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AIDS and Africa’s Hidden War

ISSUE:  Winter 2006

One October evening in 2001, in an impoverished shantytown in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, David Potse entered the house of a former girlfriend, and raped her 9-month-old daughter. The child was later taken to a nearby hospital, where her internal injuries were found to be so severe that she nearly died. The nurses nicknamed her “Baby Tshepang” which means “have hope.” After a series of operations, she miraculously survived. Potse was apprehended soon afterwards. At his trial, he said that he was out drinking on the night of the assault. However, DNA tests showed his semen was present in the child’s rectum, and his current girlfriend testified that she walked in on him during the rape. Potse was sentenced to life in prison in 2002.

News reports about Baby Tshepang, along with a small number of similar cases that came to light at around the same time, ignited moral horror across the nation. “South Africa has been shamed,” declared the proceedings of a Parliamentary committee on child abuse; addressing a group called the “Moral Regeneration Movement,” Deputy President Jacob Zuma—himself soon to be implicated in a major corruption scandal—said the baby rape cases displayed “barbarism and moral decay of the worst kind.” The Sowetan newspaper called for a state of emergency and one columnist asked whether South African men were becoming “sex cannibals.”

All of this came during a period of national soul searching. The euphoria that followed the end of apartheid in 1994 was giving way to the morning-after recognition of the challenge of developing a society wracked by poverty, crime, and a new deadly disease. Roughly a quarter of adults in the country were HIV-positive and everyone was trying to understand why. Gothic rumors swirled in townships and rural areas: AIDS was caused by witchcraft, germ warfare against blacks, or something in the food. President Thabo Mbeki declared that Africans were prone to AIDS because of poverty and malnutrition—in other words, AIDS was one of the many legacies of past oppression by whites. But other observers—including UN officials and journalists—had another theory. They attributed the AIDS epidemic to the subjugation of women in South African society, of which the nation’s high rates of child abuse and rape were symptoms. The baby rape cases bolstered their claims and came to symbolize just how dire the situation was.

Until the furor over Baby Tshepang, rape was not a crime that had aroused much public concern. The vast majority of rape victims in South Africa are not infants, but mature women or teenagers, and most incidents are treated with remarkable indifference. Few cases are reported to the police; if the assault is committed by a boyfriend or husband, it is usually not even considered a crime, and a victim’s screams are usually ignored. Studies show that a large proportion of both men and women in South Africa blame women—not men—for rape. Asked for suggestions about how to reduce the incidence of rape, respondents in another study said that women should be taught how to “dress and behave” and should not be allowed out after seven o’clock at night. One of the reasons rape is so seldom reported is that many women internalize this logic, and fear that if the incident becomes widely known others will wonder what they did to deserve it.

When cases are reported, the authorities often fail to take them seriously. In her 2001 book Proud of Me: Speaking out about Sexual Violence and HIV, South African journalist and activist Charlene Smith describes a scene that defies comment. An eight-year-old girl had been raped in a township near Durban, a large port city on the Indian Ocean. She was taken to a hospital where she lay on a trolley in a corridor for four hours, waiting for someone to examine her. Meanwhile, the rapist, who had been beaten up by a vigilante crowd, was being treated by the district surgeon. Smith was alerted to the case, and after she screamed at the district surgeon over the phone, he agreed to go see the girl. What he did not tell Smith was that he planned to bring the rapist with him to the hospital. The rapist was placed in a wheelchair, and wheeled down the same corridor where the girl was lying. When she saw him, she became so hysterical that any examination became impossible.

In 2000, the Johannesburg police department’s sexual offenses unit had only three officers and they were saddled with 200 new cases a month. As dockets pile up in police stations around the country, many victims are advised to privately negotiate restitution with the alleged rapist’s family. Sometimes the accused make their own arrangements with the police, who will typically “lose” a docket for the equivalent of three American dollars. The conviction rate for reported rapes is about 7%, and most of these cases involve children. Among cases of adult rape, the conviction rate is 1%. “It’s a logic problem,” says Rachel Jewkes, head of the South African Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Unit. “There is legislation that says rape is illegal, but it is at odds with what a great many people believe to be true.”

