Every 26 seconds in South Africa a woman gets raped, it was my turn last Thursday night. Before I began writing this I took AZT, 3TC and Crixivan — they are anti-retroviral drugs, they will hopefully help lessen the potential of me getting Aids from the rapist, assuming of course, that he is HIV positive. In a country where 1 800 people contract HIV every day, it’s a gamble I refuse to take. But the difficulties I encountered in getting the drug and the treatment I received from medical staff at private hospitals and the district-surgeon’s office are an indictment against healthcare policies and the medical profession. I need to take these drugs for a month, within two weeks they will be making me feel very ill and depressed. The therapy will cost me about R4 000. I am a freelance journalist with medical aid for hospitalisation only, and not this. With the three anti-retroviral drugs I am on antibiotics in case the rapist had a sexually transmittable disease aside from HIV/Aids. The district surgeon a quiet Congolese who admitted she has to go for therapy because she cannot cope with what she sees, also gave me “morning after” tablets because I was raped while I was ovulating. She gave me yet another 12 drugs I had to take simultaneously, I don’t know what they were for. I need drugs to sleep and tranquillisers for those times when I become very fearful or tearful.

— This is the article that appeared in the Mail & Guardian on April 8 1999, seven days after I was raped and stabbed. I am running this again as a precursor to articles I will write on Thought Leader every day for the 16 days of activism — November 25 to December 10 — to plea for an end to violence against women. I write not to depress but hopefully to help inspire a new sense of purpose in us all to end the violent rhetoric and actions that hurt all of us in our society, in every society. Violence against women and children are the crimes in every country of the world, that are the least likely to lead to convictions. In the end I am just one person, it is you, who I hope will help make the difference. My story continues, I began writing it the day after I was raped —

A general practitioner gave me Valoid to stop nausea and vomiting. Since the rape I frequently feel nauseous, my stomach aches from where he pushed me. But also I feel as though I have something terrible in my stomach that I have to get rid of, I wish someone could scrape out my insides. When I told a male friend about the incident I began vomiting. In two weeks’ time I will need the Valoid because the anti-retroviral drugs by that time, according to a doctor, will give me constant nausea.

This is about the rape: I came home at 8.30pm. I had met with a French television crew I had given some assistance to. I was tired. My three dogs acted as normal. I opened the door, walked in and locked it again. I noticed there were more lights on than I had left on, an expensive mustard coloured leather jacket with sheepskin lining that I had bought in Argentina was in the middle of the lounge floor, I thought my son had come home needing a warm jacket and had, for inexplicable reasons, left a jacket on the lounge floor. I went to his room and noted the lights were on instead of just his lamp. I left them.

I went into my room, put my bag, car keys and cellphone on a chair next to the telephone and went to the toilet kicking off my shoes as I went. As I stood next to the toilet to flush he was there, he stood briefly in the doorway as if wanting me to admire him in the jacket, I began screaming. He walked toward me holding an elaborate silver Argentine gaucho’s knife that was usually in a display among paintings in the lounge, and said, “keep quiet I have a knife”. No ordinary kitchen knife for him.

I obeyed. He pushed me out of the bathroom holding the knife close to me, “where is the money?” “I don’t have any,” I said. “I am poor.”

He looked in my bag, I had R10, he was furious and threw it on the floor. “Is this all?” Yes, I said. Where was my ATM card, I gave it to him. “Give me the number, and don’t lie.” I did as he said. I can take you there in the car, I said, (I just wanted to get out of the house).

No, he said. He grabbed me by my arms, which days later still ache. “Is anyone coming here?” “Yes,” I said. When? I thought, if I tell him it is soon he might panic — “in an hour or two”. “Is it your husband?” “Yes.” He asked, “where is your son?” “He is sleeping at friends tonight.”

“Don’t move, I’m going to tie you up.” He opened my cupboard. He’s going to bind me with scarves or stockings, I thought. But this was a man who had prepared while waiting for my return, thick masking tape normally kept in a kitchen cupboard was waiting in my bedroom cupboard. He tied my hands behind my back, making tape go round and round my wrists and hands.

“First”, he said, “we are going to have sex”. He was a tall man, about two metres, good-looking, not very dark skin, the pale tones of a Xhosa or Tswana, with a thin moustache. His eyes had a slightly almond shape. He had a thin gold sleeper earring in his left ear, he wore a good quality long-sleeve green polo-neck type shirt, he wore an expensive pair of brown corduroys. He took off my slacks and underwear, and undid his pants.

