want to talk, need protection – we asked the ministry to provide them with that. We also asked for changes in the education curriculum, so that children grow up learning that homosexuality is not abnormal. We also proposed that the plan includes mobile clinics, mobile police stations, and safe-houses for the victims. I am very impressed by their cooperation, and looking forward to a very constructive, tangible, progressive working relationship.”
The South African Human Rights Commission is also working on plans to deal with homophobia. “There is an ongoing development of a national action plan which seeks to deal with discrimination and all other forms of intolerances. This plan will provide a blueprint on how the country will deal with issues of hate crimes, corrective rape being one of them,” says Vincent Mogae of the commission.
While these small progresses take place in South Africa, elsewhere in the continent, homophobia is reported frequently. On March 12, in a BBC panel debate, on whether homosexuality is un-African, David Bahati, a member of the parliament of Uganda, explained why homosexuality is un-African, “It is inconsistent with the African belief in the continuity of family and clan.” In the same debate, Festus Mogae, the former president of Botswana, admitted that despite he was against the prosecution of homosexuals, he could not change the law fearing a loss in the elections. He was criticised for not legalising homosexuality in Botswana, during his ten-year-long term.
Religious fundamentalism is often cited as one of the key reasons behind the rise of homophobia in Africa. “Historically, Africa has always been the most friendly and tolerant continent. Homosexuality dates back to time before colonialism and the intervention of religion. The arrival of colonialism and also the influence of religious fundamentalism have contributed to the debased argument for homophobia,” says Reverend Rowland Jide Macaulay, a Nigerian-Namibian LGBT activist and co-chair of Pan-African ILGA. “The homophobic religion is adverse and fundamental in nature, not pertained in the original concept of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.”
Macaulay does not mince his words when it comes to homophobic pandering by government officials and religious leaders, “The fact that government officials and religious leaders condemn homosexuality continues to reinforce hatred, discrimination, prejudice, and ignorance, and these go down the length of society. It is sad to see gay and lesbian people today avoid the church and the mosque, that are now losing out on the opportunity to welcome all of God’s children.”
“Roots in religious fundamentalism and belief about African culture run very deep. Therefore, the reason for a growing tide of homophobia among people is probably a bit of both. Also, people are scared to speak out. Consider Uganda, for instance. With the 2009 anti-homosexuality bill pending in the parliament, some HIV/AIDS service providers and even human rights organisations are afraid to speak out against the bill. When people speak out, there are often negative consequences,” says Antony Hebblethwaite of African Activist.
The struggle against corrective rape in South Africa is also a struggle against religious fundamentalism and patriarchy. Thanks to Ndumie Funda and other LGBT activists like her, the South African government is now more willing than before to protect its homosexual population, especially lesbian women. As Ndumie puts it, no woman in South Africa should endure the fate of the women she loved: Luleka and Nosizwe. Until that day comes, her fight goes on.
Syeda Lubna Mehrin is Editorial Assistant, Independent World Report.
In print: Independent World Report — Issue 6/Spring 2011.