But when confronted with the baby rape cases, South Africans could no longer look the other way. Rape is a horrible crime, but the horror of baby rape is naturally of a different order. In early 2002, several journalists—most from Europe and the US—reported that the epidemic of sexual violence was being fueled by a desperate myth: African men believed that raping a virgin would cure them of HIV. One BBC journalist described the Baby Tshepang incident as a typical example of such a “virgin rape myth” case. This is almost certainly false. Before Potse was apprehended, six other men were charged with the crime but were soon released for lack of evidence. One of them said he had heard about the “virgin rape cure” on the radio and the girlfriend of another died, probably of AIDS, shortly after the men were arrested. The BBC journalist put these loose facts together to draw his erroneous conclusion. In fact, these men were absolved of the crime, and there is no evidence that the true assailant—David Potse—raped Baby Tshepang because he thought doing so would cure him of HIV. Indeed, there is no evidence that he was himself HIV-positive, or that if he was, that he knew he was.

The idea that “virgin rape myths” are a significant cause of either child abuse or the spread of AIDS in Africa is itself a myth, perpetuated by stigmatizing attitudes towards people with HIV and racist fears of black sexuality. A similar “myth about a myth” was prevalent in the US during the nineteenth century, when there was widespread panic that the hoards of newly arrived southern and eastern European immigrants were raping virgins to cure themselves of syphilis.

Although some surveys suggest that belief in the “virgin rape” myth is common in South Africa, in only a tiny number of child abuse cases has the accused himself claimed that it was a motivating factor in his crime. A study of child rape cases in Johannesburg found that infection rates among the victims were far lower than would be expected if the children had been targeted by HIV positive men. Very few South African men know their HIV status in any case. The same researchers found that most people who knew about the “virgin rape myth” had read about it in newspapers or heard about it on the radio; none of the respondents in the study knew of a single case in which a child had been raped for that reason. In many traditional African belief systems, sex is held to have a ritualistic, purifying function. “So, if people hear of the myth they may think it sounds as if it could be true,” Jewkes told a reporter in 2002. But this does not mean that people act on it.

Why did David Potse rape Baby Tshepang, if not to cure himself of AIDS? And why is rape so common—and so widely tolerated—in South Africa in general? Outsiders are inclined to see the African men who beat and rape women as out-of-control brutes who heedlessly spread HIV. But studies are finding that violent men are actually enacting a cultural drama that is hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years old. These men are driven by myths, all right, but these are not myths about “virgin rape cures” for HIV. They are far more powerful than that and much harder to dispel. The roots of these myths extend deep in the African past and are finding new life in the upheavals and inequalities of contemporary South African society.

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In 2001, University of Pretoria anthropologist Isak Niehaus began studying a series of rape cases that had occurred in a small area of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. Most of the incidents followed a typical pattern. Many of the victims were known to the rapists, and they tended to be women with an air of independence—women coming home from shops with grocery bags, teachers, nurses, shop assistants on the way to work, women in a technical college, female business owners. Some victims were single women who drank and flirted openly in bars. In one case, an unemployed dope-smoking criminal raped a total stranger, but only after he had been rejected by several girls in a bar where he had been drinking earlier in the evening.

In contrast to their seemingly “liberated” victims, the men who committed these crimes tended to be poor and disadvantaged, or if they were not, they seemed to be fighting some other challenge to their sense of masculinity. Once a father raped his teenage daughter because, he said, she had disobeyed him by staying out late. Another rapist forced one of his victims to cook for him after he had assaulted her.

As feminist historian Susan Brownmiller and many others have written, rape is an assertion of male power, not sexuality. Niehaus speculates that the men in his account found in acts of violence against women temporary relief from the humiliations of living in a society based on the presumption of white superiority. But these acts were not only misdirected expressions of anger and frustration at white oppression. They were also “desperate protests against men’s loss of control” over women. Over the past century, radical changes in South Africa’s economy have profoundly affected gender norms and expectations and altered the balance of power between the sexes. In reaction, violent men were reviving old “scripts of male domination” with deep historical resonance.

In pre-colonial Africa, everything depended upon a man’s ability to control women. Women carried out most of the agricultural labor—the hoeing and weeding and planting and harvesting—and gathered firewood and water and cared for children. This was arduous work. Droughts and floods were common, and the soils of southern Africa are, for the most part, sandy and barren and the thin, fragile topsoil erodes easily. After a few seasons, the soil would be exhausted and as families watched their harvest dwindle they gathered their meager possessions and moved somewhere else. Men’s responsibilities boiled down to negotiating with other clan leaders—and sometimes fighting with them—to acquire better land, and then clearing it for the women to farm. There was very little of material value in this harsh world—no plantations, or grand houses filled with coveted possessions—so men measured their wealth in people: wives who could work the land and produce children who would help them form alliances through marriage to other clans. Control over women and their children was thus a vital measure of a man’s worth. South African historian Jeff Guy argues that women’s loyalty and obedience to men was thus a defining social feature of these societies.