A week before the incident on a Saturday at about noon, the phone rang, I picked it up, a man with a deep voice said, “Hello Mrs Smith what are you doing,” I queried: “who am I speaking to?” He said, “Aaron”. I asked, “can I help you?” He said, “I’ve been watching you a long time, I love you”. I put the phone down. His voice troubled me. I phoned the Parkview police and spoke to a sergeant on duty who said there was nothing they could do, if I wanted I could get Telkom to tap my phone. We went out and on our return the same man had left a message on the answering machine, “If you don’t want to speak to me I will fuck you”.

He pushed me onto the bed. I remembered reading of a woman who told a would-be rapist she had Aids and he left her alone, I tried the same thing. He said, “I’ll wear a condom”. He did not. He could not get a full erection. I was very dry making full penetration difficult. He began swearing. He has to stay in control, I thought. I soothed, “It’s not your fault, it’s the Aids, it does this”. How old are you he asked, I lied and said I was considerably older, it occurred to me that he knew menopausal women could be dry.

A friend disagrees, she believes, he thought older white women are less likely to be HIV+. I lay there and thought, be calm, be calm. He finished and did up his pants, “now I’m going to get the money, but I will only be 15 minutes, don’t do anything stupid because I will kill you”. He wound tape across my eyes and around my head, “don’t put the tape over my nose because I won’t be able to breathe,” I said. He wound it over my mouth and around my head, bound my ankles and my knees. Throughout I spoke in a calm, level voice.

(At this stage in writing my heart began pounding and I began vomiting, my son found me crouching next to the toilet and crying, it was now night and the bathroom looked the same as when the rapist had entered. I continued writing the next morning after a sleep aided by a tranquilliser and sleeping pill and the 24-hour security guard and new alarm system a friend has installed. A kind neighbour has changed the locks on the doors.)

I could hear him go to my bag and rifle through it, “don’t you have any credit cards or other bank cards”. “No, I told you I am poor.” I heard him pocket my cellphone. He picked me up as if I weighed nothing (I’m 1.62m and weigh 57kg), “I’m going to lock you into the toilet so you don’t try anything”. The silver fingerprint powder on the door later showed he had big hands.

He put me on the ground. I realised I must look like a victim I was crouching forward, knees bent, head down. In fact my pose was not of submission but of intense concentration listening to and analysing every sound. “I’m going, I will be only 15 minutes”. He closed the door, but did not lock it, this told me he would not leave the house immediately. I heard him lifting the lids of Chinese urns in the lounge, he was still looking for money — but he left my laptop on the bed where he raped me, a radio on a living room couch, a brand new mountain bike, antique earrings in my ears. He took off my watch but dropped it on the floor. His real motive was not robbery, although he also took a Chinese silk rug on my bedroom floor, leaving behind an Indian dhurrie. He has expensive tastes, I instinctively feel these are trophies for him, he will not try to sell them. He is not your normal petty thief/rapist. He speaks well, he has had a decent education. He was clean. He planned this all so carefully.

He comes back into the bathroom, “where are the front door keys?” I can’t speak so I indicate with my bound hands, “you’re not tied up well enough,” he comes back and applies layers more masking tape to my hands and wrists.

He slides a latch across the bathroom door. I hear him quietly leave, and lock the front door. He left through the front door, onto a patio blazing with light in full view of the street.

I wait a while in case he returns to check on me, and then I struggle to free myself. I am not a person of much physical strength, I get men to open the lids on jars, or even tins. The first victory is when the ties around my ankles break free, and then my knees. I can’t see which of our two bathrooms I am in, but I guess. I flounder around with my eyes bound, I have to get my hands free, it is unbelievably hard, at one point I stop, I’m exhausted, I’m terrified, I feel like giving up. But I think, if you give up, he will come back and kill you. I continue, finally I get one hand free, I push the tape over my eyes up, and that over my mouth down, I can’t get my other hand free, it is bound not only to my back, but in some strange way to my jacket, he’s done something so that it continues to restrict me. I ignore it and begin kicking the door. I realise I don’t have the strength to smash it. I open the window and begin tugging at the burglar bars, I’ll never pull them out.

I begin screaming, “help me, please somebody help me”. I have a quiet voice and even when I raise it, it is not very loud. He has put me in the middle bathroom furtherest from neighbours, it is also the beginning of a long weekend, my neighbours may have gone away. Not even dogs bark when I shout. No-one seems to hear. I kick the door some more. “Please God, let me live,” I pray under my breath. The lights are off but I feel for something in the bathroom cupboard to break the window, perhaps that sound will carry further than my voice. The first few containers I use have no impact, and then I take one that makes the glass break, I keep smashing the glass out of the frame, “help me, someone please help me”. I think of murder victims, they must have felt like this before they died. There is a glow from my neighbours outdoor lights but I know those are electronically controlled, the night is soundless and dark.

