I Believe Her: On the Power of Rape Survivors’ Voices

downloadEach time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women. – Maya Angelou

I don’t know how women do it.

Every now and again, the veil is lifted on the quiet terror all women live with each day. A violent crime is brought into the public domain, and we have to look the worst effects of violent masculinity in the eye. Usually, there is a woman’s voice at the centre. She stands in maelstrom, sharing the details of her trauma, all the while knowing that she might not be believed or that she will almost certainly be victimised even further.

Cheryl Zondi’s testimony in the trial of alleged rapist Timothy Omotoso felt different. Yes, we watched as Omotoso’s lawyer tried to discredit and diminish Zondi’s story. Yes, we saw some of the usual tired victim-blaming tropes emerging. But even with all of that, conversation and commentary remained supportive of Zondi. For once, we seemed to focus on the crime and the perpetrator, rather than the moral character of the survivor brave enough to tell her story, in the presence of the person who violated her. We were appalled at the way in which the justice system allowed the open revictimisation of someone who had not only survived primary victimisation but was willing to discuss it in the public forum.

So, what made this trial, and this survivor’s testimony different? What makes this case stand out, as opposed to the Zuma trial, the Kawa case, and so many other cases in which survivors were not believed and the public participated in their secondary victimisation? Put simply, by allowing for hers to be one of the few testimonies broadcast live into the homes of South Africans, Zondi gave face and voice to the trauma of sexual violence. While we could only imagine and speculate as to what Khwezi survived, in the Omotoso case, we have Cheryl Zondi, a survivor who reveals her face and her voice, in real time.

This is not to say that that’s right: we shouldn’t have to catalogue our pain in such public forums for it to be taken seriously. Women have been whispering about and screaming against sexual violence for so long, it seems unfair that society is only waking up to it at this moment. But Zondi’s publicised testimony was also broadcast in the wake of the #MeToo moment. In this particular global moment, women across the world are, perhaps for the first time, speaking everywhere and in various ways about what we have survived. Maybe Cheryl Zondi has, like many women, seen the tweets, read the countless stories, and heard echoes of her own pain. And there is a deep power in knowing that there are voices near and far, local and global, that will echo your own.

It makes even the quietest voice sound loud with conviction.

Perhaps that is the power of this moment brought to us by Cheryl Zondi’s testimony. In speaking publicly and possibly drawing on the strength of the #MeToo moment, she is creating further echoes and empowering even more survivors to add their voices to what should be a constant chorus of real outrage driving change. Because we believe Zondi, we might believe the next woman and the next, without having to see their faces and hear their words.

Because the truth is that, it is still an enormously risky thing to ‘come out’ as a survivor. You expose yourself to unfriendly clinical examinations of memories you may have worked hard to blur and bury. You are pulled into a process completely removed from the context in which you endured trauma and are compelled to relive it, with an audience. The 19 women who came forward and submitted their statements on the sexual harassment and assault they experienced and/or witnessed at Equal Education understandably stood fast in their right to remain anonymous. The independent inquiry took this insistence on anonymity as a reason to exclude their stories from their process. How sad. How strange. That years after their experiences at Equal Education, 19 women are still so afraid that they cannot make themselves known to an independent panel. But where you and I sense deep fear, the panel chooses to see procedural impropriety.

Stories like the unfolding Equal Education saga are proof of just how much it takes to speak out as a survivor. The #MeToo movement emboldened us somewhat and provided us with multiple ways to tell our stories. The Zondi testimony shows that society is now open to hearing and possibly even believing women. Just as long as we tell our stories publicly, in open court, before a judicial authority.

What I hope will be the enduring lesson of the Zondi testimony – what I want for all survivors who held our breaths through it – is that even as society still shuts out survivors who choose to speak differently, quietly, anonymously, we know that the public voices of women like Cheryl Zondi echo our own anonymous ones, and that we will be believed. Not by everyone, not everywhere.

But certainly by more people than would have believed us before.

By Rumbi Goredema Görgens


Enter Rumbi is a Zimbabwean-born South African-based feminist author. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Vela Magazine, and on FeministsSA.com and MyFirstTimeSA.com. She has worked with various South African civil society organisations, including Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. Find more of her work at Rumbi Writes.a caption



How to Write About Rape

Writing about rape. Where do you start?

Such a sensitive topic, so prevalent in our society today. It is therefore so important to write about it, so that we can broaden people’s awareness about rape. We want to write about rape because we want our words, stories and theories to change into actions and understandings. But how do you write about such a painful topic without over-sensitising or re-traumatising people and still putting rape survivor’s everyday lived experiences on the foreground? With this question in mind, I went to the Writing about Rape Workshop, organised by the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

I first and foremost have to say, that it was just amazing to be in a safe space, with all like-minded women, that all came to the workshop with the same questions. Nothing is more empowering than a group of women coming together with an open attitude to listen to each other, and all with the same goal in mind; writing about rape to change understandings and actions about sexual violence. And of course, the glasses of wine and the good food, also added to a satisfying learning environment.

The writing workshop mainly focused on our head, heart, and hands. Writing with your head, stands for writing facts, the objective knowledge that you have found about the topic. Writing with you heart, stands for reaching to the reader’s feelings; how can you trigger the reader’s emotions with your words? Lastly, writing with your hands stands for put forward the question ‘what is next?’. How do your words lead to people to wanting to roll up their sleeves and start actively engaging with the topic? In a successful story about rape, one should thus focus on reflecting on facts, emphasising emotions, and triggering actions as an outcome of the story.

