It could have been any one of us

2013-11-19 00:00

LAST week was a week many women readers of The Witness in the capital city will remember for years to come.

We were outraged at the violation of one of our own, in an area perceived safe in daylight hours. The woman who was raped last Monday in Villiers Drive was a professional person, out exercising on a quiet, but not isolated, road.

Her story struck a chord with those of our many readers who identified with her. We felt it could have been any of us. A rallying cry and a massive mobilisation followed.

The run-walk to reclaim our streets on Friday evening last week was a resounding success.

In our quagmire of helplessness against the ever-looming spectre of crime, standing together and participating in the run was something we could do. It was a show of solidarity and mutual support.

But, as the story unfolded last week, I was left uncomfortable on two counts. Firstly, there are thousands of rape cases in the province each year that we do not cover in the pages of this newspaper. We are selective, reporting on those we hear about in our target area and which affect our readership.

That’s the reality of it. Our sisters in the rural areas do not get headlines or a rallying call to action. Their story is never told.

Statistics relating to sexual assault were released at the Provincial Aids Council meeting last week in Pietermaritzburg, detailing sexual assaults reported in various district municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal.

The grim message was that rape is rife in KZN and the victims are too often girls under 12 years old.

In five of the 11 districts in KZN, sexual assaults on children make up almost half of the new cases reported in the nine-month period that the statistics were based on.

It’s a horror that we flinch from; an uncomfortable truth.

There is nothing we can do. We experience utter helplessness because sitting in our suburban homes, there is no remedy we know for men who rape young girls.

We also know that any statistics about rapes in this country are hugely underplayed. How many are never reported?

One would hope that the Education Department has taken cognisance of these statistics and is priming teachers to be on the lookout for any telltale signs that girl children are in trouble.

The sobering reality to be considered too is that we have no idea how many people are raped each day in the province. The fact that the police crime statistics continue to be hidden from us is unfair.

And here’s the second thing that’s eating away at me.

The police never told us about last Monday’s rape.

If we were waiting for them to send out a press release or a warning that a rapist was on the loose in that area, we may well still be waiting.

We found out about the rape from a reader who called in and informed us about it.

However, we do not hear about every serious crime that takes place from members of the public tipping us off. Some people don’t like calling in to speak to the press.

Police communication in Pietermaritzburg is at an all-time low, which impacts on all our safety. What better target for criminals than a community that is oblivious to the threats they pose? If you knew that a violent robbery gang was operating in your area, you’d be a fool not to take proper precautions.

Following our reports last week, I bet people in the Villiers Drive area are now taking extra precautions, as they should be.

But, the police simply don’t send out such alerts. Mostly, they “confirm” incidents we ask them about.

It’s just not good enough.

Sometimes we hear about the actions of the gangs, syndicates or individual criminals from victims, or their relatives or neighbours, and then write about the crimes and hopefully warn readers nearby to take appropriate action.

We are also fortunate to have our trusted sources who feed us some of the information that the police don’t want us to know.

The emergence of BBM crime alerts have, for this reason, become incredibly popular. Residents band together and send warnings of suspicious activity to a central person, who then broadcasts it to members.

An incident on a recent holiday to the UK served as a stark jolt to how paranoid my partner and I have become.

We had gone to breakfast at our B&B run by a well-known, respectable BBC journalist and her husband.

The previous occupants of the room we were in had left without returning their key, so the husband took our key to make a copy and set off while we were enjoying breakfast.

Having a good amount of pounds in cash, we had naturally locked our bedroom.

When we realised we couldn’t get back into the room, our ticked-off hostess asked why on Earth we had locked our room while in the house having breakfast.

South Africans, especially women, just don’t trust people anymore. It’s a defence mechanism we have developed to protect ourselves.

We don’t give strangers lifts, we lock, bolt and alarm our homes and, yes, with no thanks to the police, who did not alert us to this or the many hundreds of rapes in the province this year, those of us who fear for our safety now don’t go for runs or walks alone anymore.

• Stephanie Saville is The Witness news editor.

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