I can’t smash out the top window frame, my strength seems to be failing. At one stage my mouth goes absolutely dry and no sound leaves my lips. I drink water from the tap and carry on shouting. Suddenly I see a torch glow and hear the voices of men at my back gate. At first I’m terrified, is that him back with more? And then I recognise the voice of a neighbour, he says, “what is wrong”. “Call the police,” I shout, “I’ve been raped, he has a knife, please get me out of here, he is coming back. Be careful, he has a knife … ”

They manage to get to the window, “help me please, get me out of here, I’m locked in the bathroom and I’m terrified”. “We’ve called the police, how do we get into the house,” they ask. “I don’t know, break the doors or the windows but please get me out.” Seconds later I hear voices in the passage, I’m frightened again, it must be him in the house. But it’s them. The back door was wide open, he also managed to get through a locked interior door without any sign of it being interfered with.

They unlock the door and stand looking at me in horror. I’m wearing only a longish top, the lower part of my body is naked, I have masking tape all over my head and my body, my left hand is bleeding where the knife slashed me, but is still attached to masking tape and my jacket hampering my movement. I cry, “I’m terribly sorry, but he raped me I don’t have my clothes with me”. My white neighbour goes to fetch his wife. My black neighbour leads me gently away, “please cut off this masking tape I can’t move properly” I try to move my bloodied hand. My black neighbour gets something and with the greatest gentleness cuts off the masking tape and frees my hand. I tell you the race of my neighbours, because I want you to know that rape is not about race, as some South Africans think. It is not about what men do. It is only about what a few sick individuals do, it has nothing to do with race or male-hood. And indeed, men for the most part treated me better than women that night.

The police arrive, I can see shock on their faces, they ask for details and I am still astonishingly calm, I know it’s important that I should be, they immediately begin broadcasting details on their hand radios, one dashes out. My neighbour’s wife arrives and holds me, I want to put on my clothes, at least underwear, but she cautions me not to, she helps me find a gown. I keep saying to them and the police, I’ve got to get AZT fast so that I don’t get HIV. I find my doctor’s phone number, I call him, he’s away for the weekend. I phone a close friend, her answering machine is on. I phone another, I tell her what happened, and ask her to try and find my doctor. She is concerned and confused. I tell her I am fine I just need AZT.

The police ask me not to remove the remaining masking tape because they want to fingerprint it. A young police reservist takes me outside, a neighbour and his wife drive by, they stop and ask one of my rescuers what is going on, he speaks quietly to them. Another comes and also speaks to him. The streets are dark and I don’t know if he is somewhere watching me, I am uncharacteristically terrified. I don’t mind the neighbours knowing what happened, they and their families must be aware of the danger in this otherwise quiet neighbourhood. But I don’t want anyone looking at me.

I have all my medical aid details, the police have radioed ahead to Milpark Hospital* telling them I’m a rape victim (how I hate the word victim) and that I want AZT. I hate getting out of the car and walking past the people in casualty, who stare at me, my left hand is caked in blood, I am wearing a gown and have masking tape in my hair, around my wrists, neck, ankles and knees. A young nurse guides me into a private cubicle and leaves me. I don’t want to lie on a bed, I don’t want anything to do with beds. I don’t want to sit down because then I feel moisture between my legs, even though I do not believe he achieved orgasm. I realise I’m standing with my arms at my sides facing the wall saying quietly over and over, “I’m alive, I’m alive”. The young nurse comes in and gently pulls me away from the wall and puts her arms around me.

A male nurse comes in and I realise I’m slowly backing toward the wall away from him. I see his concerned face and catch myself and stop. This is not his fault. I must stay in control. I ask them to please cut off the masking tape, they ask the policeman who consents, he knows it is upsetting me, they put the tape in a plastic bag for evidence.

After about half an hour there, the two nurses lead me back to the police car saying I have to go to the district surgeon first. The male nurse gives me rape crisis numbers. The policeman tells me Milpark refused to give me AZT because my medical aid is for hospitalisation only, and I’m not going to be hospitalised. This is despite the fact that I’ve been admitted as a patient to Milpark before with heart problems, the last time was in September before I was on medical aid and I paid my bill in full and promptly. But in South African private clinics, economics are more important than lives. The young police officer is concerned about me, he deserves a medal for his kindness. He races to Hillbrow to the district surgeon’s offices — it’s like entering a scene from the gloomiest and most terrifying pages of George Orwell’s 1984.

