One in Three Children Are Being Raped in South Africa's Biggest Township

By Claire Simpson

During the apartheid era, black people in South Africa were forcibly removed from areas deemed "white only" and quite literally put to one side. Black women – like all women, obviously – were useless and were banned from Cape Town, but black men were still needed to work the shitty jobs in the city, so were granted access during work hours. When legal accommodation couldn't be provided for the influx of job-seekers living on the outskirts of South Africa's "mother city", they decided to build some housing themselves, throwing up tin shacks covered with sheet-iron roofs.  

The government spent a decade trying to get rid of the shacks, but clearly realised that in doing so they'd have to build a load more houses, so relented and legalised the settlement. They ended up calling the township Khayelitsha – meaning "new home" – which is maybe the most transparent attempt to throw a nice rug over a societal shit stain in South Africa's entire history.    


Khayelitsha.

Khayelitsha is the single largest and fastest growing township in South Africa. It was conceived through catastrophe and hasn’t really managed to shake that off – more than 30 years later, the fan is still covered in shit. Forty percent of almost a million residents are under 19 years old and one in three of those kids suffers some form of sexual assault before they’re old enough to drown their harrowing experiences in alcohol. That’s a lot of kids having to put up with perhaps the worst thing you can inflict on a human being.

More than 88 percent of rapes go unreported, while the ones that do have a measly 7.7 percent conviction rate. That’s because there are only four groups of five investigating officers trying to cover thousands of cases per year. George Philipas is a photojournalist who's currently working on a documentary about child assault in Khayelitsha, focusing on these frontline services. He wants to treat the issue as an “unseen horror” and dispel the media-generated myth that the front-liners are apathetic to the crisis.

During a 24-hour stint at the Thuthuzela Rape Crisis centre at Khayelitsha District Hospital, he realised the extent of the service's misrepresentation. “I just looked at these people and thought 'God...' Their job is so high-pressured. When you see these rape cases come in one after the other – literally just bloodied people in different states of shock and stress – it makes you think, 'How does it affect these people?'”

George has spent over a year trying to untangle the mass of complications that surround the issue in an effort to crack why it is that a child is raped in South Africa every three minutes. Every three minutes. “It’s hard to actually put your finger on why child rape is so prevalent in this country, but you can touch on these cultural issues of, say, males in a patriarchal society. And you do have these issues certainly in the more backward areas of, say, the Eastern Cape, where sex with a virgin, for example, is deemed to cure diseases such as AIDS and HIV. So you do have some elements of cultural – erm – miseducation.”

South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma (known locally as Jay-Z) isn't exactly doing his people any favours, either. He’s been on trial for rape himself and once imparted his own brand of wisdom on the nation that'll probably end up in a lot them dying slow, horrible deaths. That wisdom was a claim he made, saying that if you shower after sex – consensual, non-consensual, whatever – you don't have to worry about HIV because the water just washes all that incurable badness away.

George struggles for words when it comes to trying to convey the scenes he’s witnessed at the Thuthuzela Rape Crisis Centre, saying, “It’s unbelievable. Just – unbelievable. Although, it was interesting to see when rape cases become more prevalent – when it rains, for example. Everyone's indoors, so there are no witnesses outside. It was a horrific experience." 

Children often don’t get the chance to come in to the centre because the majority of the time the perpetrators are close friends or family. “They came in at night if they did at all. A lot of the child rape cases are not reported in the first 24 hours, though, which means that a lot of the forensics basically become irrelevant because you have to do the forensics immediately after the event.” Stack that on top of the lengthy prosecution process and the shitty conviction rate and you’re trapped in the most vicious, rape-friendly circle imaginable.

This has led to locals seeking their own justice instead, with people dealing with cases through payments. I’m not sure what kind of price you can put on these horrendous violations, but there's clearly a monetary equivalent of punishment here, because it seems to happen worryingly often. The process directly conflicts with South African law, which states that every child rape case has to be followed up, but when there's absolutely no one there to do that, I suppose vigilantism is the ony way to get any semblance of something like justice served.     

The people aren't doing what the police are telling them to do and the the police can't do what the people want them to do, so the situation is just spiralling more and more out of control. Hundreds of thousands of children have no other choice but to live in fear of violence and assault, but maybe the worst part is that they don't know any different. Their reality from the day they're born is one that none of us would even want to imagine.

Photos by George Philipas

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