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Rough Cut: South Africa: An Everyday Crime
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More on ANC leader Jacob Zuma's rape trial and the "virgin rape" myth; plus links to organizations working to protect women and children against sexual violence.

The 'Virgin Rape' Myth

The international media, including South Africa, often attributes the high rates of rape, child rape in particular, to the "virgin rape" myth, the belief that having sex with children will cure someone of HIV/AIDS. While the notion of trying to purify one's self or cure disease by having sexual relations with a virgin has been around since the Middle Ages, experts in the field of sexual violence who treat child rape cases daily do not hold this popular myth responsible for the high volume of child rape cases in South Africa.


The National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders estimates only 1 in 20 rape incidents in South Africa are reported, which would bring the figure to more than 1 million rapes a year.

Thousands of the country's most severe child rape cases are treated at the Children's Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town. According to Dr. Sebastian Van As, head of the hospital's trauma unit for children -- the only one in South Africa -- the number of youngsters being raped today (an annual 30,000 reported sexual offenses throughout the country) is similar to the number 15 years ago, when there were no known HIV cases in South Africa (see extended interview). There's another consistent statistic throughout the years: An estimated 90 percent of child rapes in South Africa are committed by someone familiar to the child, someone in the family or community, not a random stranger hoping to cure himself of HIV/AIDS.

Why has the virgin rape myth been used so frequently to explain the high levels of child rape in South Africa? According to Dr. Lorna Martin, a forensic toxicologist and director of forensic medicine and toxicology at the University of Cape Town, the myth is perpetuated by people's outrage and desperation to justify why so many men rape children. While it is not the cause, experts believe that the HIV epidemic has highlighted the pre-existing epidemic of sexual violence toward women and children, which does indeed put these groups at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS. "People are paying more attention to gender-based violence because of HIV and because of the risks associated with rape and HIV transmission," said Martin. "For me, it is a pity that it took HIV to bring this to the attention of the people in power."

The Jacob Zuma Rape Trial

The newly elected leader of the African National Congress and the man likely to become the next president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, was charged in 2006 with of the rape of a 30-year-old, HIV-positive woman. The trial of Zuma, who was fired from South Africa's position of deputy president after charges of corruption, increased the focus on the country's high levels of sexual violence. Though Zuma was eventually acquitted, his trial highlighted many of the underlying issues fueling the rape crisis in South Africa, including a society deeply entrenched in gender inequalities and a legal system that often emotionally brutalizes victims of rape, essentially putting them on trial.


The sprawling Cape Flats communities were set up during apartheid to relocate nonwhite South Africans outside the city center. Millions still live there, mostly in tin-roofed shacks without running water or electricity.

During the Zuma trial, the complainant's past history of childhood sexual abuse was scrutinized and used against her to suggest that she falsely accuses men of rape after engaging in consensual sex with them. Zuma claimed that a woman could communicate by the way she sat that she wanted to have sex with him, and in accordance with his Zulu culture, he was obligated to satisfy her needs. Zuma, who is the former head of the South African National AIDS Council, also described how he took a shower to avoid contracting HIV/AIDS after having unprotected sex with the HIV-positive woman who accused him of rape.

For more about Jacob Zuma and his rape trial, follow these links:

Jacob Zuma Rape Trail Timeline
The South African weekly newspaper The Mail & Guardian presents a detailed timeline of the events around Zuma's rape trial, including the testimony, the protests outside the courthouse, and the local media coverage.

Time Magazine: 'The Contender'
Time reporter Alex Perry profiles Zuma, calling him the front runner to succeed Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa. Perry details the panic that prospect is causing among South Africa's liberal elite.

Sonke Gender Justice Network
Bafano Khumalo and Dean Peacock, co-directors of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, wrote two articles about the lingering effects that the Zuma trial could have on sexual violence in South Africa. Sonke is an NGO working to address the social aspects of the HIV epidemic, with a particular focus on gender issues.

From Our Files

South Africa: Background Facts and Related Links
The companion site to our story "South Africa: The Play Pump" includes an extended background feature about the politics, history, demographics and environment in South Africa.

South African Diary: Living With AIDS
Twenty-year-old Thembi Ngubane is one of 5 million South Africans living with HIV. After long hours of reflection, she wrote this first-person account for FRONTLINE/World about what it is like to live with the disease and how her life has changed since she was infected.

Uganda: The Condom Controversy
Reporter Daniele Anastasion travels to Uganda to investigate the controversy over U.S. support of AIDS relief in Africa and how much of the funding is earmarked for abstinence-only programs in a country where a more diverse approach has proven successful.

South Africa: The Play Pump
Correspondent Amy Costello brings us a surprisingly upbeat tale about Trevor Field, a canny entrepreneur who decided to tackle South Africa's drinking water woes in his own novel and enterprising way.

On the 25th anniversary of the first diagnosed case of AIDS, FRONTLINE examines one of the worst pandemics the world has known.

Further Reading

HBO Films: Yesterday
South African filmmaker Darrell Roodt is interviewed by HBO about his film Yesterday, in which a woman with AIDS is cast out by her husband.

The Academy Award-winning film portrays the everyday violence in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, tracing six days in the life of a young gang leader who ends up caring for a baby accidentally kidnapped during a car jacking.

Human Rights Watch: Deadly Delay (PDF)
The Human Rights Watch report, subtitled "South Africa's Efforts to Prevent HIV in Survivors of Sexual Violence," documents how the South African National Government's inaction and misinformation in relation to antiretroviral therapy have undermined the effectiveness of South Africa's program to provide rape survivors, particularly child rape survivors, with post-exposure prophylaxis-antiretroviral medicines that can reduce the risk of contracting HIV from an HIV-positive rapist.

CADRE: Rape and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis in South Africa
This report for the Center for AIDS Development, Research and Evaluation (CADRE) details the use and effectiveness of post-exposure prophylaxis in preventing HIV exposure among rape survivors.

MRC: A National Study of Female Homicide in South Africa (PDF)
The South African Medical Research Council (MRC) reports that South Africa has the highest rate of intimate partner violence in the world.

World Health Organization: Domestic Violence Against Women
The multi-country World Health Organization (WHO) report documents the prevalence of intimate partner violence globally and its impact on women's health. The WHO also provides a fact sheet about the global issue of violence against women.

Mail & Guardian: 'The New Bill'
The Mail & Guardian provides analysis of South Africa's new Sexual Offenses Bill, which promises more positive outcomes for rape survivors who go to court in the future. If the bill is passed, male rape will become recognized in South Africa.

Non-Governmental Organizations

Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation
The Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) aims to prevent violence in all its forms and build sustainable peace and reconciliation in societies emerging from violent pasts, particularly on the African continent.

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders

This national crime prevention nonprofit organization is trying to create a safer South Africa. The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (NICRO) has projects that work with both victims and perpetrators of rape and violent crime.

Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women
This NGO aims to eradicate the victimization of women through legal process and to make law a vehicle of social change in South Africa. The group has a legal services unit that provides advice and support to women who are victims of rape and other abuse.