When Katlehong activist and organiser Nomarussia Bonase’s mother was pregnant with her, the police launched a pass raid on the place she was staying. Her miner father was working the night shift; his wife had been visiting from the Eastern Cape and was in Johannesburg without a permit.
So the police gang-raped her, leaving her haemorrhaging and at risk of losing the unborn child. Only her father’s early-morning return to rush his wife to Baragwanath Hospital for emergency medical care saved baby Nomarussia. That was Bonase’s earliest encounter with the gendered violence of apartheid – before she was even born.
Such histories, for they are numerous, caused many South Africans to read with revulsion the guest column contributed by former president FW de Klerk to the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper on 10 March, headlined “To protect women from violence today, we must secure justice for victims in the past”.
Campaigners are already responding: the South African Coalition for Transitional Justice (SACTJ) has gathered signatures for a letter to The Guardian editors. “Rather than gender violence thriving on ‘limited state authority and lawlessness’,” as De Klerk asserts, the SACTJ says, “gender violence in South Africa flourished in the misuse and abuse of state authority, and under apartheid laws. Legalised gender discrimination, alongside race discrimination, formed a pillar of apartheid.”
Mixed in with a collection of generic platitudes, De Klerk quotes approvingly the words of “Pramila Patten, the [United Nations] special representative of the secretary general on violence in conflict: ‘There are countless stories that are shrouded in silence and left off the historical record…’”
Let’s take him at his word, and trace the story of gendered violence in South Africa, its deliberate erasure by successive forces of the state, and his own role. As Pumla Dineo Gqola writes in Rape: A South African Nightmare, “If we are at all serious about making sense of rape’s hold on our society, we need to interrogate the histories of rape in South Africa.”
A history of rapes
The histories of colonialism and apartheid are the histories of rape. The first outpost of the Dutch East India Company and later the Cape Colony were founded on slavery, on the ownership of Black people by whites. In the colonial records and the memoirs of travellers (though too rarely in the voices of Black women themselves) we can read stories of violent abuse, of mothers and their children traded away as chattels and of slaves forced to “breed” with one another as harrowing as anything from the American South. The Cape Town Slave Lodge owned by the Dutch East India Company was known as a place of forced prostitution.
Yet as historian Robert Ross has noted, throughout the 178 years of slavery at the Cape “not a single man” was ever convicted of raping a female slave. Poet, scholar and activist Gabeba Baderoon, who has written not only of this vicious legacy but of the resistance and disruptive modernity of slave society, says “the slave-holding period is the primal scene for understanding racial and sexual codes in South Africa”.
In the mid-1960s, when apartheid police were raping Bonase’s mother, Frederick Willem de Klerk was a rising young lawyer, assiduously employing his Broederbond membership to build his career. He was deeply committed to an ideology that romanticised the slave period as one of devout, benign owners and contented, barely restricted slaves.
The Broederbond’s affinity with ideas from European fascism also meant a view of women as either “pure” supporters of the white nation state through their conformity to stereotyped roles, or, if they challenged those roles, as evil, deviant and deserving only violence. Men, meanwhile, were encouraged to perform a homophobic, conformist and oppressive masculinity.
By the 1970s and 1980s, much of the gender violence was happening on De Klerk’s watch in his various roles as Cabinet minister (including social welfare, mining and interior) and then as state president. He presided over a system designed to derail stable Black family relationships. Men were permitted in the cities on sufferance, only to labour, confined in single-sex hostel accommodation.
Women and children were by definition breaking the law if they tried to follow. Women in cities were denied legal status and jobs. In the “homelands”, where they were supposed to remain, they were forced to scrape a living from increasingly exhausted land. They lived under the patriarchal rule of traditional leaders often selected for their compliance with white authority, within a legal framework shaped by Victorian colonialists’ ethnographic assumptions and bias towards male authority.
As resistance intensified, rape and gendered violence were deliberately employed to terrorise communities. It came from soldiers, the police and other, plain-clothes thugs paid and armed by the state.
As the SACTJ letter observes: “Some of the best-known events were perpetrated by 32 Battalion soldiers in Phola Park on the East Rand in the early 1990s … not a single perpetrator was charged, tried or even asked for amnesty for rape or femicide. Women who survived those events see them reflected in the ‘culture of impunity’ amongst police today …” – a reference to frequently encountered police reluctance, hostility or carelessness in following up rape accusations.
At Art and Memory workshops convened by the Khulumani Support Group in 2007, more of these shrouded stories emerged from the artworks that community members created.
“Ella” from Moutse recounted how, in September 1986, “some of the older women were raped. As I was pregnant I was not raped … I could not run away because of my pregnancy, so I was beaten. My teeth were broken. I gave birth to my child, but she is not mentally well.”
“Catherine” from the East Rand recalled, “Even today, I don’t remember any faces of these people. They came in and beat me hard, they raped me, they meant business. I begged them not to kill me. I even told them if they stopped hurting me I would let them take all the furniture, but it seems they were going to take that anyway. They took everything … Then they shot me in the leg.”
Men were also raped by these state-sponsored forces, but the silence around that abuse is even more deafening.
None of these stories features in the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). De Klerk was one of the voices urging a “moderate” approach and no penalties for his regime’s loyal soldiers. This contributed to limits being set on the definitions of apartheid crimes. Despite overwhelming indications to the contrary (activists recount being told, while being raped, that “this is to teach you a lesson for your politics”), an extremely high evidentiary standard was set for sexual violence as a political crime, but the police rarely took evidence about it.
Only nine TRC cases out of 22 000 dealt with rape, and none found an identified perpetrator culpable. De Klerk, meanwhile, told the TRC that “within my knowledge and experience [the security forces’ ‘unconventional strategies’] never included … rape”.
But for Bonase, gender violence is yet another aspect of the unfinished business of the TRC that is “still killing us”. Perhaps that is worth a dedicated guest column in The Guardian?