By Simone Chiara van der Merwe
‘He can’t have done this. This is not my boy. There has been a mistake. He can’t be this monster people say he is. I know that he is not evil.’
These are the words of the grandmother of one of the boys accused of the filmed gang rape which surfaced on Wednesday of last week.
On Thursday, a crowd protested outside the Roodepoort Magistrate’s Court, some holding placards calling the rapists ‘monsters’ who should get no bail and have their genitals cut off.
An understandable sentiment. However, by demonising the perpetrators, we run the risk of obscuring the real issue at hand.
Calling rapists ‘monsters’ goes to the very heart of the question: ‘What leads a man (or boy) to rape?’ Not a question many of us would like to be pondering while we go about our daily lives.
Calling rapists ‘monsters’ is a very convenient way to create distance between our idea of ourselves as human beings and those that rape. It is, perhaps, a way to maintain a false sense of safety, which we subconsciously try to preserve at almost any cost. It is a way to avoid facing the very uncomfortable truth that most rapists are simply men living in our society. Perhaps the child next door that you see arriving home on his bicycle, the colleague that you chat to over lunch, the man sitting next to you on the bus. They are fathers, brothers, sons and husbands.
Rape is not an aberration, perpetrated only by the criminally insane or the psychiatrically disturbed. It is a very real social ill, perpetrated by normal men who live and move amongst us.
What does this mean for us as a society? It means we need to engage much more deeply and openly with the question: ‘What leads a man to rape?’
It also means we need to dismantle the ‘no-talk’ culture around rape. We need to painstakingly remove every brick of that wall, despite our fear.
According to Mike Baillie, the key lies in investigating masculinity (as a social construct) in South Africa. In an excellent, thought-provoking article posted on Thought Leader in September 2010, he sums up the issue as follows: ‘When we think of rapists as monsters we take [the] aspect of choice and agency out of the equation, as if rape occurs by instinct or by some animal drive. No. Rapists are not monsters, they are men, and tackling the issue of rape begins with us looking at what it means to be a man in South Africa.’
It is to be hoped that the publicity around this rape – perpetrated by apparently ‘normal’ teenage boys – will force more of us to seriously engage with the reasons why sexual violence is so rife in our society. For make no mistake: this incident may have gained publicity by virtue of the existence of the video (and added shock value due to the fact that the victim is mentally handicapped), but this is the type of ordeal that women and girls suffer in our country daily. While too many of us remain unaware, like people who gaze at the surface of the river but see nothing of what slips downstream, hidden from view.
And no – those are not monsters moving in the deep. They are men and boys we share our world with, and until we face the fact that we need to change our society at a very fundamental level, we will never be truly safe.