During the past century, much has changed in South Africa. The small scale agricultural economy that sustained people for centuries has been all but destroyed by globalization, climate change, and competition from highly efficient large commercial farms. Roughly 4% of South Africa’s arable land remains in black hands. Gone, for the most part, are the rural polygamous homesteads dominated by powerful patriarchs; disappearing too are the unskilled occupations—such as mining and manufacturing—that enabled some men to earn enough to maintain a traditional polygamous household, even in early industrial times. Unemployment rates now exceed 70% in some areas, and everyone struggles to earn a living. These days, success is based not on kinship but on education and skills, and women are trying to succeed at the same game as men.

Meanwhile, “patriarchal ideas linger,” the anthropologist Monica Wilson wrote in the 1960s, “like the smile on the Cheshire Cat,” even though most people live in a totally different world from the one in which those ideas were formed. Men still aspire to have multiple partners, and to exert control over those partners, and this is still generally condoned. In African Renaissance, a 1999 essay collection with a prologue by South Africa’s current president, Thabo Mbeki, the South African philosopher Lesiba Teffo writes approvingly, “The more women a man has, the greater his stature in society.” “Respect” is a crucial dimension of African social life, he continues, and provides the example of the ideal African woman “who would not look her husband in the face when making an offer of any kind. She would rather crawl towards him whilst facing downward or sideward until she offers what is at hand.”

Many South African women see the ideal conjugal relationship in rather different terms. During the 1970s, the South African anthropologist Virginia Van der Vliet asked scores of South African men and women about their expectations of marriage. Most women wanted a “modern” type of family, in which husbands and wives shared household duties, friends, and recreational activities, and both partners aspired to a monogamous ideal. Most men, on the other hand, idealized a more “traditional” arrangement, in which they made all the decisions, and where husbands and wives lived largely separate lives. Women were to be occupied with rearing children, cooking, cleaning, and farming, while men engaged in their own, separate pursuits, which included drinking and having affairs. In the old days, their concubines might have become additional wives, but by the 1970s, few men could afford to support more than one wife and her children. Instead men often carried on as if these women were semi-wives, whom they helped with gifts and money from time to time. They expected their true wives to behave with “respect,” which meant that they did not confront their husbands about these affairs.

Women, Van der Vliet found, were becoming increasingly repelled by “traditional” male attitudes and mores, but few men were willing to adapt, because they feared being looked down on by their peers as “henpecked” or as following the ways of whites. The clash of norms and ideas about the position of women and the ideal African family has almost certainly contributed to the dire state of relations between the sexes in South Africa today, where common township slang words for “to have sex with” translate into English as, “to hit with a pipe” or “to stab.” The contemporary epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa may have roots in this period. “It’s low intensity warfare,” a young man at a conference on gender told South African journalist Kerry Cullinan in 2001.

As the divide between men and women widened, marriage rates plummeted, and by 1998, only a third of South African women were married. Single women are able to support themselves because of “women’s empowerment,” meaning jobs and education. In addition, growing numbers of poor women came to rely on occasional support from men whom they slept with—but because they were not married to these men, they were freer to leave them, or to take up with someone else.

For some men, this very “empowerment” was very threatening. “Men seemed aware that these independent women were a nail in the coffin of patriarchy,” Van der Vliet wrote. “They reserved a special scorn for single women and their children.” Today, young rapists express exactly this scorn. When a girl sleeps around, a young rapist told anthropologist Katherine Wood in 2004, “you think you should discipline her.” Rape victims deserved their fate, he explained, because they were disrespectful, promiscuous “bitches.”

Some rapists carry out the worst punishment of all. Rather than raping the women themselves, they rape the children of the women they wish to discipline. This could be the reason David Potse raped Baby Tshepang. Potse denied that he had committed the crime, so we don’t know what his reasons were, but he was a former boyfriend of the baby’s mother, and he may have been angry at her because he suspected her of drinking and sleeping with other men. She was 16, and in addition to Potse, she had had an affair with the father of Baby Tshepang, and perhaps other men. We are not told where she was when her daughter was being assaulted; some accounts say she was “shopping,” others that she was “drinking” and that she was drunk at the time. It was evening, not a usual time for shopping.

