Women tell of rapes in ANC camps


SOUTH AFRICA: The culture of secrecy surrounding crimes committed 'inside the family' is at last beginning to unravel, writes Joe Humphreys in Pretoria

They were supposed to be fleeing to safety. Instead, it seems, at least some of South Africa's activist women who went into exile for opposing apartheid fell prey to the worst form of betrayal.

Sheltering in ANC camps in bordering countries, they were raped or otherwise abused by comrades - who added insult to injury by justifying such violations in the name of the "greater cause".

Such a picture has been emerging in recent weeks - ever since the woman at the centre of the rape trial against former deputy president Jacob Zuma testified to having previously been raped while in exile.

The 31-year-old woman, who is HIV positive, said she was raped three times - at the ages of five, 13 and 14 - after fleeing to Swaziland with her parents.

The claim has led to a steady flow of similar allegations, lifting the lid on a culture of secrecy surrounding crimes committed in the ANC 'family'.

"I kept silent because we were made to understand, earlier on in our lives out there, that the struggle for liberation was bigger than individuals," one formerly exiled woman wrote to a local newspaper this week. "So when I was violated by the soldiers who were part of this grand and righteous struggle, I said nothing."

Yasmin Sooka, director of the Pretoria- based Foundation for Human Rights, noted: "There has been almost a kind of political code which did not allow people to speak about this abuse. Women felt they should keep quiet out of loyalty."

An attempt was made by one group of researchers to expose the abuses at the now defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But only a handful of women would go on record about the conditions in the camps, let alone testify about actual rapes.

One senior member of the ANC's army, Thenjiwe Mtintso, did describe, however, how male colleagues brutalised by the apartheid regime would sometimes vent their anger at their womenfolk.

Mtintso chillingly recalled a soldier saying to her: "You know, it's going to get to the point that I am going to rape you. And it's going to be very easy to rape you . . . and I know that there is no way that you are going to stand in front of all these people and say I raped you."

Calls are now being made for an inquiry into the alleged rapes - not only to give abused women some belated justice, but to help challenge taboos surrounding sexual abuse in South African society.

"We know there was violence in the camps but it has never been dealt with from an accountability perspective," said Ms Sooka. "The fact is these were not seen as crimes. There was a sense that if you wanted a relationship with a woman her consent did not really matter. It was more a question of your power or your rank."

Meanwhile, the judge in the Zuma trial yesterday dismissed an application from the defence for the accused to be discharged on technical grounds. The politically infused trial, which promises to further unsettle South Africa's ruling party, resumes on Monday.