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South Africa: Inside the Cycle of Rape
One warden's work with sex offenders


Elena Ghanotakis

Elena Ghanotakis does HIV/AIDS policy and implementation work. A graduate of Dartmouth College, she also holds a masters in public health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is particularly interested in the intersection between gender inequality and HIV. Much of her work in this area has been focused on South Africa. This is her second project for FRONTLINE/World. She lives in Washington, DC.

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Length: 11:15

I went to Cape Town for the first time in 2004 on a post-graduate fellowship from Dartmouth College to do HIV awareness work with women and girls in the communities of the Cape Flats. Through this experience, I met many women and children whose lives had been devastated by sexual violence and abuse. Their stories and the support provided by a rape survivor center, serving the communities of the Cape Flats, became the focus of the first report I did for FRONTLINE/World about the survivors of rape.

I've returned to South Africa several times since then, and on each occasion wanted to learn more about what was driving this epidemic (pdf) of sexual violence -- the country has the highest incidence (pdf) of reported rape in the world and very low conviction rates (pdf).

cape town, south africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Eventually, I received permission from Pollsmoor Prison, a maximum security facility on the outskirts of Cape Town, and where Nelson Mandela spent part of his imprisonment during Apartheid, to interview dozens of men convicted of rape. The permission process to film at Pollsmoor took 2 years. After several meetings with the National Department of Correctional Services in Pretoria and on the recommendation of a Supreme Court judge, I was finally granted unrestricted access to film.

My guide inside Pollsmoor was warden and therapist Chris Malgas, who runs a counseling program for convicted offenders using groupwork and individual therapy. My follow up story is a raw look at some of those interactions between Chris and his group, a testament to why it's so difficult to stop South Africa's cycle of sexual abuse.

Most of the sessions took place on the prison roof, away from the chaos and overcrowded conditions below. For safety reasons, we could only film during the mornings before the prison was locked down for the afternoon.

The perpetrators testimonies provide a grim picture of growing up in the townships and the crimes these men committed. Many talked about being exposed to violent gang culture from a young age, where rape was a rite of passage. "We just took what we wanted," one gang member told me; it was "part of everyday things."

tattooed hands of a prisoner

Pollsmoor is ruled by violent "number" gangs known as the 26s, 27s, and the 28s.

Even inside Pollsmoor, the prison is ruled by violent "numbers" gangs known as the 26s, 27s, and the 28s. Before we could film inside the maze of steel gates, we had to negotiate approval from the gang leaders so that no one would be targeted by gang violence. It was agreed that Turner, one of the leaders of the "28 gang," and an unforgettable figure with his entire body covered by tattoos, would take part in every session we filmed.

During my time at Pollsmoor, I learned as much about Chris, a 33-year veteran of the prison system, and his motivation to keep his voluntary program going, as I did about the environment inside and outside prison that grooms these men to commit their crimes.

Chris doesn't claim to "cure" perpetrators or offer guarantees that they will not commit rape again. He says he can only try to help them better understand themselves, identify their triggers and give them the internal tools to stop themselves from reoffending.

-- Elena Ghanotakis


Sehar - McLean, VA
It is very sad to see that men boys grow up thinking that rape is normal, because that is how women are treated around them every day. Because of this, all of the blame cannot be put on these men. I would like to know, how this culture and image of women and sex came about. They are a product of their environment, and this environment needs to be looked at; the inmates cite drugs as the cause, as well as womens' provocative clothing. The most profound source of this is the Apartheid movement and how it effects South Africa still today.

During that time, many people were forced out of their homes to live in ghettos, where poverty and violence was common. Even in prison, where one expects to escape from this environment, one inmate recalls being sodomized in prison when he was young, and then found himself doing the same to other men later on. Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison's programs are a good step to escape this environment. In one exercise, the inmates must role play and play the role of the victim; I think this is a great exercise because it makes these men think of women as women and victims, not objects. Putting themselves in their victims' shoes opens their eyes to a perspective they probably never even thought of before. It makes a human connection between the rapist and the victim.

The letters from the men to the victims is difficult to watch for me, because although these women will never forgive them for their actions, they are starting to take responsibility and the weight of their actions, which they will carry for the rest of their lives. Although not all of these men are the same, and this program will help more than others, educating men about rape and sex, and teaching them about control and respect is a good step towards a safer South Africa.

Samuel Frank - Chennai, India
All I would say now is, there is a Saviour who can save anybody, we need to accept and confess our sins. He is there ready to forgive and forget our sins, who is Jesus Christ. Because he died for our SINS. This is an excellent work by FRONTLINE/World. Keep up the good work. God bless you allRegards

A new campaign in South Africa, Brothers for Life, to mobilize men to stop violence against women:

Littleton, Co
It's so hard to believe that other people around the world don't even know the basic's of right and wrong! And yes many of them were probably strung out on drugs, but that doesn't give them the right to rape someone; do you really think that girl or guy cares if there rapist has the excuse of being intoxicated or not? I feel like some of the men changed and realized the wrong choices they've made and then others I feel like they would never understand unless they were held down by someone they were terrified by and raped. I'm not sure how I feel about this video, it's very upsetting and wrong in many ways! Also, not everyone deserves a second chance!

