Guest Column

The Dros rape and the history of race and rape in SA

2018-10-08 12:35

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Lisa Vetten

Something interesting is going on when Black Land First and White Nation – the polar opposites of each other – can both condemn with disgust the behaviour of the accused in the matter of the Dros rape. Their shared ability to do so alerts us to an unexpected commonality: a way of using rape to think about race, deeply rooted in South Africa's history.

Retracing this past tells us a great deal about why the rape at the Dros restaurant has assumed the meanings it has.

1870, in the colony of Natal, is a good place to start this history. This is when "black peril" scares made their first documented appearance, with the last of these recorded in 1914 on the Witwatersrand. These panics typically grew out of the sensationalisation and exaggeration of occasional, single instances where black men raped white women.

Writing about the Witwatersrand panics, Charles van Onselen suggested that they typically played out within periods marked by recession, political uncertainty and industrial action. These conditions affected households' ability to pay their servants' wages and, in a few instances, it would seem that actual rapes occurred where there had been a dispute over pay.

In other cases there is some evidence that claims of rape were cynically manipulated in order to default on wage payments. More generally though, these distinctive economic conditions seemed to bring a range of inchoate anxieties and fears to the surface which found expression through these scares.

But whatever their cause, they typically resulted in greater control of colonised men. Indeed, in 1921 Sol Plaatje noted that Lord Harcourt, the British Colonial Secretary, had justified the 1913 Natives Land Act as a means of preventing cases of "black peril".

Sol Plaatjie also sought to bring attention to the "white peril," or the hidden accounts of black women's abuse and exploitation by white men. Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, Olive Schreiner's 1897 novel provides one of the earliest examples of a "white peril" narrative and offered a critique of British imperialism through her account of the rape and mass murder of black women and men.

The gang rape of 'Sana' in 1977 by four white soldiers – Peter Faught, Petrus Liebenberg, Ivan Bernado and Brian van Zyl – is a rare instance of such cases going to trial. Andries de Wet, a state witness in their trial, testified to having overheard one the soldiers say to his companions that they were crossing the border into Botswana "to have sex with black women".

Because such cases went largely unreported, fiction has provided the chief vehicle for exploring the impact of white men's rape on black women's lives. Lauretta Ngcobo, in her 1990 novel And They Didn't Die, provides one such powerful account. The complexities and challenges of raising children conceived under such circumstances is also explored by And They Didn't Die, as well as Farida Karodia's Other Secrets.

Against this historical backdrop the rape, by a white man, of a young black girl takes on profound symbolic significance. Add to that the way we think about children as our future, and the Dros rapist's actions not only re-enacted a grievous racist past, but also assaulted the future and the hopes invested therein.

This is the arc of history that his violence evokes for Black Land First. White Nation draws on it too – but to argue that this specific rape is far outnumbered by "black peril" rapes. White Nation also draws on a slightly different history to explain the Dros rape, that of the paedophile.

As Brett Bowman's history has shown, white men who sexually abused children began being classified as paedophiles in the 1980s, while the diagnosis of black men in this way only followed many years later. This had much to do with thinking of the period around who possessed a sophisticated psychology and who didn't.

As a broad statement, black men were not granted personal histories and complex inner lives. Rather, their violence was ascribed to the simple fact of being black. White men, as the embodiment of the desired racial norm, did have a psychology – not least because their sexual violence, unlike that of black men, could not be explained by reference to their race.

Instead, their deviance from the norm was understood by way of the abnormal psychology of the paedophile. This made white men pathological individuals, rather than representatives of a pathological race. It is on this basis that White Nation can condemn the Dros rapist – he is a sick individual, rather than typical of white men as a group.

It took the ending of apartheid to make black paedophiles thinkable. In this regard the diagnosis of Fanwell Khumalo as a paedophile (and serial rapist) during his 2004 trial for 103 counts of kidnapping, rape and indecent assault may well have made a dubious sort of legal history.

Black Land First and White Nation thus sharpen and bring into focus the way race and rape have been joined by history – a history that the Dros rape has brought painfully to life.

That history needs to be acknowledged – as we simultaneously attempt to think beyond and outside of it. For in making the Dros rapist shameful, disgusting and monstrous, we also make this rape especially shameful, disgusting and monstrous.

Such intense stigmatisation, even if only directed at him, cannot but rub off on the victim, a 7-year-old child who has been very badly harmed. To give her the task of also carrying the weight of this racialised history of rape is unbearable.  

- Lisa Vetten is a Mellon Doctoral Fellow based at the Wits City Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand. Her PhD seeks to provide a history of rape in South Africa since the 1970s.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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