In this township, alcohol makes violent men close to three times more likely to rape a woman.
Brown Lekekela heads over to the flipchart that hides a red and gold advert for Lion Lager emblazoned with the words “choose with pride”. Using a black permanent marker he writes: Women who drink too much are asking to be raped.
“Who agrees with this?” Lekekela, 32, asks after reading the statement aloud.
A group of 17 men and women are seated in a circle in a dim room; broken tiles make up the floor.
There’s a poster on the mustard-coloured wall behind them inviting guests to try the “fuller flavoured” taste of “a refreshing, slowly matured” apple cider. “Dark by name, gold by nature,” says the placard decorated with a sleek black bottle.
A woman in her early thirties, wearing an enormous safari hat and turquoise T-shirt, shouts: “Women who drink and wear miniskirts are irresponsible and want to get raped! Even the police will agree!”
She waves a hand frantically. “Men can see their thighs!”
A young woman in a tight-fitting top with silver sequins in the shape of a heart shakes her head vehemently and breathes heavily. “Men who want to rape women who wear miniskirts are dogs!” she yells. She stamps her feet. “Hai man! It doesn’t matter how drunk the woman is or what she’s wearing. Rape is rape!”
Outside, Frans Lengaka supervises the offloading of crates of beer and brandy. He instructs the workers where to stack the alcohol, and grins: “Castle is my patrons’ favourite beer. It’s only R6 for a 330ml bottle, if you also return the empties.”
Two small boys shuffle past. Laughter erupts from their tummies. They begin a shambolic race among dust, loose bricks and warped cardboard, each pushing an empty black beer crate stamped with the red letters SAB.
The sun beams its midmorning heat on to the shining skin of the powerfully-built shebeen owner as he leans against his double-cab bakkie. “In the week I’m open from 10am to 8pm. Over the weekends I close between 11pm and 12pm,” he says.
Lengaka Tavern in Extension 11 of Diepsloot, a township in northern Johannesburg, is an addendum to its owner’s house. But this morning it’s not business as usual at the shebeen.
Instead, the tavern is hosting one of the Sonke Change trial’s 144 workshops. The meetings, which will reach about 2 000 men in the township, started in mid-2016 and will run until the end of the year.
Inside the tavern, tempers continue to flare. A man in a powder blue Uzzi shirt is annoyed with the silver-sequinned woman.
His forefinger flashes and he shivers with anger as he spits: “I will rape them personally, those drunkard women in the short dresses! They are prostitutes. They deserve to be raped.”
In 2016, the social justice organisation Sonke Gender Justice and Wits University’s school of public health asked more than 2 600 men from 18 neighbourhoods in Diepsloot to “self-report” their use of violence. They answered questions on tablets with the use of audio software. The men, who were between the ages of 18 and 40, participated in the project through the Sonke Change trial — the same study that Lekekela’s workshops form part of.
The findings were shocking.
Fifty-six percent of the participants, most of them in their late twenties, admitted to having beaten or raped a woman in the 12 months before taking part in the research. Six out of 10 said they had done so multiple times.
The Diepsloot figures are more than double those revealed in similar surveys conducted in other areas of South Africa. A 2006 study published in the journal Aids found 25% of a cross-section of men in the rural Eastern Cape confessed to “past year” sexual or physical abuse of a woman.
Lekekela sighs: “Rape is an everyday thing here in Diepsloot. It’s not something strange. It’s accepted as a normal part of life.”
The training sessions take aim at this type of violence against women. “We want to measure whether targeted community work that challenges rigid ideas about manhood can reduce men’s violence over time,” says Abigail Hatcher, one of the study’s lead authors from Wits. “So, when the workshops are done, we’ll run the same questionnaire we did last year and see if the results have improved.”
When the Sonke researchers were looking for workshop venues in the township, they couldn’t find suitable “public spaces where more than a few people could meet” other than shebeens, says Hatcher.
Field teams counted the bars in the neighbourhoods where the study is being conducted and compared them to the number of schools and faith-based organisations. They found 20 times more shebeens and taverns than schools and almost six times as many bars as there were churches and other religious meeting places.
Lengaka is convinced that hosting the workshops won’t result in him losing business. “It will bring more, because my customers see these people are taking care of us. They teach us not to fight with women,” he says.
In a corner of Lengaka Tavern, next to a blue jukebox, Desmond Skosana*, 38, sits with his head bowed. He’s not taking part in any of the activities. “I’m just here for company,” he whispers.
