South African lesbians live in fear of 'corrective rape'

Murdered football star Eudy Simelane is just one of many township women violently assaulted to 'cure' their sexuality
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The Independent Online

In the antiseptic setting of a modern courthouse in a town near Johannesburg, the life and death of a young sports star is being dissected. She was no ordinary young woman. An outstanding footballer, she had captained her country and was hoping to be the first female to referee at a World Cup. But her brutal death, and the apparent motive for it, is all too ordinary here. For Eudy Simelane was a lesbian, and this, say campaigners, was why she was raped and savagely murdered.

This is the land of "corrective rape". Despite South Africa having one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world, traditional views about sexuality still run deep. In many quarters, especially male ones, lesbians are resented, perhaps even feared. And to some young men the remedy is simple: rape.

Each year, ActionAid estimates, 500,000 women are raped in South Africa, with lesbians a particular target. The warped logic is that the assault will "cure" them. As a result, says ActionAid, 86 per cent of black lesbians live in fear of rape. Their anxiety is understandable: only a minority of rapes are reported to the police and, of these, only one in five ends up in court, with a meagre 4 per cent of them ending in a conviction.

So when, on the night of 28 April 2008, Eudy Simelane left her local tavern in the small township of Kwa Thema, she would, for all her athleticism and strength, have cause to be wary. The following facts of that night are not in doubt: Simelane, a recognisable sports star and openly lesbian, was ambushed in a public park. She was raped, perhaps many times, and then repeatedly and frenziedly stabbed, leaving 25 visible wounds from her face down to her feet. Her body was found partially clothed, face-down in a creek.

Her close friend, Pretty, said: "Her blood and clothes were still everywhere but the police had just left it all there. I will never forget her dad on his hands and knees wiping up the blood with his hands."

Several men were arrested. On 13 February this year, one of them, Thato Mphiti, was tried alone, pleaded guilty, and was convicted of Simelane's rape and murder. He was sentenced to 31 years behind bars. Last week, the trial began of three men also charged with Simelane's rape and murder. They pleaded not guilty, saying they were mere onlookers. They were due to have been tried last month, but proceedings were delayed because Mphiti changed his story and took sole responsibility for the rape and murder. Although Simelane's lesbianism was not allowed to be part of the first trial, it was raised in that of the three other men, which continues.

South African human rights organisations such as Triangle, claim Mphiti's trial resulted in the first conviction out of 30 cases of lesbian murder in the past decade. All too common are cases like the murders of Sizakele Sigasa, a HIV campaigner, and Salome Massooa, who, in 2007, were gang-raped, tortured and then killed with a shot to their heads. Men were questioned about these crimes, but no one has yet been brought to trial for them.

In 2008, the country's Human Rights Commission reported a growing phenomenon of "corrective rape" in schools across the country.

ActionAid reported in March this year: "Support groups now say that rape is fast becoming the most widespread hate crime against lesbian women in townships across South Africa. One Cape Town lesbian and gay support group says it is dealing with 10 new cases every week. It is a toll that shows no sign of decreasing."