Statistics, in and of themselves make for boring conversation and dull reading. Yet they leap to volatile political life when used to make arguments about race and violence, sex and death – as the angry exchanges between President Thabo Mbeki, anti-rape activist Charlene Smith and the Democratic Alliance's Ryan Coetzee demonstrate. These debates are important for the questions they raise around how violence against women might be dealt with in future both by the government and civil society.
Among other things, Smith cites figures suggesting that South Africa has the highest rate of rape in the world. This terrifying state of affairs, she suggests, is playing a significant role in driving the HIV infection rate among women and children. Mbeki's response was that the police are combating rape effectively and those who suggest otherwise are not only racist, but also guilty of demonising the sexuality of African men.
Some brief points need to be made about police rape statistics. Firstly, these figures reflect police crime recording practices and victim reporting practices – not the actual number of rapes taking place. This is true of police statistics all over the world.
Secondly, rape is notoriously under-reported, both because women do not always define the sexual violence their male partners subject them to as rape, and because they do not believe others will believe them or take them seriously.
If we want to know the 'real' number of rapes (both reported and unreported) then we must turn to crime victimisation surveys – and not police statistics. Two such surveys have been completed, one by StatsSA and the other by the Medical Research Council (MRC). StatsSA found that one in two rape survivors reported being raped to the police while the MRC found that just one in nine women reported their victimisation.
Both studies clearly find rape to be under-reported although they differ with respect to its extent. (The difference can be attributed to methodology and questionnaire wording.) On the basis of these two studies the 52 733 rapes reported in 2003/04 is more accurately calculated as falling somewhere between the region of 104 000 and 470 000.
But if Mbeki underplays the extent of rape by ignoring the problem of under-reporting, Smith overplays it by asserting that the real number of rapes occurring annually is 1.69 million and that 75% of these rapes are gang rape. Her first figure is probably based on guesstimates from a couple of years ago, which suggested that only one in 20 or one in 36 women reported being raped. There is no empirical research support for either of these figures. The Centre for the Study of Violence Reconciliation research due to be released in November finds about one-third of reported rape cases to be gang rapes.
There are real problems with the use of guesstimates. If we demand accuracy from the police, then we cannot afford to be any less rigorous in our use of statistics. Guesstimates also diminish the magnitude of the problem. While shocking, figures of 104 000 or 470 000 pale in comparison to 1.69 million. Because these guesstimates cannot be verified, they lay rape activists open to charges of exaggeration by those hostile to efforts to combat sexual violence.
It is in part, this uncorroborated characterisation of South Africa as the rape capital of the world, that appears to have drawn some of Mbeki's ire and prompted his charge of racism. Yet his response is as problematic as some of Smith's claims.
Race and racism continue to dominate our social and mental landscapes, affecting not only how we relate to one another as black and white, but also as men and women. Some white people are unquestionably racist in their relentless stereotyping of all rapists as black. But in repeatedly and exclusively confining the debate to African men, Mbeki is deflecting attention away from the sexual predatoriness of men generally, regardless of colour. And if the President is in any doubt as to the vicious nature of white rapists, then he could do no better than to read the book I Have Life – the account by "Alison" of how she was raped, disembowelled and had her throat slashed more than sixteen times.
Virulent gender inequality, which knows neither racial nor cultural boundaries, plays the most significant role in causing rape in South Africa, as is the case around the world. But not once in these debates have the words 'gender inequality' appeared in the President's writings or utterances. In ANC Today he writes only in the most general terms about 'contact crime' (rather than rape) and ascribes the causes of these crimes to poverty and community degradation. No onus is placed on South African men generally to examine and change their unequal relations with women.
We need to understand the complex interplay between race, class and gender in a more subtle way if we are to address the causes of rape, and challenge societal responses to the problem. This cannot be done in any meaningful way when gender is erased from the discussion.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 29 October-4 November, 2004.