Nomboniso Gasa

‘I belong to a people so wounded by betrayal, so hurt by misplacing their trust, that to offer us a gift of love is often to risk one’s life and reputation… I belong to a people, heart and mind, who do not trust mirrors. Our shame is deep. For shame is the result of soul injury. Mirrors, however, are sacred… As an ancient Japanese proverb states, when the mirror is dim, the soul is not pure.”

The words of Alice Walker reverberate in my mind as I try to make sense of the gang rape of a 17-year-old girl reported to be mentally disabled.

A report such as this forces us to think deeply about the meanings of the violence that is deeply embedded in the social fabric of our society.

Shocking as this particular case is, we have to admit that the signs have been there for a long time. As far back as 2004 women gathered in Pretoria during a national dialogue organised by SA Women in Dialogue.

They spoke of their experiences of poverty, the frustration of their efforts to build self-sustaining projects, bureaucratic bungling of their reports of violence and their experiences of violence, especially sexual molestation of women with different forms of disability and the elderly.

Much of this information was not new. Again, many national conferences, including that which was organised by the Office on the Status of Women in The Presidency at the time during ingxoxo zamakhosikazi (conversations among women) confirmed these experiences over and over again.

These reports did not end up in filing cabinets. Many of those who today serve in the cabinet, Parliament, provincial legislatures and local government received briefings, reports and submissions. During the tabling of the Sexual Offences Bill and the public discussions that ensued at the time, men and women from different walks of life spoke of the violence which is a permanent feature in their lives.

And yet, the violence continued.

In recent times, the warning signs have been there. The community of Bramfischerville called on the public protector to investigate the reasons for the stench which is a permanent feature of their lives. This brought their conditions to the attention of national and international news agencies. We saw children making their way through flotsam that surrounds their homes. We saw raw sewage seeping through the walls of people’s homes. These are the dehumanising conditions in which people are condemned to live. What does it mean to live in such conditions? What are the implications for young people and for community relations? We may never find the exact answers. But, here is what we know and it might help us understand some of the complex questions confronting us today.

Young black men grow up in conditions which devalue them, their sisters, parents and everybody in their communities – as living beings. They suffer high levels of interpersonal violence and many die from stab wounds and other injuries. Angry and rejected and with no hope for a different life, they prey on those more vulnerable than they are.

The majority are young women, other young boys and, at times, even their parents and the elderly.

Those experiencing violence have little recourse in law. Police who are at the coal face of violence are overwhelmed. Of course, many simply do not care. Taking the cue from their seniors who do not fear losing their jobs because of incompetence, they carry on unperturbed.

Whatever work was done to train the police and to sensitise them to the needs of those they serve may have been jettisoned or neglected in the militaristic “no nonsense, talking tough” approach to policing.

A girl has been raped in a country which has comprehensive laws on sexual violence. It is reported that she was first raped in 2009 and the case was thrown out of court. What follow-up was done by those who are supposed to be looking after the welfare of people who live with disabilities?

It is reported that this is not the first time she went missing. Her mother has reported her missing at least four times before, according to some media reports. This time, she says she went to the police station to report her missing.

The Gauteng MEC for Safety told the nation during a television interview that the mother “told somebody in the corridor”. This came after the mother was already being blamed by some members of the police services and the MEC herself.

If she did speak to someone, why was she not taken to the relevant personnel? It is clear that the condition of this child is known by the authorities.

What is the report of the social worker or case manager who ought to visit her? What is the report of the police officers who should have followed up the mother’s report?

It is too early to really make sense of what happened in this case. Hopefully, a thorough investigation will be done.

For now, though, the best we can do is confront the uncomfortable truths about our society and ourselves.

Beyond outrage and shock, we must look at the image reflected in the mirror. Yes, that is us and those are our children who are reflected there.

Impure as the image is, it is that of reality. Our choices are hard, complex, but also straightforward. We do not lack the ability to address these problems. And yet, the violence continues. We cannot claim we did not know. That is our shame and our pain. It can also be our strength and our wake-up call.

n Gasa is a researcher and analyst focusing on gender, politics and cultural issues