*  *  *  *  

In one of Niehaus’s case studies, a young man named Makandeni brought his girlfriend Shelly to a friend’s house where a group of young men were hanging around drinking. Makandeni spiked Shelly’s wine with brandy and she soon became very drunk: “Shelly wanted to go outside to urinate,” said a witness, “but the boys would not let her. One boy sent the other boy to fetch a bucket. They gave the bucket to the girl and she started vomiting. They were afraid that she would flee if she got out of the room.” By eight o’clock, Shelley was being gang-raped by seven men, who took turns until dawn. “Some visitors peeped through the window and laughed,” said the witness.

Makendeni probably would not have known this, but he was re-enacting, in a grotesque way, an ancient Southern African custom. In pre-colonial times, chiefs of the Sotho tribe would sometimes allow other men to have sex with their wives to secure the men’s loyalty. This was considered statesman-like behavior, and is celebrated in traditional myths and poems. Contemporary gang rape may be a violent reprise of this male-bonding tradition. As the witness explained to Niehaus, Makendeni offered up his girlfriend to the others “because he was the youngest member of the group and wished to win their friendship.”

The links between sexual violence and AIDS in Africa are drawing enormous attention from the US government, the World Bank and other funding agencies. There are now many programs to “empower women” by, for example, increasing girls’ school enrollment, promoting female employment, and teaching women—through media campaigns, community workshops and school-based programs—how to assert their right to control their own sexuality and childbearing. South Africa already has one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world when it comes to gender equality, but legal reforms to help more women realize these rights are also underway. The South African government ceased publishing rape statistics after the press furor over the baby rape cases a few years ago, so we don’t know what effect these programs are having on HIV incidence or sexual violence. However, the bureaucrats who run these well-intentioned and often valuable programs need to ensure they don’t backfire. What they sometimes don’t realize is that the epidemic of sexual violence in South Africa is part of a wider war between men and women that is as fierce and partisan as any other on the African continent, and they are taking sides in a battle that has been raging since long before they got there. By empowering women, without addressing the attitudes of the wider society, they risk creating “empowered” women who antagonize men, and thus they play right into the rapists’ hands.

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South Africa’s Department of Education recently launched a new national AIDS and sex education curriculum for secondary schools known as “Life Orientation.” In February 2004, I visited a school where the program was underway. The school was in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, a rural area of tiny homesteads scattered over desolate green hills. Researchers from Columbia University in New York and the South African Medical Research Council had enhanced the curriculum, so that it further emphasized gender equality. The program used skits, quizzes, and instructive games to challenge traditional patriarchal gender norms and stereotypes, and explore issues such as sexual rights, domestic violence, and interpersonal communication.

On the day I visited, the teachers and students had planned a session called “Relationships.” The class began with a group exercise in which the students were asked to list the characteristics of a “Good Relationship” and a “Bad Relationship.” The students shouted out the answers and the teacher wrote them down on the blackboard. The students got everything right. Good Relationship qualities included “Cooperation, Respecting each other, Loving each other truly, Not forcing each other, Not cheating, Romance, Responsibility.” Bad Relationship qualities included “No respect, No trust, Forcing each other, Abuse, Rape.” Two student volunteers then enacted a short play about a pregnant girl who wants her boyfriend to accompany her to the clinic. The boy wants to play football instead, but they discuss it, and eventually he agrees to go with her.

“Once you engage in a love affair, you are not a child,” the teacher said sternly at the end of the skit. “You have to learn to discuss things first and change the way you talk to each other.”

Just then, another teacher entered the classroom. He was tall, with very short hair and his shirt and tie were pressed as neatly as a soldier’s uniform. In his hand he carried a sapling that had been stripped of its leaves and fashioned into a whip. Suddenly he struck it with such force against one of the student’s desks that I almost fell over backwards. “If you don’t involve yourselves in good relationships you will end up with HIV and AIDS!” he shouted. “You must stand firm!” And he whacked the stick on the desk again.

Afterwards, I asked some of the students whether the teacher ever beat them. “Not me,” said one girl. “But he does beat others.”

