Rape as serial violation

by Aug 17, 2023All Articles, GBV and Rape, Women

The residents of Kagiso, a west Johannesburg township, trooped out in their numbers to avenge the horrifying rape of eight women in late July 2022. These women were part of a video shoot at an abandoned mine dump in the vicinity. The gang rape, needless to say, outraged the entire South African nation. It propelled the long suffering Kagiso residents to vent their spleen against the general insecurity and crime affecting their community.

They braved police checkpoints and barriers. They ventured forth, fuelled by justifiable rage, into disused mine dumps, to fish illegal miners (zama zamas) out of caves and mine-shafts.  These illegal miners are largely believed to be foreign nationals, eking out a precarious living from the rejected fringes of the distressed township.

In the upsurge of collective rage that followed the rape incident, scores of illegal miners were arrested by the police. This came on the heels of the recent activities of Operation Dudula, a xenophobic group. And it re-established the figure of the black illegal immigrant as the ultimate bogeyman, a detested scapegoat for all that is wrong in contemporary South Africa. Scapegoat for the unacceptably high number of rapes, for unemployment, crime, loss of economic opportunities, bleakness and anxiety.

But studies have indicated that these various socioeconomic shortcomings have always been present in South Africa. There isn’t much to suggest that this will not continue to be so for a long time, given the fundamentally unequal nature of the country. A huge problem, bequeathed by histories of unequal encounters, cemented by apartheid has now spiralled out of control. It is desperately in need of convenient scapegoats to temper the rising disaffection by the dispossessed and dehumanised.

But we need to look beyond any diversionary tactics that detract from the deeper causes to present-day pandemics of poverty, inequality, rape and gender-based violence. The lopsidedness and intrinsic violence of the colonial and apartheid legacies remain in place. They break out in centrifugal whorls of despair, angst, violence and dysfunction.

And we dare not voice our outrage in a manner that power would not condone. It is the urge of power, whether licit or illicit, to violate us. It is also its obligation to set the limits to how we register our disapproval. Curiously, is this not a re-configuring of some version of tyrannical power? A power that is perceived everywhere but yet remains largely faceless? Orwellian in its attributes and dimension?

There is a difference between illicit and licit power. The vile kind of violence visited upon those eight women at the mine site was thoroughly illicit. It dwells in ghoulish shadows, hidden, mysterious and rat-like. It is unaccountable in its nebulousness. It acts and appears in a pestilential manner and so it is so tempting to treat it as such; smoking ‘them’ out with teargas, inflicting collective insult and rage.

The licit kind of power is, on the other hand, authoritarian, endowed with structure and definable territory. In theory, it is based on legitimacy even though it erodes its authority through serial violations and its inability to infuse dignity into citizenship. But most importantly, it is a power that thrives as a cruel joke, as it somehow manages to reproduce itself both as a tragedy and as a farce.

Rape must be the closest and deepest kind of violation. It penetrates into the core of being and hunkers down like an incurable disease.  However, we are violated in numerous ways, sometimes daily. Under the cloak of legitimacy or outside of it, we are short-circuited by legal instruments of power or common bandits alike. It should be interesting to contemplate the specificities and interconnections between different forms of violation. Violations, it appears, constitute who we are as people. We are formed in the bowels of violation, thrive on violation and meet our demise through myriad kinds of violation. Some kinds of violation are personal and others are impersonal. But both are equally destructive. We make and unmake our worlds via instruments and machinations of utter violence.

Underneath authoritarian violation, the victim is like a Kafkaesque character, floundering in a vast labyrinthine maze of bureaucracy and anonymity. But faced by petty criminals, the victim is confronted with the random terror of a gun butt or naked blade. This is akin to sudden paroxysm of insanity.


The impunity of zama zamas must be condemned and contained. The state must assume its responsibilities in order never to give cause for anyone to mistake it for zama zama. The unfortunate tragedy of the Kagiso rape ordeal calls for collective reflection in the ways in which we are all victims and victimised in multiple ways, most of which are somewhat connected at innumerable points.

Of course, South Africa is not only where such dastardly acts against humanity and human decency occurs. The ongoing crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are one of the most graphic and also most distressing examples of inhumanity plaguing our continent. Documentaries depicting the ordeals of violated women and girls are often too horrific to recount. Women and girls have to endure rape, sex slavery and the slaughter of the families by armed rebel groups. After being violated they are often subjected to the amputation of their limps. Eventually, if they manage to survive their heinous violations and mutilations, they are invariably broken, defeated and traumatised for life. Most war zones in Africa experience similar traumas be it in Sierra Leone where a BBC interviewee, recalls being kidnapped, entrapped in sex slavery and abused for years after the annihilation of her family members. Her trauma is still too deep and hurtful to be narrated. She simply concludes that she isn’t able to tell what she’s been through as she hurriedly wipes off her tears.

Some statistics state one in every four females in South Africa would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. This is unacceptably high. During the 1980s in apartheid times, the townships of what is now known as Gauteng, were plagued by an ugly phenomenon called jackrolling. Sex-crazed gangsters would casually abduct young girls in broad daylight and subject them to the horrific ordeal of gang-rape. Quite a few of these nefarious hoodlums gained national notoriety on account of the sheer terror they inflicted upon their communities.

Perhaps because of South Africa’s long history of social activism and resistance, the issues of rape, domestic abuse and gender-based violence are often granted the media visibility they deserve which of course does not make them any less deleterious.

Speaking of visibility, I find the cases in the war-torn DRC the most harrowing to endure. In that beleaguered country, there camps and medical resorts catering to females who have been gang-raped, sex-trafficked, mutilated and violated in multiple ways.  They watched their fathers, mothers, brothers and children killed after which their violators inflict unimaginable horror upon them sexually and psychologically. They are indeed subjected to serial forms of terror and death after which the meaning of life is irrevocably damaged if not completely lost.  They are forced to endure a form of death from which there is no escape or respite.  I have never been able to complete watching such graphic and harrowing documentaries on the plight of violated women in the DRC. Most of them cast the victims as hapless shells emptied of meaning, vigour and substantive agency, or, on the other hand, utterly unreal, superhuman anti-s/heroes.  However, in reality, they are indeed irredeemable victims and not the s/heroes of their own destinies and this is what makes it so difficult to stomach such doccies.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tyson Conteh’s 2021 BBC doccie, alluded to earlier, “Lady P and the Sex Work Sisterhood” in Sierra Leone explores another side of female agency and humanity under adverse conditions. Lady P, the main protagonist of the documentary was abducted as a prepubescent girl by warring rebels and held captive for a protracted period as a sex slave. She is clearly an emotionally and physically strong woman but tears dribble down her face as she is unable to narrate her horrendous experiences. But the moral of her story is that she remains unbowed, determined and resilient as ever as she and her adopted sisters and daughters navigate the shame, ostracism and hardships of their lives as disavowed sex workers who are routinely raped, trafficked and abducted with impunity. Lady P is the undisputed matriarch of an outcast sorority who in the face of incredible hardships such as material deprivation, broken and/or absent familial bonds, serial forms of domestic and social violence are able to forge enduring ties of community, sisterhood and humanity. Their stories and ordeal, once again, attest to the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit.

Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011), a work of philosophy; two novels, Dust, Spittle and Wind (2011) and An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012); and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow (Expanded Edition) (2021), an academic study; among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.


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