Skosana is a security guard at a company in Fourways, a wealthy suburb near Diepsloot. He earns R3 400 a month. Of that, he spends about R1 000 on alcohol. He explains: “When I drink, I don’t feel so stressed about my finances. The alcohol makes me think less about my problems.”
Skosana’s afternoon work shift starts in three hours. But he reeks of alcohol. He mutters: “I’ll be okay at work; no one cares anyway.”
The security guard glances at the CD covers of the “queen of African pop” Brenda Fassie and kwaito artist Zakes Bantwini displayed on the wall next to the jukebox, and smiles: “We men get to have many women in the shebeens. We have a lot of sex, even in the toilets. I know. I’ve got experience of that.”
Back in the middle of the room, Lekekela is trying to calm the group. He wants the participants to take a break. But, during a lull in the cacophony, the words of a man in a black beanie echo: “Men raped my sister … Drunk men.”
There are tears in his eyes, but he tries to compose himself.
He turns to the man in the Uzzi shirt who said he would “personally rape” drunk women and snaps: “They were dogs. My sister was just walking home.”
His desperate eyes are fixed on the man when he asks: “Why did those dogs rape my sister? Did they think it was their right?”
The noise from the tightly-packed tin shacks had faded to a low hum that Sunday night. It was about half-past ten. No streetlights shone; the moonlight was pale.
The only signs of life in Diepsloot’s Extension 1 were the ever-present stench of sewage, the lingering smoke from the fires used to braai earlier that April day in 2015, and the scavenging rats.
Nomvula Mbete* had just left the shebeen where she and some friends had been drinking since the early afternoon. The 21-year-old wanted to escape from her former boyfriend, José Macia*, who was partying in another corner with his friends.
Macia, 28, was a trader with a regular income. Mbete was jobless. The couple’s relationship had ended badly a week before.
Inside the tavern, Mbete had tired of Macia’s constant, drunken pestering. When he went to the toilet, she took the gap and fled. But Macia chased her down, armed with a broken brick.
Soon he was gripping her right arm and spitting in her face: “You are going to tell me who you have been sleeping with or I will smash your head in!”
Mbete could hardly breathe. Macia was wielding a brick, but she also knew that he never went anywhere without his firearm.
She remembers the whites of his eyes as he seethed: “You will not run away from me. You will do as I say.”
Then he dragged her behind him, to his zinc hut, one of four squashed together in the backyard of the landlord’s RDP house.
Macia was a big, strong man. He removed the padlock and chain with one hand and threw Mbete on to the threadbare couch, which had once been decorated with bright floral patterns.
He told her: “You are going to undress now. I will have sex with you, or else I will shoot you.”
Bit by bit, she removed her clothes. Then, hiding her nakedness with shivering arms and hands, she begged Macia to use a condom. She was surprised when he agreed. He mounted her.
Mbete recalls: “I pretended to be passed out, in the hope that it would put him off and stop him raping me. But when he realised I was like a dead body he pulled his penis out of me and removed the condom. Then he carried on raping me.”
A male neighbour, also drunk, knocked on the door, demanding to know what was happening inside the shack. Macia bellowed: “I am having sex with Nomvula! Do you also want to fuck her?”
Mbete began weeping, uncontrollably. Her previously limp body shuddered to life.
She remembers Macia glancing down at her, as if puzzled, for a few seconds. Then he shook his head and burst out laughing. “Stupid bitch!” he roared.
After Macia ejaculated, he jumped up, zipped his jeans and announced: “I’m going back to the shebeen to have more beer.”
In the Sonke Change trial, “problem drinkers” — people who used alcohol at such a high rate that it interfered with their daily lives — were more than twice as likely to rape a woman than those who did not drink heavily. Just over a third of the men in the study reported problem drinking.
Hatcher explains: “Areas with large numbers of alcohol-serving venues are associated with higher amounts of violence.
“But it might be that Diepsloot’s high rates of alcohol use are, at least partly, as a result of the ‘structural omissions’ of the neighbourhood. In other words, the fact that there are few recreational options for adults other than taverns.”
The Diepsloot study’s problem-drinking rates are about three-and-a-half times that of South Africa’s already worrying national alcohol abuse rate of 11.4%, as recorded in the country’s latest Stress and Health Study.
As part of a social audit of the township, the Sonke researchers found that Diepsloot’s 13 extensions, the population of which is estimated at roughly 500 000 according to some organisations, have access to only one decent family park, just two community halls and one library.
There are no public swimming pools, or free-to-use, well-maintained sports fields, only a few dusty makeshift soccer pitches.
“When I ask people, ‘Why are you drinking so much?’ the answer is almost always, ‘because there’s nothing else to do’,” Lekekela says.
