South Africa shocked as six charged with raping baby girl

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The Independent Online

Six men from an impoverished South African township will appear in court charged with raping a nine-month-old girl in a case that has shocked the violence-prone country. She was assaulted in a two-room brick house on Sultana Road – thus named because if you live in this Northern Cape settlement on the edge of the Kalahari desert, your fate is to work either at the dried-fruit factory or in a nearby vineyard.

The apartheid regime planned it that way, removing people three times in one generation and finally, in the 1970s, dumping them on this windswept scrubland for mixed-race people.

In those days, there were jobs. "Today, I would put the population at about 10,000 and unemployment at 60 per cent,'' said the Rev Johannes Stuurman, to whom the rape was reported because no one in Louisvaleweg trusts the police. "The community came to me because they felt I might be able to ensure that the police do their job.''

The police in nearby Upington are holding six mixed-race men, aged 24 to 66, whom they charged with rape on finding them in the Sultana Road house after the incident, said to have taken place on a Friday night when they were drunk.

Officers say only DNA tests will reveal whether Baby Tshepang, as she has been nicknamed, was raped by all, some or maybe just one of the men. In custody, the accused are blaming each other.

The baby is in hospital five hours' drive away, in Kimberley, where she is being given anti-retroviral drugs to try to reduce the chances of HIV infection, and has been operated on to repair her injuries.

South Africa is in shock, there is talk of castration and life sentences, and the media is publishing stories of similar incidents. In the 18 months after January 2000, almost 32,000 reports of sexual assault on children were made.

In the same week as Baby Tshepang's rape, a 17-year-old boy was arrested for the rape of a four-year-old; another teenager appeared in court in connection with the rape of a three-year-old; a four-year-old girl died after allegedly being raped by her father; and two men were arrested for allegedly raping their 14-month niece. It is understood that many girls are raped because ofa belief that sex with a virgin cures HIV infection; 20 per cent of all South Africans have the Aids virus.

The brutality of life in Louisvaleweg stares Mr Stuurman, aged 37, in the face. The United Congregational Church priest has lived here for four years and says he was not surprised by the baby's rape.

"On a weekly basis, I hear of rapes. Often, when it is the white farmers doing it, they pay the victim 150 rands (£12) to withdraw the charge. Three weeks before the baby was raped, her 68-year-old grandmother was raped,'' he said.

It was the grandmother – in common with other relatives, she cannot be named for legal reasons – who raised the alarm after finding the child, covered in blood, not wearing a nappy and crying uncontrollably on that Friday night. She ran down Sultana Road to a payphone, called an ambulance and sent a neighbour to alert Mr Stuurman, four blocks away.

Police say the baby's mother had left it "in the care of someone'' while she went to buy food. The carer, a woman married to one of the accused, says she was sleeping in the next room with her 10-month-old girl, and heard nothing.

Neighbours say the baby's mother, who is aged 16, spent the evening drinking at a local shebeen. The father, who is 21 and has a four-year-old boy by another woman, says he was in his own home.

The six men in custody – all but two of whom are unemployed – include the baby's grandfather but also, the police admit, other relatives.

Life here is bleak. You find 15 people living in these two-room houses; 11 people lived in the same house as the baby. The wine farms are retrenching their workforces and people with jobs are mostly employed only seasonally.

They are paid as little as 50 rands a week, plus alcohol. The "dop" system is used, so measures of alcohol are part of men's wages. That tends to mean domestic violence is part of people's lives.

"For some young men, rape is a badge that proves manhood. Poverty, of course, plays a role,'' says Mr Stuurman, who has started a library in his Emmanuel Church and allows pupils to use his house for their exam preparations.

Others say that sex for money or alcohol is so common as to seem the same as any commodity that can be bought or sold. Many first pregnancies occur at 13 or 14 and a majority of first sexual experiences are of rape.

Johan van Wyk, a jobless resident, said: "Often you just have to give a woman some alcohol and they will do anything. At least they [the rapists] could have taken a woman. Why a child? The baby was so young and could do nothing.''