These guidelines are of course a helpful toolkit for writing about sexual violence but writing about rape of course remains complicated. At the end of the workshop, an interesting discussion arouse with several intriguing questions that show how important it is for this conversation to be continued. One of the main questions was whether it is possible for feminist writers to remain objective. How can we write about rape, without having an activist agenda? Why is it even necessary for feminist writers to be objective, or to be non-activist? If our goal is to create societal changes towards understandings of rape, isn’t writing about it then inherently an activist act?  Furthermore, when writing about rape, who owns the story? Is it the story of the writer/journalist, or the story of the rape survivor that are brought to light? How do we make sure these personal stories of rape survivors about their everyday experiences are portrayed in a responsible way?

Many reasons thus to continue the conversation on how to write about rape. I am therefore very much looking forward to the next workshop to reflect on their questions. I want to finish this blog with an important concluding message for female writers, shared by another participant of the workshop: if we as writers have the power of picking up the pen, it is our responsibility to focus on the issues that are attacking all women, and we can give an inclusive microphone to those voices that need to be heard. These voices are not put forward by those writers who dominate the writing space now. So, let’s write to take a position in that space. Let’s write from the heart, for all women.

Photos from the event:




By Paula Vermuë

Paula Vermue is an Anthropology student from the Netherlands, who is currently doing research in Cape Town for her research master’s thesis. She has joined the Rape Crisis team as an intern in September 2018.

Engaging Men on Rape

41% of all reported rape cases in South Africa, are against children. Such shocking statistics reflect a need for national introspection and highlight how rape advocacy work requires the inclusion of all society, as this pandemic affects all of us, not just women and children.

There is no clear and singular cause for the high rate of rape in South Africa except the commonality of the perpetrators, who are men. In her book, Rape: A South African Nightmare, Pumla Dineo Gqola says that, “If we are at all serious about making sense of rape’s hold on our society, we need to interrogate the histories of rape in South Africa.” We are all aware of the country’s violent history, which may have created the prevalence of violence, be it structural or otherwise, that the country is facing currently. As the majority perpetrators of rape and gender based violence, male intervention is key if we want to put an end to this extreme burden on our society.

Male involvement is also needed if we are to successfully change the discourse surrounding rape, from one that views rape as solely a female issue. From a very base perspective, rape affects men too as it may be their sister, wife or a female colleague who is raped or in some cases men themselves.

“Men must first acknowledge the privilege their gender gives,” says Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, sexual health and reproductive rights expert. “They need to understand the issues of gender the same way they understand the issue of race. Men who are against violence must speak to other men. Patriarchy will only listen to itself,” she says on how we engage men on the topic of rape and in rape advocacy work.  Masculinity, patriarchy, entrenched gender norms and cultural beliefs are the barriers that prove difficult when engaging men on the topic of rape. Regional Campaigns and Advocacy Specialist at Sonke Gender Justice, Mpiwa Mangwiro says that it’s key to approach men not as only perpetrators, but as stakeholders, who have a role to play in eliminating the scourge of rape in the country. “It’s beneficial for men to address rape and its root causes as this liberates them from subscribing to certain toxic notions of masculinity. While harmful to women and girls, rape tends to be harmful to men’s wellbeing too,” she says. Informing men on how toxic masculinity and patriarchy are, and that this issue is not only dangerous to women and children, but that is can also shackle men, is key when addressing this debate.

During their Safe Ride campaign which targeted taxi personnel including taxi drivers, owners and queue marshals and that looked at sexual and gender based violence across 22 African countries, Sonke Gender Justice found that, when men were addressed in a manner that didn’t condemn them as perpetrators but demonstrated that they had a role to play in addressing the gender based violence, the feedback and results were far more positive. The current Black Label campaign, #NoExcuse, also seeks to mobilise men to stand up against abuse against women in South Africa and is another example of campaigns that are geared towards engaging men on this topic.

The sexual predation of women in South Africa creates an environment that is unsafe for the female body. There are also certain gender and cultural norms which legitimise men as sexual pursuers and women as sexual conquests ‘to be had’ whenever men want, all of which perpetuates rape culture. Dr. Mofokeng says that consent sensitisation is the first lesson in tackling rape culture in the country. “People won’t understand consent for sex if people don’t understand general consent. If all of us are teaching consent around sex only, we are still falling short,” she says. “People are not naming the issues, they’re talking systemic failures, structural drivers of illness and making the individuals internalise that, as if it is caused by individual failures,” she further explains.

The prevalence of rape is a human rights issue as it robs victims of dignity, safety and autonomy, which are values enshrined in our Constitution. When we approach the issue in this way, we can finally begin to truly grapple with the deep violation that rape is and men can finally understand the role they have to play in eradicating it. “When it is highlighted from a human rights perspective, rape can be seen as perpetuating a culture of violence which, while it predominantly affects women and girls, also affects men, as their loved ones can also fall victim to such harm and be robbed of their sense of security, bodily integrity and joy,” explains Mangwiro. But the most effective way to include men, is the painful reminder that any women or child dearest to them, can fall victim to rape. In that way, the issue of rape becomes personal and close to home, as no one wants those dearest to them in harm’s way.

Men need to accept that rape affects them and it’s definitely better to work at preventing rape than addressing the effects thereof. “Living in a community where women and girls are able to realise their full potential, would be beneficial to everyone, men included,” says Mangwiro, which is honestly what we should all be striving for.

By Zanta Nkumane

Zanta Nkumane is a freelance writer, journalist and ex-scientist. He knows he should be writing his first book but he is preoccupied with life and other stories. He is currently pursuing his MA in Diversity Studies at Wits.