But the Sonke researchers also learnt that alcohol on its own does not lead to sexual violence. Alcohol is rather a “pathway” or “trigger” that gives already violent men the“liquid courage to act on their desires”, as some scientists have put it.
“Heavy alcohol use is a pattern that overlays with violence. So, the same men who are violent are often the same men who are abusing alcohol,” says Hatcher.
The Sonke study found that many violent men have gender-inequitable views, such as beliefs that women are unequal to men or that men should make the decisions in a relationship. They also have a strong sense of sexual entitlement.
More than half of the men in the study expected their partner to agree to sex when they wanted it, and a third believed a married woman “cannot refuse sex with her husband”.
Such men were more than double as likely to be violent towards women than men who did not hold such convictions.
When men have had too much to drink, explains a research paper by the United States government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, they can much more easily focus on their “immediate sense of sexual gratification, sense of entitlement and anger”, rather than on their “internalised sense of appropriate behaviour, future regret and the victim’s suffering” or the possibility that they will be punished for their actions.
There’s a single bed in a corner of the stuffy Wendy house. On it are two pillows and a white teddy bear dressed as Father Christmas.
Inside one of the three wooden houses in the backyard of his RDP house in Diepsloot’s Extension 6, Lekekela opens a brown journal.
He pages through the register and points at a string of names.
“Look here!” he exclaims. “Almost all the cases I get are between the 29th or third of the month, especially when those dates fall over weekends. Those are the times after payday when people have money to buy lots of alcohol.”
When Lekekela isn’t organising workshops for the Sonke trial, he’s a rape counsellor. His Wendy houses are known as The Green Door, a voluntary organisation that he runs and mostly funds himself.
“Green means new life, a new beginning. Like you let go of the past and move on to your future,” he explains.
The walls of the Wendy house are decorated with framed certificates of lay counsellor courses Lekekela has completed. There’s a two-seater sofa alongside his desk, from which victims tell him about the crimes committed against them.
This couch once seated Mbete.
Lekekela recalls: “It was about four days after her rape. She was extremely traumatised and we spoke for three hours. But she never returned for more sessions.”
He closes his logbook, carefully places it inside the desk’s drawer and says: “In nine out of 10 cases that I see, the perpetrator was drinking and the victim was often drinking too.”
Drinking makes it harder for a woman to escape physical or sexual abuse because it directly affects and impairs physical and cognitive functioning, says a 2014 World Health Organisation report. Too much alcohol makes one less able to recognise the warning signs in a potentially violent situation, which in turn makes women who drink excessively easier targets for sexual predators.
Lekekela shakes his head determinedly. “No man has a right to rape. No man.”
He removes his workshop manual from a bag next to the couch. Capital letters spell “Training curriculum for preventing men’s use of violence against women” on the front page.
“What we’re trying to do is to get people here to talk about what it means to be a man. Many men think to drink a lot of alcohol, to have power over women and to have a lot of sexual partners mean you’re a real, strong man.
“We want to change that,” says Lekekela.
Each of the Sonke trial’s workshops has eight sessions over a two-day period. Fieldworkers recruit the men and sometimes also women from areas that surround the venue for the training. To encourage people to come along, participants receive a free lunch on each day.
“I can already see some impact,” Lekekela insists. “My neighbour, who has attended a workshop, used to say it’s a woman’s job to play with the kids. Now I see how he plays with his kids in the park, or goes to watch them play soccer. He even goes with his wife to buy groceries.”
Inside the Wendy house, Lekekela prepares for another night of “calls for help”.
The Green Door is the only place of shelter for abused women and children in Diepsloot. But victims can stay here for only one night, “until they’ve calmed down a bit and have been counselled”, because Lekekela can’t afford to host them for longer.
While he straightens the bed’s duvet, puffs up the pillows, and places the teddy in its place, Lekekela states: “In my experience, it’s more than just alcohol driving sexual violence here. It’s almost like rape and such things are part of Diepsloot’s culture.”
One of the most startling conclusions of the Sonke study is that childhood trauma is the strongest predictor of men’s beating or raping of a woman, much more so than alcohol. It found that men who have been abused or neglected as children are five times more likely to commit gender-based violence than those who have not endured such abuse.
Even more astounding is that 85% of the study participants reported that they were neglected as children or had experienced physical or sexual abuse.
“The mental health burden in the Diepsloot community is incredibly high, to a great extent because of the trauma residents have experienced as children. Alcohol abuse is a self-medication strategy,” says Hatcher. “It’s a way to take away some of the burdens that have never been addressed by our society.”
