Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Why Baleka Mbete is wrong on ‘rape not part of any culture’

Like many people, Baleka Mbete was shocked by Judge Mabel Jansen’s online comments about black people, and responded by saying that rape is not part of any culture. As a person in the forefront of South Africa’s leadership, her public statements ought to be taken seriously. However, here she is entirely wrong. Rape is part of culture(s), and of course, many may flatly deny that. This essay not only argues that rape is part of culture, but abuse in general, as rape segues into other forms of violation.

A staggering amount of rape and violence is to be found, just for example, in a major cultural heritage of ours, the Judeo-Christian. The Old Testament is steeped in it. From Judges 21:10 onward:

So the congregation sent 12 000 of their bravest men there and commanded them, “Go and strike the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead with the edge of the sword; also the women and the little ones … every male and every woman that has lain with a male you shall destroy. And they found among the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead 400 young virgins … and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh … (emphasis mine)

Little doubt is left in one’s mind as to why the virgins were captured. Regardless, they were imprisoned against their will.

From the law in Deuteronomy, in chapter 22:28-9: “If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.”

Probably the most well-known biblical story of incest, two daughters raping their own father, is in Genesis 19:30-33:

Later on, Lot and his two daughters abandoned Zoar and settled in the hills because Lot was afraid to live in Zoar. He lived there in a cave, along with his two daughters. One day the firstborn told the younger one, “Our father is old, and there’s no man in the land to have sex with us, as everybody else throughout all the earth does. Come on! Let’s make our father drink wine, and then we’ll have sex with him so we can preserve our father’s lineage. So they had their father drink wine that night, and the older one had sexual relations with her father, but he was not aware when she lay down or when she got up.

These writings record ancient cultures that were riddled with rape and other atrocities. Rape someone? A slap on the hand: you shell out a bit of cash, then just marry her and stick her among the other concubines. I will give the early fathers of the Judaeo-Christian tradition their due. They did not censor or lie about the customs of their culture. They chose to canonise, not censor, texts containing many rape incidents and other horrific deeds.

A warning sign in Edenvale was put up by the fiancé of a woman who was raped. (Alon Skuy/Gallo)

A warning sign in Edenvale was put up by the fiancé of a woman who was raped. (Alon Skuy/Gallo)

Rape is as much a part of culture now as it was then. It seems there was not as much denial then as what there is now.

Critics may say I have misunderstood what constitutes culture. Broadly defined, a culture is the customs and behaviours of a people. Rape need not be an accepted part of any culture; it is often a secret. The more violations such as forced sex are swept under the carpet, the stronger and more pervasive they become.

In the South African context, there are countless reports of rape and family abuse. I admire the untiring work of people like Jen Thorpe, bringing the matter to our conscience again and again. There are also many reports about infant rape in South Africa. This from Medscape:

Rape, including child rape, is increasing at shocking rates in South Africa. Sexual violence against children, including the raping of infants, has increased 400% over the past decade … a number of high profile baby rapes since 2001 (including the fact that they required extensive reconstructive surgery to rebuild urinary, genital, abdominal, or tracheal systems) increased the need to address the problem socially and legally. In 2001, a 9-month-old baby was raped by six men, aged between 24 and 66, after the infant had been left unattended by her teenage mother. A 4-year-old girl died after being raped by her father. A 14-month-old girl was raped by her two uncles …

If rape is so rife, so ancient a deed, but “is not part of any culture”, then what is it a part of?

Baleka Mbete’ s shock is perfectly understandable. One understands why she says rape is not part of any culture. What I think she is trying to say is that rape shouldn’t be part of any culture. However, either statement denies the reality.

A culture is, in one sense, a macrocosm of a nuclear or extended family. The family absorbs the culture around it and the family represents the culture. The family embraces the culture’s values. What books get read, be they the holy books of that family or others. Family outings and the kind of entertainment allowed and at what age the children can watch certain shows. Who sits where at dinner, even if it is just around the TV. However, all too often, there are a few secrets in families. Here the unspoken motto is “don’t tell”. “Don’t tell anyone about mommy’s vicious temper. Or don’t tell anyone that dad beats mommy”. There is a staggering body of literature available on the subject of family dysfunction. Much of it testifies to the abuse of children in families. Beside all that, like myself, many readers will have friends who have suffered traumas due to other family members’ abuse.

