Journalist. Writer. Researcher. Editor.

Who “let’s rape happen” in South Africa? [TRIGGER WARNING]

Following the Vavi rape accusation South Africans have questioned the validity of claims of rape where the victim or survivor has not opened a case with the police. This, despite the fact that it is well-documented that rape is vastly under-reported. When confronted with this evidence, many South Africans respond that it is the duty of the rape survivor to report to the police, to take the matter to court and, once there, find justice.

The ostensible reasons for this pressure to report are twofold: 1) To prevent further rapes from happening by incarcerating the rapist; and 2) to ‘prove’ through the courts that we have in fact been raped. In the first case, the implication is clear: by failing to report our rapists, we let rape happen. This is a particularly insidious suggestion and needs a thorough unpacking. I’ll get to that.

The implication of this second reason is that our lived experiences as survivors, our experiences of pain and trauma, can only be validated, realised and illicit empathy once they have been deemed ‘true’ by the courts. In other words, we are liars until a supposedly ‘objective’ authority proves otherwise.

This line of thinking reflects a simple ignorance of how the criminal justice system works. The suggestion that courts determine ‘truth’ from ‘falsehoods’ is in fact the anti-thesis of how courts should function in a democracy. Courts are not arbiters of ‘the truth’ from ‘the lie’. Courts rule on the basis of evidence presented to them. If there is not enough evidence – or not enough evidence brought before the court by the prosecution – to secure a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, then the accused is acquitted. This does not render the accused materially innocent of the crime of which s/he is accused. Similarly, an acquittal does not render the accusation false. If one was to then charge a rape accuser in an unsuccessful case with perjury, as has been suggested, would be similar to charging a man found guilty of rape of the same. It’s gratuitous.

The South African rape conviction rate hovers somewhere near 8%. It is therefore incredibly likely that a rape accuser, regardless of the fact that the case was lost, was raped. Criminally charging such a person would only serve to victimise a rape survivor for seeking justice, and thereby drive more survivors away from reporting.

Now, to get back to the first reason for why survivors ‘must’ report to the police once they have been raped: To prevent further rapes from happening by incarcerating the rapist. And if we don’t do so, the implication is that we ‘let rape happen’.

Let’s take a step back.

Let’s consider why a survivor might not want to speak about, never mind report, her rape. In order to do so, let’s explore what can happen to people who speak about their ‘alleged’ experiences of sexual violence. What can a person expect from their friends and families? What can they expect from society?

What are we telling survivors to expect when they come forward to say, “I have been raped”?

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Survivors are told they will be laughed at.

“I didn’t report because […] I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I was only 12, and my rapist told me that nobody would believe me. […]He was a misogynist of note; he made rape jokes and treated women as inferior, and my male friends joked along with him. I never though it would translate into rape. When he raped me, he whispered in my ear and said that none of my friends would believe me – they would think I deserved it. I believed it at the time, because their attitudes and acceptance of rape jokes seemed to reflect that…” #1

“At school I heard a few boys mock each other. “You go to Dr Geldenhys as well? Did he try to touch you? You let him touch you, did you? Fag!” They laughed. I retreated further into silence, and shame.” #6

Survivors are told rape is not a big deal.

“[H]ow do we report rape if ordinary people refuse to admit that it exists? ‘What didn’t happen to me’, did not serve as a warning of what mentality this guy has towards women. What didn’t happen to me, happened to this girl, because people dismissed my fears as no big deal. What didn’t happen to me, happened to this girl, and people just laughed it off. ” #4

Survivors are told they are “looking for attention”.

