The horrors of corrective rape run counter to civil liberties LGBT people appear to have in South Africa. Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Status Report on Women both note corrective rape as a serious human rights violation. In its 2011 report, HRW also stated that attitudes toward LGBT people in South Africa had actually gotten significantly worse, despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal and LGBT rights are included in the Constitution, which was ratified in 1996. Legally, LGBT South Africans have more protected rights than in any other African nation.
Corrective rape, however, suggests something quite different is going on — particularly, say LGBT activists, outside the big cities. Corrective rape is endemic to the all-black townships and the victims are also black.
Zoliswa Nkonyana was only 19 years old and 100 yards from her home when she was chased and attacked by 20 men on February 4, 2006. She was kicked, beaten, stoned, and stabbed to death, her mutilated body left in a drainage ditch. She was also raped.
The trial of her killers was postponed 52 times; four of the initial 20 men were finally sentenced in February 2012 — six years after her murder. They were not charged with corrective rape or a hate crime.
In addition to the June 30 murder of Zozo, there have been a series of horrifying assaults on lesbians in Ekurhuleni.
In April, Patricia Mashigo, 36, another out lesbian who was also the mother of two daughters, was stoned to death. Her body was found out in the open, surrounded by stones and rocks. She had also been raped.
Mashigo’s murder — in which there are no suspects — happened just days after a memorial for another lesbian, Noxolo Nogwaza, 24, murdered in the same area two years earlier. Nogwaza, a noted LGBT activist and director of the Ekurhuleni Pride Committee, was gang-raped and murdered on April 24, 2011. Her body was found in a ditch. She’d been stoned to death and choked with weeds and brush.
Nogwaza’s murder brought world attention to corrective rape. About 2,000 people attended her funeral which became a protest against corrective rape.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called her killing a hate crime, and 170,000 people signed a petition to get the South African government to address the issue, but South African officials refused, stating "murder is murder," and claiming sexual orientation was not an issue. In November 2012, Amnesty International called for a new investigation into Nogwaza’s murder, but that has not happened.
Nor has the government cited corrective rape as a crime or a hate crime. South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world, according to WHO. Strictly defined gender roles make lesbians conspicuous. Lesbians who have reported corrective rapes have also reported their rapists saying that the women would be taught a lesson on how to be a real woman. Activists report that poor black women living in the townships are more likely to become victims of corrective violence. Lesbians are most likely to be isolated with little support from their families or their communities, making them even more vulnerable to being attacked.
Human rights organizations have complained the corrective rape is not recognized by South African laws as a hate crime, because the South African Constitution states clearly that no one can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.
If South Africa protects LGBT rights, why doesn’t the government have a campaign to prevent corrective rape?
In the Nkoyana murder, suspects were released by a prison worker and the court was found to have been complicit in the 52 postponements. As a consequence of things like that trial, lesbians have little faith in police or their investigations. Crimes based on sexual orientation are not recognized in South Africa; corrective rape reports are not separated from general rape reports.
Siphokazi Mthathi, the South African director of Human Rights Watch, blames deeply embedded patriarchal views and sexism in South African society for the refusal to address the corrective rape crisis.
Mthathi told CNN in an interview after Mashigo’s murder, "We’ve failed to make it understood that there is a price for rape. There is still a strong sense among men that they have power over women, women’s bodies, and there’s also a strong sense that there’s not going to be consequences because most often there are no consequences."
The Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, has strongly condemned the brutal rape/murder of Zozo as well as corrective rape and all forms of hate crimes, saying that government will not condone and tolerate it.
In a press release Xingwana said, "Those that are practicing such acts must know that they are committing crimes against humanity and once they are caught, they will be dealt with the harshness they deserve."
But the rape and murders of Nogwaza, Mashigo and Zozo remain unsolved. And corrective rape goes on in South Africa.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. The first out lesbian to have a column in a daily newspaper, she has won the Society of Professional Journalism Award, the NLGJA Award, Lambda Literary Award among others. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and the Nation, as well as other national publications. She is a frequent contributor to the Advocate and SheWired. Follow her at @VABVOX.