Lifting the lid on silence

By Patricia Aruo

There is no crime in Orlando East. Tina Bhengu is emphatic.  No serious crime, she says. An hour-and-a-half later, it will become evident that she had been referring to visible crime, the kind that is easily identifiable through visible scars and broken property, unlike the crime behind closed doors which she goes on to describe.

The only people giving the community a hard time are the young men, many in their late teens and early 20s. “I don’t know what substances they are smoking, marijuana or whatever. Last week or two weeks ago, I had to start locking my gate because I found them inside my yard. Many of them are already in jail but many of them still come back and do the same things,” Bhengu says.

It is young men such as these that Sibusiso Sithole, the community programme manager at Isizinda Sempilo, says the organisation is hoping to target through its workshops to deal with the gender-based violence (GBV) in Soweto.

It is a cold, grey Saturday in Orlando East, in a small, cramped living room of a house along Adams Street. Bhengu recounts an experience with an uncle who made sexual advances towards her and nearly molested her on multiple occasions during her teenage years in Spruitview.

Bhengu is a short lady with a firm voice and set facial expression that gives away very little, but is occasionally broken by a smile. She is a mother of one, and a grandmother of four, living in a small, dark house, in contrast to the many brightly coloured ones along Adams Street. Inside, the bright orange sofas and Bhengu’s four-year-old granddaughter liven the room as she plays loudly with everything in her sight and throws occasional tantrums that earn her a scolding from her grandmother.

“He would always ask the children – me and my cousins – to come and sit on his lap,” she says of her uncle. “He would even invite us alone to his house and I would never go because I did not trust him and I told my cousins not to go either.” She pauses briefly, sighs and expresses, regretfully, that she cannot reveal her uncle’s identity since he holds a prominent position in the society.

This uncle, she says, had raped his own children too. He continues to walk free because the family, including his wife, who are aware of this, do not want the negative attention that reporting his crimes would bring to them. Besides, his power and influence that extend to the police and courts in Orlando have made him untouchable.

The Isizinda Sempilo offices are inside the Kliptown Medical Centre, across the street from a bustling market. Soweto has various organisations dedicated to GBV prevention and support for victims. However, very few of these are male led and tailored primarily for males.

The organisation was founded in 2008 and initially focused on providing services relating to HIV/Aids awareness, counselling, testing and treatment in selected areas around the country, including Soweto.

Its core mandate currently, managing director Bongani Makhaya says, is around HIV and GBV prevention. Makhaya, a qualified nurse, joined the organisation out of concern for the people in his community that were dying from the HIV/Aids pandemic and wanted to use his background as a health professional to contribute to the awareness and treatment in the male community.

The organisation’s offices are situated at a clinic along Union Road. Across the clinic is the Walter Sisulu Square, dedicated to the 1955 drafting of the Freedom Charter.

END OF THE ROAD: Brothers for Life mobilises men nationally to contribute towards the eradication of gender-based violence.

The precinct of the square is buzzing with market vendors and hawkers braving the blistering heat, the consistent noise of taxis and pedestrians all bringing it to life. A railway separates this colossal site and the squatter camp on the other side, both appealing for distinct reasons to the tourists.

At the centre of the square is its most important feature, an enclosure with an opening at the top giving room for the sun to peak through and onto the engraved display of the Freedom Charter.

The organisation runs two major programmes dealing with GBV – Priority and Prevention as well as the Gender Norms programme. Sithole explains that, “The teams go out into communities and run these two-hour sessions and talk about the impact of gender-based violence.

They refer those who have been abused and need help. The second one, the gender norms programme, but the difference is that they come for two-hour sessions for ten consecutive days. They will sit down and face their own fears and then talk about them and then be referred to other psycho-social and other programmes.”

The target of these workshops are young men such as those that can be found playing soccer outside Bhengu’s house in Orlando East at 12pm on a week day.

They are held daily in Ward 31 Orlando East, are often found through word of mouth and the ground efforts of employees at the organisations. “The teams target organised groups. For instance, they will go to your churches and malls. Other times they would walk up to groups of young men sitting around playing dice and convince them to stop and attend a two-hour session.

Soweto, along with other socially and demographically similar areas of Johannesburg including Alexandra have been specially selected by the organisation for the roll out of its programmes.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the primary funder of the organisation, chose these areas based on research they conducted around the country which identified them as areas in the most need of assistance.

The South African government provides some structural support. While GBV and violence against children are endemic in South Africa and not unique to Soweto and similar areas, they have additional socio-economic challenges including youth unemployment.

The most recent national annual report 2015/16 released by the South African Police Services (SAPS) recorded 33 613 arrests for sexual offences, an increase of 1 649 from 2014/15. The arrests for gender-based harm were 159 390, a decline of 1 268 from the previous year.

