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‘I would have killed myself’: Free app puts care at rape survivors’ fingertips

In Diepsloot, Bhekisisa’s Vimba! app is helping rape survivors access life-saving care and treatment.

One Friday night in April, Bianca Jonkers, her boyfriend and his cousin visited a local tavern for a fun night out. Jonkers, who prefers not to use her real name, had just relocated from the Western Cape to live with her boyfriend in  Diepsloot, a township in northern Johannesburg.

“I came here to start a new life,” she explains. “We first lived in the Western Cape, but then my boyfriend got a job in Johannesburg and I wanted us to be together.”

Round about 11pm, the 41-year-old decided to return home. She left her boyfriend and his cousin behind for the 2 km walk to their rented backroom.

But about halfway, Jonkers was stopped by a group of seven men. “Give us your phone and money,” they shouted.

But she had neither. “All I had was eight rands in my back pocket.”

Jonkers pauses. She nervously swivels her keys.

“I knew I was in trouble. They started dragging me into a ditch where people dump their rubbish, next to a stream of water.”

Four of the seven men raped Jonkers. Repeatedly. One held a knife to her neck and threatened to kill her if she screamed for help. “I was scared, I would rather be alive than to be stabbed to death,” she explains.

She looks out the window of the wendy house of a Diepsloot rape counsellor where she sits in the corner of a white, foldable chair. “So I laid there, waiting for them to finish.”

Free number for help

The next day Jonkers’ landlord came to her help. The landlord dialled *134*403# on her cellphone – she had heard about the number at her church. She didn’t need any data or airtime to dial the number, because the app’s developers cover the cost of the data through “unstructured supplementary service data” (USSD) technology.

After Jonkers had dialled the number, she received an SMS with the numbers and addresses of organisations that could help. That’s how Jonkers ended up at Brown Lekekela’s wendy house.

He runs The Green Door, the only place of shelter in Diepsloot for women and children who have been abused. Lekekela counsels gender-based violence victims and helps them report their cases to the police. The Green Door is located in Extension 6, in his backyard.

Lekekela counselled Jonkers, who was still visibly devastated. “Every time I closed my eyes I heard their [the rapists’] voices. I could feel and hear everything but I couldn’t see their faces.”

Jonkers would never have received counselling if it wasn’t for *134*403#. “Most rape victims in Diepsloot don’t know where to find help,” explains Lekekela. “They just try and move on with their lives.”

According to a 2017 study published in the South African Journal of Psychiatry, receiving support and care from others helps sexual violence survivors cope significantly better with their trauma. But poor “integration of mental health services” at post-rape services result in only a few survivors receiving adequate trauma counselling.

While five organisations – The Green DoorSonke Gender JusticeLawyers Against AbuseAfrica Tikkun and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group – provide counselling and legal services in Diepsloot to victims of gender-based violence, few residents know how and where to find them.

In partnership with these organisations, Bhekisisa created and launched the Vimba! app in December. It helps survivors, who are mostly women and children, to know what to do and where to go when they’ve been abused. In addition to SMS’ing the contact details of the organisations, the app also sends a list of do’s and don’ts to users and collects data about the locations they dial from, as well as the time of reporting.

Lekekela named the app Vimba!, a well–known cry for help in South Africa. Vimba! means ‘to prevent, stop or halt’ in isiZulu. “If someone in the street is robbed or hurt and they shout: ‘Vimba!’ people will run towards them to help. That’s why we’ve chosen this name,” explains Lekekela.

He has jotted down 28 people in his register book who have come to his shelter as a direct result of Vimba! this year. The other venues are still in the process of calculating their numbers.

Vimba!’s data shows close to 500 people have dialled the helpline between December and April.

In a 2016 study conducted by Sonke Gender Justice and the University of the Witwatersrand, 56% of men who were surveyed in Diepsloot admitted to having raped or beaten a woman.

“People in Diepsloot don’t have airtime to phone me, so they will get my address from the app and walk here,” Lekekela says. “When they get here, I counsel them and help them to report their rapes.”

Vimba! app murals will be painted in eight extensions in Diepsloot to create more awareness about the helpline. (Delwyn Verasamy)

‘This is not the Western Cape’

After raping Jonkers, the group of men left – except for one, who stayed behind to continue.

“He was very tall and dark, and his left hand was wrapped in a white bandage,” Jonkers remembers.

She wipes the tears off her face.

“I could hear my boyfriend’s cousin shouting my name, but I couldn’t do anything. I was terrified that if I did he would hurt me.”

The man left her in the ditch. Following the sound of passing cars and chattering foot travellers, a bruised and barefoot Jonkers staggered back to the main road. Eventually, she found her boyfriend and his cousin.

Jonkers wanted her boyfriend to call the police so she could open a case. But he refused. “He said to me: ‘This is not the Western Cape, the police in Diepsloot won’t help us.'”

There is only one police station in Diepsloot. It services 13 extensions, with a population that local organisations estimate at about half a million. The only official figures come from the 2011 South African census, which counted 138 000 people in the township. Residents and businesses in the township say the population of Diepsloot is grossly underestimated.

In October 2015, Bhekisisa published a story, Diepsloot: Where men think it’s their right to rape about the prevalence of child rape in Diepsloot. Vimba! is the result of the overwhelming reaction to the story, which led to a partnership with organisations working with gender-based violence survivors in the township.

No rape kits in Diepsloot

Jonkers listened to her boyfriend; she didn’t call the police on the night of her rape. Together, they walked back home where she washed herself and went to bed.

But the sleep she desperately needed was nowhere to be found.

Lekekela however convinced her to report her rape to the police the next day. A detective from the police station drove Jonkers to Olivedale Hospital in Randburg, which is about 20 km away from Diepsloot. She was swabbed and given the morning-after pill to prevent her from falling pregnant, as well as a month’s dosage of antiretroviral drugs, or post-exposure prophylaxis, to reduce her chances of contracting HIV.

Lekekela says the two local clinics in Diepsloot don’t stock rape kits. The nearest Thuthuzela Care Centre – a one-stop, government-run service offering rape care – is at Tembisa Hospital, about 30km away.

Jonkers has also had therapy with a professional trauma counsellor.

According to Lekekela many people in Diepsloot don’t understand what gender-based violence is and why it is wrong. “People believe that it is okay for a husband to demand sex from his wife, and to beat her if she doesn’t oblige,” he says. “Before we address the issues of violence, we need to make sure people understand it first.”

When Vimba! was launched, posters were put up in public places like the mall and community centres around Diepsloot. But Lekekela believes more needs to be done to let everyone know about the hotline. That’s why he and a team of volunteers started to paint murals with the Vimba! message across the township this year.

The words “Dial *134*403# from any cellphone – for free/mahala” are painted on the white wall of Jabulani Supermarket in Extension 11. The shop, which is located on a busy street, is opposite a hair salon, and next to a small tavern. A vivid picture of a man interjecting another man raising his hand to a woman is captioned: “Men taking action against abuse”.

Lekekela explains: “Each of the extensions will have two wall paintings. This will make Vimba! more visible and more people will know about it.”

The bruises on Jonkers face are slowly fading away. She still has an open cut on her right foot. All the physical remnants of her rape will soon be gone, but the ordeal will stay with her for a long time to come.

She still gets nightmares. “I wish this didn’t happen to me.” The “new life” Jonkers came to find in Diepsloot started horrendously. She bows her head. “If Brown didn’t help me I would have killed myself.” 

Pontsho Pilane is the communications manager at Soul City Institute for Social Justice. Pilane was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from 2017 until 2019.