As any violation is a personal matter, let’s get personal. I am the surviving child of a dysfunctional family. My father was a raging alcoholic and, except for when I was very young, I don’t recall a single Christmas that was not spent on our own because no one would come to our home due to daddy’s behaviour. One Christmas my father made my mother cry because of his drunken abuse. I told my father, in his drunken stupor, that I hated him. He somehow remembered that. (He often had alcohol-induced blackouts.) The next day my mother made me apologise to him … for my behaviour. For telling him I hated him. A few days later, my father was again in a drunken rage. (I vividly remember him wearing only soiled underwear on this occasion.) Repeatedly he told me how much he hated me. But … “Don’t tell” was our unspoken motto. The next day at breakfast (as with many dysfunctional families) all was as normal. Pass the salt. Did you bring in the morning newspaper?

Later on in life, in order for me to heal up as an adult and deal with my many addictions and failings, I had to own up to what was done to me. I had to get past the deep, magic spell of “don’t tell” and deal with my denial.

That splinter from my life-story is not unusual. It is workaday reality in many families. My partner, my beloved Marion, was sexually abused as a child. Her story used to freak me out. Many police and other authorities will sadly tell you horrific statistics of family abuse. However, the worst of the lot is all the cases of rape and other abuse that never, ever get reported. We don’t know how much of it is really going on. All the “don’t tells”. “What happened to me was my fault. I am a bad girl.” “What happened to me was no biggy; it’s maybe normal. I love my uncle sort of anyway.” “I love my dad, I just hate him when he … ” (the latter was more or less my self-preserving “mantra”). It is when we own up, in a loving, caring environment that we start to do ourselves an enormous service. To deny rape is part of culture is to do ourselves a great disservice.

A born South African, I spent the first forty-one years of my life living in my country. It is in my blood. I have now lived twelve years outside of South Africa. With the measure of objectivity this affords me, I can say with complete conviction that the culture of denial in South Africa is breathtaking. It is under a deep, magic spell. What gets published is rather selective. Denial leads to blame-shifting.

What happens when we acknowledge rape is a part of our culture(s)? That is when the blame-shifting, the witch-hunting for racists, all the scapegoating will hopefully abate. That is when the cries of: “Racist!”, “My lot in life is your fault”, “I am a victim. You take responsibility for me; apartheid is your fault,” will start to lose their false or valorised importance. But first we have to confess, like our Judeo-Christian forefathers, that rape is part of (our) culture.

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    • Manu

      People who want rape to be framed as part of culture are playing a very dangerous game. I encourage South Africans not to go down this road.

      Rape is an act of violence. Even rapists know that they have committed a crime. That’s why they hide in the shadows and it’s also why we don’t celebrate them. If rape was a cultural practice we would be celebrating it.
      Here the danger of casting rape as being cultural becomes self-evident. If the source of this act of violence is treated as being derived from culture it will give it a social legitimacy that will encourage others to engage in this aberrant behavior. We will effectively be creating a sub-culture out of nothing.
      This is how skin heads, football hooligans, motor cycle gangs and so forth are mainstreamed. As noxious as they are, they only become a subculture because society chooses to recognize them as a sub-culture.

      Rape is criminal and it should be left at that. Trying to form the notion of a sub-culture around this is irresponsible.

    • Phinithi Ntelekoa

      Therefore, the argument hinges on premise one. However, in reflecting on premise one it seems clear that if there is no God then there is no objective grounding for moral principles which apply to all people, in all places, at all times. Morality would be relegated to cultural conventions or individual ethical subjectivism. William Lane Craig sums it up this way:

      Although at a superficial level suffering calls into question God’s existence, at a deeper level suffering actually proves God’s existence. For apart from God, suffering is not really bad. If the atheist believes that suffering is bad or ought not to be , then he’s making moral judgments that are possible only if God exists.[13]

      In short, when the atheist or relativist raises qualms about God allowing evil he implicitly admits to an objective standard of morality which his own worldview cannot account for, but which the Christian worldview can. In other words, in order to complain about evil and raise the objection in the first place, atheists, skeptics, and relativists must borrow from Christian moral capital and the Christian worldview.”

    • Piet Vorster

      Nonsense, humans and many animals have empathy, this inherent natural realization of seeing someone or something suffer and identifying with it is why atheists can identify suffering or evil, thus they aren’t borrowing anything from Christianity.

    • david

      Its a good artical, but lets put it this way. Rape and the abuse of women and children is enabled by aspects of the patriarchial cultures that exist within south african society today