The police report goes on to outline four strategies to deal with the underreporting of crimes against women.

Among them are “Involvement of the community via community structures such as the CPFs and law enforcement agencies/force multipliers such as reservists, traffic police, etc. to join SAPS on patrols and to engage with communities to address contact crimes in households (domestic violence, rape etc.); conducting awareness programmes, encourage reporting by community.”

Nthati Phalatsi, a counsellor at a trauma centre, says that most of the victims that they encounter are children. In October 2017, an Orlando East school, a few minutes away from the Orlando East police station, was at the centre of national concern after allegations of sexual assault were made by over 80 pupils against a patroller at the school.

The man was arrested and charged with multiple counts of rape and sexual abuse. The trial which was due to start on November 1 was postponed till the end of November for further investigations.

Most of these are brought by concerned community members. In some cases, the children come on their own. Phalatsi was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 15 at the hands of a stranger at a cousin’s house.

Years later as an adult, she would be subjected to physical abuse at the hands of her boyfriend and father of her eight-year-old son.

“I was beaten when I was pregnant. I was one month pregnant then and I thought that after that he would stop. I never laid charges against him.”

She goes on to provide a harrowing account of her ordeal with the calm and resignation of someone who has made some kind of peace with her past. She never thought to lay any charges against him.

She did not consider that a viable option despite being encouraged to do so at the hospital. “Now I’m able to tell people, ‘Why don’t you?’ because I’ve been there.”

The underreporting of crimes, Makhaya says, has also been one of the biggest hurdles to their work. “There is a feeling that nothing gets done and therefore people do not report and get the help they need,” he says.

He reveals that many victims of abuse that attend their programmes do not receive the necessary help they need after the workshops because they do not feel comfortable talking to professionals.

The organisation does not provide professional help for GBV. They recommend suitable candidates to the relevant professionals that some will forfeit.

The courts are where the final barriers to prosecution of these crimes lie, with many of the cases withdrawn before and during trial. In 2012/13, only 19 549 of the 92 161 reported domestic violence and GBV cases that were opened went to trial.

In 2013, parliament released its report on the ‘Statistics and figures relating to Violence Against Women in South Africa’ and identified the challenges to accessing statistics on violence against women.

“Statistics are almost impossible to access because domestic violence itself is not in itself a crime category.”

While the law requires station commanders, under the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 to keep a special record of incidents in the Domestic Violence Register, this is not consistent across police stations. The register reports of each station are not accessible and not referenced in the national police statistics.

Bhengu reflects on the most personal witness of the human effects of a failure to report cases of abuse. Late last year, a friend confided in her about years of rape that she had been subjected to since childhood and throughout her teenage years that she had never reported and never confronted.

“One day she told me ‘I was molested me and raped at a time when I was still a baby.’ She said that this had been haunting her for years and she finally had to tell someone. I cried when she told me. She was my friend and an old woman like me, can you imagine?” Bhengu says as she tearfully reflects.

At the heart of Bhengu’s descriptions of the perpetrators is the common thread by which they are tied – “ordinary”. Ordinary or as Bhengu refers to them, “mediocre men from middle class families”.

“When this rape started, all the people who were doing it were mediocre men, people who were educated!” she says, almost in disbelief. Common, unexceptional, regular men. Fathers, uncles, teachers.

Men with no known criminal past for which they would stand out. Men who are aware of the advantage they had, that they were trusted. “This thing is so difficult because even real fathers do it. We have to be careful.”

However, she says, working mothers, by no fault of their own, cannot always keep track of and notice unusual behaviour in their spouses and children. She remembers a case that she dealt with during her time as a trauma counsellor when a child had been referred by a teacher on suspicion of some form of abuse.

This was not unusual. She had to explain to the child’s mother, an alcoholic reeking of brandy that morning that her husband had been responsible for abusing her child. The woman was initially in denial but gradually put the pieces together, breaking down in tears.

For Sithole, it was concerning that there were “not enough men’s programmes and information targeted towards men” in these communities. While that has improved in the years since he joined the organisation, he does not believe that nearly enough has been done to address the issue.

Like the people at Isizinda Sempilo and Phalatsi, Bhengu believes that it is crucial to have people in the community talking openly.

She believes that family and societal secrecy as well as the failure to effectively address the behaviour of young boys, are what have allowed this violence against women and children to continue in Soweto. She believes that many families are complicit. Often, she says, families prefer to keep these cases behind closed doors.

“In most cases here, if a child gets raped, they call it a family affair. The elders will get together and demand money from the man to keep quiet about the cases,” Bhengu says.

“They never used to talk about it but we have to. It has to get better”.