Analysing the Nightmare: Reflections on Rape Culture in South Africa

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences and ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world. The 2010 statistics list the number as 1 324 reported rapes per million people and then acknowledge that there is a tendency not to report rape, so that the actual figure is probably much higher. In most cases, the perpetrators are men and the victims are girls or women, although there are also cases of rapes of boys, gay men, transgender and intersex people. Discussions of these unsavoury figures circle around what causes the problem.

Prominent feminist theorist, Pumla Dineo Gqola's book, Rape: A South African Nightmare (2015), argues that "we have to accept that something in our country enables it to happen. Something makes it acceptable for millions to get raped on a regular basis. That something is patriarchy" (2015, 6). While I accept Gqola's logic, I contend, with reference to Kopano Ratele's theories of black masculinities in South Africa, that the causes are more complex than Gqola allows.

If patriarchy were the sole cause of South Africa's unacceptably high prevalence of rape, then all patriarchal societies - which means all human societies - would also show similar figures. I argue that when patriarchy is coextensive with a powerful impulse towards hegemonic masculinity as well as dramatic economic inequality, then a toxic situation arises in which socio-economic desperation spills over into violence against easy targets.

My paper will comment on the efficacy of some interventions against rape in South Africa, such as the 2016 #EndRapeCulture campaign on two university campuses and the Sexual Violence Task Team Report on rape and sexual violence. I conclude that the multidimensional problem of rape requires a multi-pronged solution that can address all stakeholders.

Deirdre Byrne is a full Professor of English Studies and the Head of the Institute for Gender Studies at the University of South Africa (Unisa). She is the editor in chief of two academic journals, scrutiny2: issues in English Studies in Southern Africa and Gender Questions. She is one of the co-editors of Fluid Love, Fluid Gender (forthcoming from Brill) as well as a co-author of Foundations in English Literary Studies (Oxford University Press). She completed her doctoral thesis in 1996 on the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin, which she explored from a feminist literary critical angle. She has published several academic articles on the writing of Ursula K. le Guin, gender, and speculative fiction in general. She is a member of the steering group of the International Association for the Study of Gender and Love, and of the South African Poetry Project.

Response by Margaret Jolly who is the Convenor of the Gender Institute, an ARC Laureate Fellow 2010-2016 and a Professor in the School of Culture, History and Language in the College of Asia and the Pacific. She is an historical anthropologist who has written extensively on gender in the Pacific, on exploratory voyages and travel writing, missions and contemporary Christianity, maternity and sexuality, cinema and art.

Cultures of Sexual Assault: A Symposium is supported by the College of Asia and the Pacific, the College of Arts and Social Sciences, the Research School of Humanities and Arts, and the Gender Institute.