“I was too afraid, and so I said nothing. I knew there was no physical evidence, it was all washed away. Yes, there probably was evidence of sex, but he could blame the blood and tearing on me having been a virgin so I said nothing. I couldn’t bare for everyone to look at me like I had done those things so I said nothing. I knew it would be his word against mine so I said nothing. […] I started going out and getting drunk. One night at a bar I ran into one of my classmates. I told her that I had lost my virginity, and that it hadn’t been by choice. She just shook her head and told me to stop “looking for attention.” I didn’t try to tell people after that.” #5

“I told one friend I had made and she told me that if I ever told, no-one would believe me and would think I’m just an attention seeker. I was bullied into fear of speaking by him because of the power that he had in the school.” #27

Survivors are told that our friends and family members won’t support us…

“I screamed at him to let me go and that he was a liar and a betrayer for speaking, never mind joking, with my rapist. His response? “I’ve known the guy for nine years. You can’t just expect me to write him off if you haven’t even confronted him about raping you,” he said. “Either you lay a charge with the police or you confront him. You can’t expect me to just walk away from him.” My bad for thinking that friends believe friends when they saw they have been raped, and who raped them.” #7

“I never reported it.  I knew I would not be believed by the police.  I also couldn’t handle the family drama; given that he is basically a second son to my aunt and uncle, I knew they would never believe me either.” #12

“Another incident was when I told some friends. They refused to touch me and look at me, and we are no longer friends after that. I don’t have a disease or anything but they act like they might catch something.” #29

“When I finally had the courage to confront him, I had already experienced what most abused children go through: my mom either did not believe me, or just did not know how to react to such news[…] Where is the support, where is the solidarity from fellow women and allies?” #22

“I wouldn’t like people to know who I am due to the fact that I was unable to tell my father the second time. He was unable to be in the same room as me for about 2 years after the first rape, as apparently I did something to invite it, and discourage disgraced the family. After the first attack I was in hospital for about a month, and today I still struggle with side effects of damage they caused.” #29

… that is, if they didn’t rape us to begin with.

“I can only assume the mutual friend spiked my drink towards the end of the evening…..I found myself paralytic and vomiting on the bed in the spare room as he had his way with me.” #10

“My friend raped me when I was drunk and vulnerable.” #7

“I was raped at four years old by an “uncle”.” #13

“He was a very close friend.” #15

“He was a trusted family friend.” #17

“I was sexually abused by my uncle for four years.” #22

“I was on a camping trip with friends and sharing a tent with my boyfriend. I said no, he ignored me.” #23

“I was married to him.” #26

Survivors are told our experience only matters when it’s ‘sufficiently’ violent, or ‘obviously’ rape.

“Take the first-ever rape case I covered. I was working at The Cape Times at the time, and it involved a 16-month old toddler. Her bleeding body was found in an abandoned field in Brooklyn. She needed reconstructive surgery, but survived. I remember thinking: “Perhaps my case is actually not so bad after all.”” #8

“The detective never believed me because of things he felt I had done to make my rapist think I wanted to have sex. The prosecutor decided not to charge him with rape because “it would be too hard to prove that he knew you didn’t want it.” I was unconscious while he raped me.” #11

“It was only the next morning, when I told my best friend, that she said: “You do know that he raped you, right?” But I felt complicit in it. Because I had not said no. Because I hadn’t fought. Because I was drunk, flirtatious, all of those things that people use to blame a rape survivor, and make the rape her fault. I wish I had said no, instead of letting him carry on. I wish I could at least have that.” #14

Survivors are told our bodies belong to others, and we don’t have bodily autonomy.

“I couldn’t scream, didn’t want to wake my friends who were his friends too – the embarrassment, and what if they took his side, what if they said “well you are dating him, you gotta put out”[…]” #23

“What if you can see the sign of the imminent act in the eyes and words of your spouse of more than two decades? What if you beg him to stop when it is so painful that you want to scream but are scared of waking your children nearby?” #24

“Why did I tolerate it? I truly did not know any better. I did broach the subject with my mother. Her advice was to accept it and to “try to be a better wife”. She warned me that there are no divorces in our family.  I had made my bed and had to lie in it. I was afraid of my husband.” #30

“He raped her.  The district surgeon who examined her said that the injuries to her vagina were the most severe he had ever seen.  The public prosecutor advised her parents that pressing charges was a bad idea as the rapist would be perceived as a “war hero” and she had consented to go on a date with him after all.” #31

Survivors are told it’s only rape if we scream.

Survivors are told that, if we don’t remember exactly what happened to us, we won’t be believed or helped.