The next day, I met that teacher again, and asked to interview him. Now he was carrying a section of black hosepipe. As we walked together to his office for the interview, we passed some girls who were standing around in a group talking. One of them had her back to us, and the teacher swatted her on the behind as we passed. She laughed it off. When we sat down in his office, the teacher laid the hosepipe on the table between us. It reminded me of one of the instruments the apartheid police used to beat their prisoners with. Corporal punishment in schools is illegal in South Africa, the teacher explained. But many of the children were being raised by aunts and grandmothers who said they couldn’t handle them. So these guardians begged the teachers to start beating the children again, even though it was against the law.

Perhaps it was true, as the teacher told me, that some of the students took drugs and cut school, but threatening children with a hosepipe seemed an odd way to teach them about the importance of negotiation and dialogue in relationships, and resolving differences without violence.

South Africa may be the most violent society on earth that is not at war. All forms of violent crime are common here; domestic violence and the beating of children are routine; even nurses in hospitals frequently assault their patients. Many of South Africa’s young rapists were themselves abused as children. Long before AIDS created more than a million South African orphans, apartheid policies meant millions of parents were forced to leave their children behind in rural areas while they went to work in cities, factories, mines, or the houses of white families. Children remained in the care of grandmothers, aunts, or unrelated guardians, where they were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and some grew into the hardened adults of today.

*  *  *  *  

While I was at the school, I spoke to some of the students from the “Relationships” class. As an AIDS prevention measure, elders from the local Zulu tribe had recently revived the traditional custom of “virginity testing” in which older women inspect the genitalia of younger women to ensure their hymens are intact. I asked some of the girls whether they had ever been to the virginity tester.

“I would go,” one fifteen-year-old told me, “but I can’t. I was raped by my uncle when I was seven.” Her parents had recently separated at the time, and her mother had gone off to look for work in the city, leaving her behind at her grandmother’s house, where her uncle also lived. He did it twice, both times when her mother was away. The second time, she contracted a sexually transmitted disease that was so painful she could not walk.

“I wasn’t the first victim,” she said. “He was doing it to two other kids. I told my mother and she wanted to report it to the police, but my grandmother wouldn’t allow it.” Eventually, her mother found another husband and she and her daughter moved away.

“There is abuse,” the girl sighed. “But you can’t report it because it happens in the family, and everyone will be embarrassed if other people find out.”

It makes you wonder what “empowerment” means in such a context. A major theme of South Africa’s Life Orientation program is “negotiation skills” that help young people acquire the language to express their sexual desires, refuse unwanted sex, or insist on condom use. But how do you negotiate anything in a society where social tensions are so easily triggered into violence?

“When you tell a child she has sexual rights, you’re just talking,” an African woman who worked for a large non-governmental organization in Zimbabwe told me recently. “Then you send her back somewhere. In what way have you empowered that child? The child has all these rights, but how does the community react to this ‘empowered child’? She’s just an entity, lost to society. If a child goes and reports that an aunt or uncle is abusing her, and then is removed from the family, where does she go then?”

With this question in mind, I contacted a Department of Education official who was in charge of Life Orientation programs for South Africa. She admitted that “negotiation” had its limits. “Some students are abused, and in that situation it’s beyond your control, you can’t negotiate about condoms or anything else.”

But sometimes you can be clever. “Here’s an example I like to give,” she said, and she told me the following story. “There was an old pensioner, a lady. She was walking in the road. There were no minibuses in those days. It was before AIDS came, but there were young people who would lie down in the tall grass beside the road to the hospital and attack passers-by. This old Mama knew someone who had been raped on that road. But she had to go to the hospital for a check-up, so she set off anyway. On the way there, a man grabbed her. He had a knife. She said, ‘Let’s talk. I will agree to have sex with you, but please don’t hurt me.’ The man got excited and began to take off his trousers. What he didn’t know is that the lady had taken a knife of her own from home.” As the rapist was preparing to have sex with the old lady, she pulled out the knife and cut off what the education official called his “front parts.” She then found a plastic packet and wrapped them up. Soon the police and an ambulance arrived and rushed them both to the hospital.

The education official insisted the story was true, but it sounded to me like one of Africa’s famous “trickster tales” about a clever, wily underdog whose tribulations reflect the anxieties of an entire society.

“That was negotiation,” the education official said with satisfaction. “It shows you that some people are skillful enough to negotiate. It all depends on how brave you can be. We are trying to convey that to the young ones.”

Copyright © by Helen Epstein


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