A year after Anene Booysen’s death, not much has changed for those brutalised by rape and sexual violence, Theresa Taylor reports.
Nine-year-old girl. Raped, set on fire. Six-week-old baby. Raped by her uncle. Sixteen-year-old on holiday. Raped, murdered, dismembered.
There’s not much to differentiate Anene Booysen’s story from these tales of horror. Seventeen-year-old cleaner, raped, left for dead on a construction site. But for some reason, hers is the name we know.
Hers is the story that was meant to put an end to the brutality of sexual violence in our minds. The never-again, not-on-our-watch moment.
And over the months following her death, the details of the awfulness that ended Booysen’s life on February 2 last year have been repeated over and over in the news pages.
How the teenager from the small rural town of Bredasdorp was found at 4am by a security guard. Her intestines lying beside her. She died about six hours later in hospital – after identifying one of her attackers.
President Jacob Zuma called Booysen’s attack “shocking, cruel and most inhumane”. “It has no place in our country. We must never allow ourselves to get used to these acts of base criminality to our women and children,” he said.
But a year later, experts say that what societal outrage we managed to muster at the time – a few small protests, opinion pieces, some lit candles – has not amounted to much.
“The levels of understanding in violence against women were increased a little bit by that incident.
“Society started to come together to say in one voice that acts like this should never happen in SA,” said Mfanozelwe Shozi, chairman of the Commission for Gender Equality.
“But I won’t really say that it’s actually had an impact in terms of reducing gender-based violence.”
The viciousness of Booysen’s rape and murder, for which Johannes Kana was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, is becoming a more and more common tale.
“The level of brutality, just the sheer gruesome nature of these kinds of acts is quite worrying,” said Bafana Khumalo, senior programmes specialist at Sonke Gender Justice.
But while the media appear to have improved their coverage of rape and gender-based violence, with many publications, including this one, starting campaigns to track the crime, experts say the media still focus largely on the sensationalism instead of on the greater issue of violence against women.
Khumalo said some groups were continuously left out of the conversation, such as gays, lesbians and the elderly. “You get young men who assault their grandmothers for their pension money – these stories are not given profile,” he said.
The focus on the rape of children, although important, can also be problematic, as there is a tendency to create an age-based hierarchy of horror.
The rape of a teenager is more horrific than that of an adult woman, the rape of a toddler worse than that of a teen and so on.
“The idea that children are more innocent than teenage girls or women is deeply entrenched in SA,” said Lisa Vetten, associate at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. “We are selective about whom we get upset.”
The government did in 2012 create the interdepartmental National Council on Gender-Based Violence, headed by Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Lulama Xingwana, but NGOs say its progress is extremely slow.
Despite the shop talk about these issues, organisations say they have struggled to get funding for their programmes, even where these projects are highly successful.
Sonke gets a large percentage of its funding from foreign donors, while Gender Links is entirely foreign funded.
Gender Links deputy director Kubi Rama said in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia they had managed to secure some government funding for research projects on gender-based violence, but in South Africa, the government had not come to the table.
“In a country where we have such levels of violence against women, it’s really a contradiction,” said Khumalo.
“We are not going to solve this by simply putting all these men in jail. People can be put away for 15 years and come back much angrier and capable of doing worse.”
And in the nitty-gritty of getting criminal convictions, there continue to be challenges, with police being a major sticking point for complainants.
Khumalo said they had had noted an increased number of rape complainants making complaints against the police.
“They tell us: ‘The police said no, go home and try sort it out with your husband’, which, of course, is not a proper response,” he said.
“The problem is not with the courts, it’s with the attitude of police, who are predominantly male, who might themselves be perpetrators and see nothing wrong with the violence.”
Khumalo said that because it was seen as a weakness in the police to show emotion and to seek help, you have this ironic situation where police themselves are vulnerable to becoming perpetrators of abuse.
“We see people that work in this environment themselves become violent in their relationships because their stress levels are too high,” he said.
Where the police are properly trained, such as in the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit, they are often overworked and there is a high turnover of staff.
That said, there have been two recent changes in legislation which could be promising for securing more convictions.
The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 2013 was written into law last week. It is now mandatory for the police to take DNA samples from people arrested for serious crimes and convicted offenders.
This will form the basis of a national database which has the potential to allow detectives to track serial rapists and pick them up sooner.
The second thing that has recently been signed off is the re-establishment of Specialised Sexual Offences Courts.
These courts fell out of favour with former justice minister Brigitte Mabandla, but conviction rates at the courts averaged about 62 percent compared with 42 percent at other regional courts.
In some, conviction rates were as high as 80 percent.
However, there are concerns that what these courts should offer, including technology, facilities and training for staff, has not been legislated.
“If we are going to establish those courts, we have to resource them so they can achieve what they are trying to achieve, which is getting convictions and stopping secondary trauma of the victims,” said Vetten.
“There needs to be more than a court with a sign on the door saying – sexual offences – and that’s all that makes it a sexual offences court.”
As we continue to try to move forward on sexual violence, the theme Vetten expresses comes up often: good policies, good talk, good concern, but failure on implementation and action.
We must continue to speak about the stories of women like Booysen, but social outrage alone means nothing.
A few opinion pieces, a candle and a small protest aren’t going to change anything a year from now.
* The police, the Justice Department and The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities had not responded to queries at the time of going to print.