The Diepsloot study participants did not only experience trauma as children. Six out of 10 had faced one or more forms of adult trauma, such as witnessing a rape or murder, being robbed at gunpoint or assaulted.
Like childhood maltreatment, adult abuse had a far-reaching effect: it made men two and a half times more likely to physically or sexually abuse a woman.
A possible explanation for the relationship between psychological distress and gender-based violence may be that “mental health problems cause difficulties with emotion regulation and some men may use gender-based violence perpetration as a way to cope with their painful emotions”, a 2012 study in the Journal of Family Violence suggests.
Exposing boys to trauma also affects brain development, “enhancing anti-social and psychopathic behaviour and reducing the ability to empathise”, the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) explains in a 2009 policy brief.
Several studies have revealed traumatised children or adults are more vulnerable to depression. The Diepsloot study confirmed this: a quarter of the participants suffered from “probable” depression, which the researchers measured by asking the men to respond to standard mental health screening tests.
This, too, influenced men’s use of violence: those who showed signs of depression were three times more likely to beat or rape a woman than those who weren’t depressed.
In turn, unprocessed trauma mentally predisposes people to substance abuse. Hatcher explains: “Alcohol in Diepsloot is used as a way to get through everyday realities that are frequently filled with traumatic events. It’s a coping mechanism. But the problem with using alcohol in such a way is that it leads to more problems. It gives rise to more episodes of these kinds of violence.”
On the wall above Mbete is a picture of a beaming Jesus. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, he’s pointing to a red heart in the middle of his chest.
It’s an autumn morning, about two months after she was raped.
Mbete is curled up on a couch in the lounge of her aunt’s small home in Extension 6, watching the a capella kasi soul trio, The Soil, on TV.
She blinks as they sing: “Celebrate, celebrate humanity, and when you love, love unconditionally.”
But Mbete has very little to revel in. “I can’t stay with my relatives for too long because we don’t get on so well anymore,” she says. “They don’t like the way I behave now.”
There’s a quart of Black Label on the floor next to the couch.
“When I feel fear, I smoke and drink and listen to loud music. Then that fear goes away. That’s how I live now,” she says, uncapping the bottle.
The bottle of Zamalek is her first beer of the day. It won’t be the last. “I only get scared of being raped again when I’m sober. Drinking helps me to survive,” she says.
The World Health Organisation says women who have been abused by their partners are almost twice as likely to be depressed and to be problem drinkers.
The SAMRC explains: “In a vicious cycle, victims of violence often start drinking heavily to deal with the trauma they have experienced, but their drinking makes it harder for them to escape the violence in their lives.”
Mbete’s aunt, her mother’s sister, raised her. She never knew her mother; her father died of an “unexplained illness” when she was a toddler. She was severely neglected as a child and only started school at the age of 11. By the time she was 18, Mbete was pregnant. She never returned to school.
Being maltreated as a child significantly increased Mbete’s chances of being raped as an adult, research has shown. Where abused boys are more likely to become abusers as adults, such girls have a high risk of being re-victimised as women, giving rise to an intergenerational cycle of violence.
Other than the session with Lekekela, a lay counsellor, Mbete hasn’t received mental help.
When she reported her rape to the Diepsloot police the next morning, she recalls a social worker, who was supposed to help her, shouting: “You are lying, you drunkard! You are just jealous because your boyfriend left you for another girl.”
Mbete acknowledges she’s unlikely to seek further help. It’s not surprising. Less than 10% of disadvantaged women with alcohol and other drug disorders try to access mental health treatment, 2014 research in BioMed Central Psychiatry shows.
Mbete had endured three years of both physical and sexual abuse during her on-off relationship with Macia.
“Every time after he beat me, or forced me to do sexual things I didn’t want to do, I would leave,” she says. “But I would always return.”
The less help an abused woman receives, a 2007 article in the Journal of American College Health concludes, the higher the likelihood she’ll turn to alcohol to cope with her trauma and suffer further abuse.
Mbete finally left Macia “for good” when he beat her up after she accused him of impregnating one of her friends.
“I’m scared he’ll come and kill me,” she says, swallowing another mouthful of beer from the bottle that’s now almost empty. “I’m staying at different houses and don’t go to places he goes to. I don’t know what else to do.”
Her fears are justified, says Hatcher. “The moment just after leaving an abusive partner places a woman at most risk of additional violence.”
Studies have shown that up to three-quarters of women who are killed by their abusers are murdered when they attempt to separate from, or soon after they have left, an abusive relationship.
Macia was arrested after Mbete laid a charge of rape against him. But the police set him free a few hours later.
