Buried under the headline-grabbing Oscar Pistorius case is the more complex picture of a society with alarming levels of violence against women

Two weeks ago, listeners of a popular radio talk show in some of South Africa’s major cities woke up to hear a distinctive, toll-like tone, at regular four-minute intervals, cutting into whatever was on air at that moment.

The radio station, responding to the gang rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen in a small town 200 km south-east of Cape Town, had decided to use this sound to highlight the awful statistic that every four minutes someone in South Africa is raped.

It also asked its listeners to tell their stories, and on-air presenters listened, sometimes in stunned silence, as caller after caller shared stories of abuse and sexual violence — all too often at the hands of someone they knew.

And then, just as many South Africans were wondering if the attack on Anene Booysen might be our “Delhi moment” — when enough voices would be joined in outrage and society would begin to examine the way that men treat women, the news that Oscar Pistorius had killed his girlfriend stole the headlines.

The events on Valentine’s Day stunned South Africans, who followed every utterance in the Blade Runner’s bail hearing on twitter, radio and TV.

Stunning statistics

But it is all too easy to become mesmerised by the court proceedings featuring the country’s most famous athlete and one of its favourite sons, and to avoid the larger, more complex picture of a society with the highest instance of rape in the world and alarming levels of violence against women.

A 2009 study of what nearly 2,000 men in South Africa’s eastern coastal provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape said about rape showed that almost 28 per cent of men reported having raped a woman or girl. And of those men, almost half had raped more than one woman or girl. Almost three per cent said they had raped a man or boy.

And in 2010, a smaller study of men and women in Gauteng province, the country’s wealthy, industrial heartland, more than half the women surveyed said they had experience physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse. Almost 80 per cent of men said they had perpetrated one of these forms of abuse. One in four of the women surveyed had been raped by a man, while 37 per cent of men said they had raped a woman.

In 2010-11, some 56,272 rapes were recorded — an average of 154 a day, but exactly how many rapes take place in South Africa each year is impossible to tell. Annual police statistics only show how many complaints were made. They cannot show how many incidents of rape went unreported.

It is estimated that only one out of every nine women who are raped actually reports the crime. This statistic has given birth to the One in Nine campaign, established in 2006 to support the single woman who brought a charge of rape against Jacob Zuma, who was acquitted and three years later became South Africa’s current democratically-elected President.

Today, the One in Nine campaign continues to support those women who press charges against their attackers, as well as those survivors who may be too fearful or believe it is futile to report the crime to the police. “For many women, the cost of seeing a rape case through the criminal justice system is just too high,” writes Kwezilomso Ndazayo, project officer for the campaign.

“Many women say that the court process makes it feel as if they are being raped again. This secondary victimisation often begins from the minute they set foot in a police station or hospital, particularly if they are from a marginalised group such as lesbians or poor working-class women. The conviction rate is so appalling that many survivors see no point in subjecting themselves to a process that can take five years, if they have no faith in getting a conviction.”

Hard questions

In Anene Booysen’s case, two young men have been charged with raping and murdering her on February 2, 2013 and are awaiting trial. But why is it that South African men — for it is overwhelmingly men — see women as objects on which to take out their frustrations or to assert their power?

The socio-economic context is well documented. It is a truism to speak of the legacy of apartheid and its destruction of human dignity and self-worth, but how else do we explain the callous disregard for each other, the high levels of violent crime and domestic violence? And, more importantly, how do we overcome them?

Poverty is rife — more than a quarter of South Africans cannot find work and all around them the skewed landscape of inequality is evident and growing. An inadequate school system is failing to provide young people with the skills they need to succeed in a 21st century economy. Frustration and futility are constant companions with few flickers of hope. Drugs and alcohol offer short-term escape, often fuelling violence and driving further crime in order to pay for the next fix.

No distinctions

In the village of Bredasdorp where Anene Booysen was gang-raped and mutilated, sexual crimes have more than doubled in the past three years — from 27 cases in 2009/10 to 60 cases in 2011/12. Drug-related crime is also at a three-year high.

But as the shooting in Oscar Pistorius’s luxury home shows, violence knows no colour or class. It lurks behind the high walls of estates and in the suburbs, as much as it is to be found in the high-density townships and informal settlements.

Now that Pistorius has received bail, he will lead a life in limbo until his trial begins in June. His bail conditions include the surrender of his passport and bi-weekly visits to a parole officer. No doubt he will continue to be the subject of media scrutiny.

But our gaze must widen to focus on what drives the violence — be it from fear or anger — that all too often erupts in our homes, our communities, and on our roads.

The distinctive tone that every four minutes pierced the airwaves earlier this month was a powerful symbolic gesture highlighting the country’s rape statistics, but it was confined to just one day. Evidence shows that after a while, the human ear will filter out annoying interruptions.

The challenge is to keep our ears open to the cries of those whose names we do not know, whose children, partners or parents have been raped or murdered, and together to take responsibility for creating a kinder, gentler and safer society.

(Susan Valentine is an independent South African media trainer and journalist. She has a special interest in human rights advocacy through media, and the stories people have to tell.)

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