Nightmare of child rape in the townships

Abuse of South African children 'is rite of passage' in world's most violent society
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The Independent Online
They threw bones, muttered prayers and did mystical dances, cheered on by a 5,000-strong crowd at Katlehong township's sports stadium, near Johannesburg. The arrival of the witchdoctors and beaded sangomas - traditional healers - was a sign of desperation in the search for Mmamokgethi Malebani, a seven-year-old girl who disappeared in March, the day before she was due to testify against a man who allegedly raped her. She has not been seen since; her mother Joyce, 25, is distraught.

Mrs Malebani, a Christian, had misgivings about her community's insistence last week that sangomas be called in. But police inquiries have yielded nothing. Without Mmamokgethi, the conviction of the alleged rapist, Dan Mabote, 29, depends on the testimony of two other little girls, aged six and four. "Mmamokgethi is a vital witness," says Inspector Michelle Erasmus.

The authorities have failed to find the girl. The law did not protect her family when it was threatened about giving evidence. Mr Mabote was released on bail, despite police objections. A few days ago another man charged in connection with Mmamokgethi's disappearance was also given bail.

Mmamokgethi's case was not unique. South Africa tops the international league for crimes of violence and nowhere is the general trend more worrying than in child rape. In 1996, more than 30,000 cases of child sex abuse were reported, an increase of 35 per cent on the year before. Reported cases of child rape rose from 10,037 to 13,859 over the same period. South Africa's reported rape rate may now be the highest in the world. Child rapes account for 38 per cent of all reported rapes. Experts believe only a tiny proportion of child rapes are reported.

Child rape knows no social or racial bar, but its grip most pronounced in the townships, where it is said to be so prevalent as to almost be a rite of passage for girls.

"Child rape has reached epidemic proportions," says Sharon Lewis, a psychologist with the University of the Witwatersrand trauma clinic, who studied the experiences of rape victims, aged six to 11, from Soweto.

In all but one case, police treated the crime like a minor misdemeanour. There was only one conviction. "Often a policeman goes round to arrest a perpetrator and ends up staying for a beer," says Ms Lewis.

"There is a great deal of corruption." Women and children, she says, have no social standing. At a policy level child rape is a priority but that does not reach policemen on the ground, struggling to contain the overall explosion in crime. "Violence against children is so widespread it is almost normal and crimes against them are not taken seriously."

Marilyn Donaldson, a clinical psychologist who works with children in Alexandra township, outside Johannesburg, argues that even child rape has to be seen against the background of South Africa's violent past. "The lid was on under apartheid but there was so much violence going on. Now violence seems to be our only way to respond to difficulties."

She cites poverty and overcrowded living conditions in which "boundaries" break down. Apartheid, it is said, robbed men of self-respect. Without the liberation struggle, many men have no focus. In this bleak situation the weakest are terrorised.

Ms Donaldson said: "There is this attitude that 'I cannot get a job but I can have sex when and where I want it'. The rape of a little child is as close to masturbation as you can get. I have spoken to teenage perpetrators who have absolutely no sense of remorse."

In this complicated mix belongs the urban myth that sex with a virgin can cure you of Aids, which is held responsible by many township mothers for the rise in child rape.

It is impossible to know whether child rape is increasing or whether an epidemic was simply masked by apartheid. But the experts agree that the government must dispel the notion that men can rape children with impunity.

Celia Theart, assistant director of the charity Johannesburg Child Welfare, warns that, as in Mmamokgethi's case, child rapists are routinely released on bail and within hours of arrest return to threaten the victim.

Following the sangomas' "visions", police spent days searching local swamps, and houses in distant townships.

Some healers said Mmamokgethi was dead, others that she was being held against her will. But by this weekend, the sangomas, like the police, had turned up nothing.

After Mmamokgethi, asks Ms Theart, how can children, and their families, be persuaded to testify in court?