Mbete murmers: “Few people believe that I was raped. The police said there wasn’t enough evidence.”
She made the mistake of washing herself before reporting the incident, destroying blood, semen, saliva or hair that could be used as proof.
Mbete says as she left the Diepsloot police station, Macia was waiting outside.
He glared at her, in front of the police, and shouted at her: “You are very brave to have opened a case against me, baby! Just wait and see what will happen.”
All that’s left of the Saturday summer sun is a distant, pink skyline.
A young boy grilling mealie cobs over glowing coals lights a torch to better inspect the food.
Nightlife in the township is beginning.
Inside Lengaka Tavern the jukebox blasts a Brenda Fassie song. Men sit next to a triple-storey of SAB crates, eyes glued to a television screen. They’re watching a soccer match, beers in hand.
“It’s month end,” Lengaka laughs as he stands at the entrance to his tavern. “Soon my place will be so full you won’t be able to see the pool table. Right now people are still busy doing their shopping.”
On the other side of the township, among the dense rows of shacks in Extension 1, Mbete shambles around a friend’s home. It’s now about two years since she was raped.
She’s 23, and her stomach reveals a small bump. She fiddles self-consciously with the sequins on her hat, and says: “I’m almost four months pregnant.”
The father of the baby is one of Mbete’s recent boyfriends. “I’m sleeping with a whole lot of different men because I don’t have a stable place to stay. I live in different places with different men. They all have other women. That’s how I survive. I jump from place to place.”
Her older child lives with her father’s family, but she never sees her.
Mbete sits down on a crate next to her friend’s bed. She’s surrounded by plastic bags of clothes, unwashed laundry, cooking pots and a bed pan. Her eyes offer a deep blankness.
“If you are a woman in Extension 1 without a job,” she says, “to survive you must sell sex.”
The Diepsloot study showed that when men exchange items such as cellphones or food for sex, it triples the odds of them beating or raping a woman.
Mbete walks outside to sit on a washed-out couch in front of the shack. “It’s either you are a sex worker or you sleep with other women’s husbands and boyfriends, so they can give you some money for you and your kids.”
More potential violence isn’t the only problem she faces.
The type of transactional sex Mbete has more than doubles the possibility that she’ll be infected with HIV and increases the likelihood of her having sex while being drunk threefold, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of the International Aids Society.
She’s unlikely to be in a position where she can demand that her sex partners, on whom she’s dependent for survival, use condoms.
A corrugated iron door bangs in the breeze. Nearby is an empty paint bucket that people fill up with water to wash themselves behind the door.
Mbete hasn’t seen José Macia again, but she says she will “never stop hiding” from him.
She murmurs: “I still drink a lot. There’s nothing more I can do. I’m just waiting around, breathing.”
But Mbete lives in a place that offers her almost no constructive way of coping with the traumatic aftermath of her rape.
There are state health clinics in only two of the township’s 13 extensions and, according to the Sonke study’s social audit, neither of them offer post-rape care. Other than the services offered by five nongovernmental organisations with limited funds, Diepsloot doesn’t have any public mental health or addiction services.
There’s not a single official shelter for abused women. Lekekela’s overnight, self-funded temporary facility is the best on offer here.
Soon, Mbete will leave her friend’s shack to meet one of her boyfriends in a shebeen. He’ll buy her some of her favourite Zamalek beers and give her a place to sleep for the night, but she knows that, depending on his needs, she may not get much sleep.
Mbete packs her bag slowly and says: “Men have power over me because of money. If you have that, you can do what you want with women over here. If I am to survive, I have to obey the men and do everything they tell me.”
In her bright green top that still fits loosely over her expanding tummy, Mbete will wander through the community where the Sonke study shows seven out of 10 men think they’ve got the right to tell a woman what clothes to wear, and to control her movements.
Near the end of her journey, on a dark gravel road without street lights, she will pass a concrete wall on which someone has drawn a crude depiction of a sex act.
In the life-sized picture, a naked woman is on the ground, one leg up in the air. The man, approaching the woman from the back, is holding his erect penis and moving it towards her vagina.
Five teardrops fall from her eyes.
Below the man’s sex organ is an arrow connecting it with an inscription: “AK 47, 9m”. In a bubble emerging from his mouth are the words: “Nice bang.”
The woman’s bubble reads: “Yebo!”
*Not their real names
Mia Malan is Bhekisisa's editor-in-chief and executive director. Under her leadership, Bhekisisa’s online readership increased 30 fold and its donor funding eightfold between 2013 and 2019. Malan has won more than 20 African journalism awards for her work and is a former fellow of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.