‘If disrespecting women was not considered so normal in my community, I would most probably not have raped that girl,” said Dumisane Rebombo.
“I was 15 years old when I raped her. I grew up seeing half-naked women in my village running away from violent men all the time. No one talked about it. No one addressed it. It was just the way it was.”
Thirty-seven years ago, Rebombo and two other boys sat down and came to a decision: they would gang rape a girl – “a girl who thought she was better than us boys, to prove we are men”. They wanted to show that they could “control a woman” and “put her in her place”. To rape her would give them the status of “brave boys” who would be respected because “we knew what we wanted and were brave enough to take it”.
It took Rebombo, who now works for the gender equality organisation Sonke Gender Justice Network, 20 years of introspection and a considerable amount of counselling to realise “I was wrong”.
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But in his home village of Blinkwater in Mpumalanga, there has been no such revolution. “Just the other day I was there and talked to 12 women, including a very young girl, who had been raped or physically assaulted by men. The community doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Blinkwater is no anomaly. Research shows that the tiny settlement represents normality in South Africa. A study in 2009 by the Medical Research Council shows that almost one out of three South African men admitted that they had raped a woman. About half admitted they had raped more than once. More than 40% said they had been violent with an intimate partner.
According to the study, the average rapist looks more or less like this: he’s younger than 30, comes from a single-parent home, doesn’t perceive his parents to have been particularly affectionate and has experienced childhood trauma.
“Research shows that children raised by one parent are far more likely to experience emotional or physical abuse than those who have two parent figures,” said the chief study author, Rachel Jewkes. “In South Africa, more than half of children come from homes with absent fathers, which makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse.”
Jewkes said studies had repeatedly shown that children who have been abused are more likely to become abusers themselves.
In Pinky Promises, a book by the photographer Pierre de Rosemond on the accounts of both victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse, a clinical social worker, Marcel Londt, said: “Many child victims [of abuse] are entering adolescence and adulthood with pervasive coercive sexual behaviours.”
Londt, who works with sex offenders, said: “These children link their sexual aggression to emotions such as fear, loneliness or anger.”
She said that not every child who “matured” into a sex offender was sexually abused during childhood but “we can safely assume that most children who become dangerous adults have experienced some form of emotional or physical abuse and maltreatment”.
In Rebombo’s case, he was constantly “jeered at” and often physically beaten by his peers for being a “sissy”. Rebombo, a Tsonga, hadn’t been circumcised according to tradition and he helped with chores at home: “This was something a real man was not supposed to do … I had a low self-esteem and felt lonely and rejected, and raping a girl … made me feel more accepted.”
Londt said boys’ sexually abusive behaviour was “often rooted in the world view that life consists of the abused and the abusers … and that you either are abused or you own the necessary power and control by becoming the abuser yourself.”
Jewkes said children of parents who used physical punishment, such as beating them to discipline them, were likely to experience it as abuse and, as a result, were at risk of becoming abusers as adults.
South Africa’s high rate of teenage pregnancies also contributes to the number of single-parent households. But, according to experts, the single biggest contributing factor to men mistreating women is South Africa’s “gender hierarchy” and males’ perception of what it means to be a man: to assert dominance and control over women – and other men.
According to Jewkes, this is partly rooted in South Africa’s “disturbed” past and the way that South African men have been “socialised into forms of masculinity that are predicated on the idea of being strong and tough”.
Some experts have dubbed this “flawed African masculinity”.
An independent gender violence expert, Lisa Vetten, said that especially black men’s “manhood” was damaged during apartheid. They were called “boys”, separated from their families as a result of migrant labour and disrespected. This led to a “failed sense of themselves”. They felt powerless and the only sphere where they still perceived themselves to have any influence was at home. “It’s easy to displace your anger on [to] your wife at home because she’s accessible and vulnerable,” said Vetten.
White men, on the other hand, had an “overinflated sense of their own importance” during apartheid and that often led to violence at home.
The University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen said that South Africa “sadly only responds at the tail end” of sexual violence.
Long way to go
“Extreme forms of domestic violence are determined by what we are willing to tolerate every day,” he said. “When I was a child growing up on the Cape Flats, no woman was able to walk past a group of men in the street without them shouting something abusive or sexual at her. That is still happening. We accept it as normal and don’t do anything about it. But then we cry out at men murdering and raping women and wonder why it’s happening.”
Jansen said the solution lay in addressing “how we raise our boys and teach them to socialise” and “how we equip parents to be parents”.
But there’s a long way to go.
When Rebombo wanted to visit the woman he raped, he discussed it with his pastor. The pastor considered violence against women to be “so normal” that he discouraged Rebombo from apologising. “You were just a boy; you don’t have to pay for it now,” he said.
His two accomplices heard about his intentions and threatened to kill him if their names were mentioned. “We are married men now. No one needs to know about what we did so many years ago,” they said.
When he finally visited the woman he had raped to apologise, she said: “Do me a favour: teach your son not to do what you did to me.”
Rebombo agreed. “I’ve told my sons and daughter what I did. It was wrong. Women are people, not animals. If only I had a role model when I was 15. But all those I had around me were perpetrators of violence.”