The Dros rape, our colonial past and the ‘sexual entitlement of ...

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The Dros rape, our colonial past and the ‘sexual entitlement of white men’

The perceived racialisation of the crime is rooted deeply in our history, says a sociology professor

Journalist


The racialisation of the rape of a six-year-old Mamelodi girl by a man, identified on social media as a white Afrikaner, in the bathroom of a Dros restaurant in Pretoria is deeply rooted to our colonial history and sexual entitlement of the country’s white man.
So says a sociology professor in the wake of heated online debate around the crime two Saturdays ago.
Throughout last week news organisations were slammed on social media for failing to identify the alleged culprit – as well as for calling him an “alleged rapist” – which sparked fierce accusations that the reputations of white suspects were considered more important than those of black suspects and were thus protected.
Adding fuel to the fire were fears that social media users, angered by the perceived protection of the suspect’s identity, could be damaging the state’s case against the suspect through spreading his photograph and name, and those of his relatives, on Twitter and Facebook.
The law leaves less room for discussion and debate. According to the Criminal Procedure Act, it is illegal to identify a sexual offences suspect until he or she has pleaded.
Criminologists have warned of the dangers around “courts of public opinion”, saying that when it comes to sexual crimes committed against children there are very good reasons for not naming the accused.
These include the protection of children’s identity at all costs, regardless of the accused’s race or standing in society.
For Christi van der Westhuizen, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria, the anger and perceived racialisation of the crime is rooted deeply in the country’s colonial history and sexual entitlement of white men.
“Because of history and the legacy of our past, as South Africans we see everything through a racial lens, regardless of whether we are black or white,” she said.
Van der Westhuizen specialises in the study of gender, sexuality and race, and how they are linked and operate together.
For her, SA’s society is “drenched” in ideas of race.
“It’s hard for us as a country to think beyond race and it will be like this for some time.”
While society should be outraged about the attack, regardless of the girl’s race, when it came to sexual violence the country’s colonial history had to be taken into account.
“South Africa is a very violent society and race and gender frequently manifest into violence. In South Africa there is lots of historical evidence of white men enjoying certain sexual entitlements. This is seen from our history of slavery and apartheid, where in cases involving sex across the colour line, black women were punished far harsher than white men.
“With this in mind, when it comes to such attacks as that which occurred in the Dros, one must realise and understand the anger and why we jump to this [history]. It may not be fair, but we do it because of the legacy of our past,” she said.
Van der Westhuizen said that given SA’s historical context, sexual violence was deeply entwined with racial violence.
“It is not easy to separate the two. Just look at the recent and increasing incidents of verbal violence when it comes to whites lashing out at those from other races. I do not think that we can move past race when it comes to violence.
“While it still needs to be seen, this case may in court be proven to be an example of this [sexual racial violence]. It may be very significant that the little girl is black,” she said.
University of the Witwatersrand law professor James Grant warned that “courts of public opinion” were incredibly dangerous and that it was not up to society to decide an accused’s guilt.
“The law is drafted in such a way so as to prevent people from being wrongfully convicted and reputations from being wrongfully damaged before the case against them has been proven.
“Whoever has named this person is breaking the law because it is only the prosecutor who can decide whether a suspect should be prosecuted or not, and it is only a court who can decide someone’s innocence or guilt,” said Grant.
He said the investigation into this specific incident would still be in the beginning stages.
“There are very good reasons to use the word ‘alleged’ before someone appears in court and why the state asks for a seven-day postponement when the accused first appears in court. That’s so that further important investigations can be done. By the time an accused is first brought to court the investigation is not complete, with a lot more detective work still needing to be done.
“Normally at beginning stage of the investigation the police will have several suspects, some of whom will be more promising than others. It’s entirely possible that after an accused first appears in court, the police and prosecutors realise that the person they first thought committed the crime is in fact the wrong person.
“Naming someone in such a case as this Dros matter, before it has even gone to court, can potentially wreck a case,” he said.
Naming an accused’s family, who had nothing to do with the crime, was nothing more than a “witch-hunt”.
“Imagine for a second the person, who has had his image and name splashed across social media, is innocent. How does one ever recover from this? We definitely do not want to live in a society like this.
“We need to ask whether naming and shaming someone, who might or might not be guilty of rape, will help us win the war against rape? The answer is no. By doing so we could be allowing ourselves to be distracted by debates about someone who is potentially the wrong person, instead of having debates on how to make places safer for women and children.”

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