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South Africa's macho society, where attacks on women are the norm

category southern africa | gender | non-anarchist press author Tuesday February 19, 2013 19:44author by Alex Duval Smith - (The Observer) Report this post to the editors

Allegations against 'blade runner' Oscar Pistorius have highlighted concerns in South Africa about domestic abuse

Oscar Pistorius was the perfect South African sporting hero because victory over his disability made him a universally admired figure in a still-divided society. The profoundly macho culture he grew up in spans racial groups and provides some explanation for the country's shocking rates of domestic violence. [Italiano]

"Black South African men are expected to prove their manliness by carrying knives and having lots of girlfriends,'' said Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council. "White Afrikaners like Pistorius do not need to have several girlfriends. But his love of guns speaks to the same hunger to prove his masculinity in the South African context."

The full facts about the death of model Reeva Steenkamp have yet to emerge, but to South Africans her death came on the eve of the Black Friday Campaign for Rape Awareness in honour of Anene Booysen. The 17-year-old died after her ex-boyfriend and others allegedly gang raped and disembowelled her on 2 February.

"The massive problem we need to understand in South Africa is the level of men's violence against women and against each other,'' said Lisa Vetten, a researcher who specialises in domestic abuse. Police statistics on domestic violence are limited. But 15,609 murders and 64,500 reported rapes in 2011-12 suggest massive levels of violence in South African homes.

Household surveys by the MRC have found that 40% of men have hit their partner and one in four men have raped a woman. Three-quarters of men who admit to having raped women say they did so first as teenagers. The MRC found that, while a quarter of women had been raped, just 2% of those raped by a partner reported the incident to police.

Experts say South African society features all the known causes of rape and violence, including a historical culture of "might is right", a wealth gap that makes men feel weak, an unequal relationship between women and men, lack of adequate childcare, which results in the neglect of boys, and high male unemployment.

Jewkes, a British doctor and director of gender and health at the MRC, said: "Having a father at home is really unusual here. South African children are more likely to be raised by a non-biological parent than by both biological parents. So you see high levels of neglect, humiliation and abuse, which develops into domestic violence. We also have a high rate of teenage pregnancies and those young mothers are not equipped to raise their children.

"South African men think women should be under their control. There is an idea that violence is justifiable as a means to keep women in their place. This has not changed in 20 years and even though the South African murder rate has dropped by 50% since 1999, rape figures have not," said Jewkes.

Jewkes and Vetten argue that Pistorius's love of guns and fast cars illustrates his relationship with South Africa's macho culture. "Afrikaner men are very patriarchal," said Jewkes, "and within that culture gun ownership is seen as part of masculinity."

Vetten believes that the pressure on Pistorius may have been compounded. "Disabled men and women often struggle with their sense of masculinity or femininity because they are to some degree dependent. I have seen examples of them placing particular pride on physical attractiveness. Maybe he struggles with that. The guns and sports cars gave an impression that he was over-compensating so as to be seen as 'normal'."

But the tragedy in South Africa is that the most "normal" thing of all is violence against women. Under the polygamous President Jacob Zuma, known for his traditionalist and sexist remarks, there is also a sense of men getting away with it. Minister of human settlements Tokyo Sexwale is currently fighting a divorce case by his wife Judy which cites emotional mental and verbal abuse. But his political career has been unaffected.

The media raise the issue with regularity. Column inches were occupied last month with wonderment at the outpouring of grief in India over the rape of a New Delhi student on a bus. Commentators asked why such a reaction in South Africa, where gang rapes are a daily occurrence, is unthinkable. Black Friday, during which radio chat show hosts called on listeners to wear black, was a media attempt to create a reaction. But South Africa appeared largely unmoved.

While the country has a Domestic Violence Act that enables police to intervene if a woman fears attack, it is poorly implemented. Jennifer Williams, director of the Women's Legal Centre, said: "There is a problem of resources and police training. Too often the women who come to us have been told by the police, 'He seems like a nice guy, surely you can sort it out'. Other women are turned away from courts because there is a shortage of magistrates. We have a national emergency, yet rape crisis centres are closing."

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