Rachael Holloway - Centennial, CO
South Africa: Inside the Cycle of Rape
This program gives numerous insights to the rapist recovery programs taking place in South Africa, which obtains the highest incidents of reported rape in the world. Rapists and officials speak of their experiences in prisons, and their mind sets, including triggers, etc. An incredibly important part of this program is the counseling, where role play occurs, rapists write letters to their victims to burn, and discuss why they are where they are. However the prison experience is not always this tolerable, many rapists speak of previous experiences including their own verbal and sexual abuses, as victims.

I found this program incredibly disturbing at the same time as I found it so respectful, for the healing that is attempting to occur. However, the fact that all the men discuss it all so casually makes me somewhat uneasy. I am glad these rapists have a place where they can try and understand the damage they have caused and control their "sexual deviancy."

J G - Minato-ku, Tokyo
This documentary was excellent. My wife and I were really impressed by the contents. Elena has really shown us a side of these people that society often forgets. Most people think that their just deserve is punishment alone, but in the long term, understanding them and trying to help them understand their mistakes (and us to understand them) is the best way to move forward and hopefully improve things.

Brutally honest and real as all your previous work. I admire the ability you have to gain trust and reach inside your subjects' minds. Excellent work.

freeze Iceman - Cape - Town, Cape - Town
Well, my opinion about them is that half of them do not even know what they are doing. It's all about drugs, it is the drugs that cause them to be like that and in some case it's the sagoma myths ( traditional healer) that if you sleep with a child the HIV virus will leave your body. Drugs, drugs and more drugs cause these things to take place. Please let us look at the root cause of everything. Real men do not rape but how does he know what is real or not when he is intoxicated every day. It's a system designed for them to fail .By the way I went to school with guys who grew up in such neighbourhoods -- some get out some don't.
Great documentary, thought provoking.
Good job!

it`s a good initiative to work with inmates, and to prepare them to integrate from the new in the Society. i think that education has his role in our life, may be these men don't have the opportunity to have a good education and a good level of live, but things happen.
good job

Jennifer Walus - Villa Park, IL
Amazing story - very poignant and well reported on. I am thankful that there is a rehabilitation program within the prison system. Hopefully there can be more education efforts to effect a cultural shift to prevent rape.

Honolulu, HI
Witnessed a little bit about the fortitude and perseverance you had to expend just to begin this project and am equally impressed with the courage you mustered to put yourself at risk in order to sustain to completion. Without doubt, it must make an impact on anyone who views it. Without diminishing in any way the plight of the victims, it helps to understand the conditioning of the perpetrators. If this kind of behavior is all one knows, it is difficult to expect a different reaction. Obviously, the key to shifting these attitudes is strong, ongoing education. Congratulations for taking on this difficult subject and helping us better understand what needs to be done.

Fazielah Bartlett - Cape Town, South Africa
Well Done, Great program. Hopefully with this kind of reporting and counseling program, things might change for our women and children and we will be able to live in a better society.

This was very difficult and painful to watch, and yet knowing that a warden with enough compassion can set aside prejudices and really work with these imbalanced individuals is an honorable endeavor. Rape is not just hard on the victim/survivor, but it shapes the whole control impulse of the rapist, and these prisoners grapple with that in your documentary. A worthwhile piece of work, thank you for being brave and seeing the necessity of bringing those who have been separated from society back into our lives, reminding us that we are all part of one community, and must find ways together to solve our pressing problems.

Corinne Hudson - Cape Town, South Africa
Interesting, informed and well presented. Accolades to Pollsmoor Prison on having a rehabilitation program. Excellent project that should be widely circulated.

Elena - Sunnyvale, CA
Thank you for shedding light on this subject with realism and compassion. It is difficult - yet necessary - to see these individuals as human beings as it is only through compassion and God's love that true rehabilitation is possible.

- San Fransisco, CA
People are really the product of the system, and growing up means to be a humane, empathetic individual that cares about people, society but isn't a slave to its crueler ways. This is an amazing piece that brings humanity and insight to people who've done violent and awful acts. Culture has to be changed to change individuals.

Paul Benedict - Birmingham, UK
Professor Londt is a shining star in her pioneering work amongst sex offenders. Her compassion, clear boundaries and professionalism have caused many to be grateful for her humane and understanding intervention in a cycle of abuse that cannot be locked up but can be managed.

Frances - Galveston, Texas
I always think of rape offenders as monsters, although some are, some also have known nothing else. This type of therapy program is needed in all prisons. To stop truly does have to come from within and punishment without ever understanding the gravity of the offense is pointless. This small eye-opener needs to be shared with all types of people so that it can be translated to other wrong doings that people are involved in and get them to realize that the change for the better HAS to come from within. Thank you for sharing such a powerful message.

This is a unique insight into the minds of convicted rapists and what South Africa is doing to decrease recidivism. A very moving story.

Well done for this project. In South Africa, we continue to explore ways to combat violence against women and children. There are many other faces who share this responsibility daily in our communities. Hopefully, more stories can be told that show the humanity of those who continue to fight their own demons and succeed in becoming less of a risk to women and children.

Arlington, MA
Very interesting -- the situation is worse than I imagined. Great reporting. In a follow up would be interesting to learn more about the counseling and therapy work after the prisoners' release. With reporting like this, hopefully, an end can be reached to this terrible crime.

Gino Julies - Cape Town, South Africa
This was really an excellent program. It is true that real men don't RAPE. We are living in a sick society and we as men can make the difference.
Keep up with the GOOD work.

Kind Regards