“I never reported because of the humiliation I felt over not even being able to remember.  The not more than 10 people I have told about my date rape in the past 9 years have chosen to pretend I never said anything – this is the obvious female reaction – they offer nothing but pity.  My mother refusing to acknowledge I was raped.  She seems too frightened by the thought. A few male friends insinuated I only have myself to blame.  A previous partner humiliated me by telling his church elder who proceeded to patronise my pain with a prayer said in haste.” #2

Survivors are told that, even with eyewitness testimony, it’s unlikely we will succeed in court.

“I reported it the first time went to court and the accused was released due to a lack of evidence. Saying that, there were the eye witness accounts of myself and my friend, who they also raped. We explained the whole thing, but because there was no DNA so they got off.” #29

Survivors are told that if we wait too long to come forward people won’t believe it was rape, despite the fact that there is no prescription of the right to institute prosecution [PDF].

“I would never report it now because who would believe me? It is 5 years later[…]” #19

Survivors are blamed.

“I wasn’t ready to be labelled as an attention-seeker because my community reckoned I asked for it since I was drunk and all.” #18

Survivors are told that our identities will be widely circulated….


…and when our identity is known, we will be publicly victimised…

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…. sexually harassed….



…and threatened with violence, or even death.



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And when we do report, we are victimised and victim-blamed by the police.

“Fast forward two days, detective in charge of my case was getting so tired of my parents asking what the latest was. She took me and my mother to her superior, in charge of the rape victim unit in Grahamstown. She crushed me. Told me I was drunk, shouldn’t have been out at “these” places, I was incoherent when I gave my statement, she had told her daughters that they should know better, you asking for trouble if you do what I did.” #9

“They reasoned ‘how could they investigate if there was no actual rape?’ Where was the evidence? So what if five people would testify, they needed something more solid. They’re short of resources and need to investigate ‘real crimes’ beyond someone’s say so. Why was she out running by herself? She should know better? And so on and so on went the garbage reasoning. Some police commitment and public service. So in the end it wasn’t even written down by anyone at the station and as such came to never be reported.” #25

“And she asked me, did I know my rapists? Could I get into the car with her RIGHT NOW and direct her to them? Obviously I couldn’t. She told me there was nothing she could do. I felt the burden rest on my shoulders. I rushed out of the [police] office, ran down the stairs, fell on my way down onto a street, a car braked approaching me. I was dizzy. Tears running down my face. All I could think was well effectively I deserved it. I put myself in that position. My mom ran after me, and we cried together, in the middle of high street.” #9

“I did not have to go to the police station afterwards as my health was critical but got examined in the hospital, the officer forgot that some white people can speak African languages, and in front of me they were talking about what I did to deserve being raped.” #29

Survivors are told that when we do report, go to court, and our rapists are acquitted, we may be a target of further violence.

“They raped me again as “punishment”, as they put it, for reporting them and making people judge them. I don’t know why they did it the first time but I did not report it the second time even after talking to a lawyer as he pointed out that the first trail would have a negative effect on this one, and I realised that I couldn’t handle an open court.” #29

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So, please tell me.

Tell me, do you really think it’s survivors, the victims of sexual violence, that ‘let rape happen’ when they don’t report their rape?

Or is it those of you who tell rape survivors what we can expect if we do?


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8 Responses

  1. This is absolutely horrific and as a survivor myself; I can relate. Rape culture permeates all aspects of humanity, even the justice system. Thank you for shining light on this issue.


  2. I am also a victim of rape, I reported my case because my rapist also started to harass me, I knew this guy he was a friend. I do not know whether my case will be taken seriously because there was no evidence gathered besides the endless harassment from the perpetrator


  3. It is more similar than different in Canada. We have an elaborate process for gathering ‘evidence’ of rape if a woman does report. Unfortunately that evidence is rarely enough for the courts. Support for women who do ‘come out’ is also slim. The sad fact is that misogyny is deep in most of our cultures…so deep we do not recognize it. From this embracing of misogyny comes violence of all sorts. Thank you for writing and giving us all the ‘evidence’ that matters.


  4. a Very powerful and insightful message. Thank You. I am a silent survivor.


  5. And then as though trying to depress myself further, I went on to @Neza4Real’s TL. *Braces self with feminism*


  6. Wow…such a powerful piece. And these are all of the reasons I never reported my rape.