We battle to enter, and then drive through darkness to the back of the now empty hospital. Loud music thumps from a party somewhere nearby. There are no lights outside the district surgeon’s office, no bell to press, the police officer bangs on the windows, until two security guards come and battle to open the door. We go in, a police officer from the child protection unit is there, a child under the age of 18 who has been raped is being examined.

The lighting is dim, it is like a third world airport. It has no phone, no water or tea or anything for victims or police. Rows of benches are shoved against the walls, with filing cabinets, desks, it looks like a furniture storage depot, a narrow three panel screen shields curious eyes from victims. Pamphlets titled “Realising Our Hopes”, Nelson Mandela’s final speech are scattered on one table, there are others about Rosebank Vaccination Station, nothing about how to cope after sexual assault.

There is no AZT there — how could I forget, Minister Nkosazana Zuma, a woman too, won’t allow government to give AZT to rape victims and pregnant women to reduce transmission of the disease to their babies. The rapist bestows a death sentence and the state by refusing to give cheap medication that could save many women, becomes executioner. I thought the death sentence was outlawed?

Officers from the sexual offences unit arrive they want to take a statement and for me to undergo an examination by the district surgeon first. It has now been two hours since the rape. I refuse to comply with anything until I get AZT, which my guardian angel in the form of the police constable has now discovered is at Garden City Clinic.* I have cards for Medical Rescue International in my handbag I phone them, I tell them what happened, they leave me holding on for a while and then speak to the police officer and arrange to cover payment. If I don’t have HIV it’s because MRI and a concerned young policeman cared.

The police reservist races me across to the clinic. He takes a receptionist aside and tells her what has happened and the name of the contact person at the clinic who has given approval for the drug. She is young with long dark hair and pursed lips, she goes into bureaucratic mode, she says she does not know of any such person. This, by the way, is the clinic where if I had injured my rapist and he was taken prisoner he would have been admitted without question and treated free at the state’s expense. I’m getting desperate, I lean across, “this is my life we are talking about,” I remind her. “There must be someone who can expedite this, find him.”

She directs us to casualty. A nurse there also goes into bureaucratic mode. I grab a passing doctor and tell him I need help, he says, he can’t help and the doctor in charge is suturing. I become threatening. He goes in to where the doctor is, the doctor comes out, I tell him the time that has lapsed since the rape and that I need AZT fast. Others in casualty watch. The doctor orders the drugs, and says another woman who has been stabbed with a needle also needs it and they have summoned the pharmacist.

I go into a cubicle to wait. The doctor comes by half an hour later and offers me tea, he is the first person to do so, at Milpark I slaked my dry mouth by drinking from a tap. It takes one and a half hours before the drugs arrive, it is astonishing that there is not fast access to anti-retrovirals in casualty for needlestick injuries and rape victims. This is the country with the fastest growing incidence of Aids in the world. They take the first of what will be many blood tests for HIV and hepatitis.

It is now 1am, we go back to the district surgeon’s office. No-one asks my name or attempts to befriend me, I’m just another victim to them, so I take the initiative. I’m examined, smears are taken, I mention that my arms and stomach are aching and the doctor then examines me for bruising, only a few are visible. I ask to go to the toilet, I have not been allowed to go for the whole evening. There is no toilet paper so I am given a sanitary pad to wipe myself with. I ask if I may finally wash my hands, and do.

The young police officer takes me home close to 2am, the two police officers from the sexual offences unit are waiting outside my home. In the five and a half hours since my rape took place a further 7 200 women and children had been raped in South Africa. During this time the police reservist has ascertained where my son is, has ensured he is safe. Has contacted people close to me. Has arranged for a guard for the house and the locks to be changed, he has been unstinting in his thoughtfulness and concern.

There are silver-grey fingerprint dustings throughout the house. The police officers walk me through the house listening to my story, but not before they cancel my cellphone and bank cards. Vodacom which could trace the vicinity of the cellphone through their tracking systems say they need permission from Teljoy, no-one answers calls at Teljoy. Vodacom says then they can’t do anything. Thanks for helping in the fight against crime Vodacom* and Teljoy. What happened to me was not half as bad as what happens to other rape victims but it is still hard to get through each day. The SAPS were wonderful to me. Private clinics and the district surgeon’s office are a disgrace, in a country with such a high incidence of rape why are they not more sensitive to victims? The fact that anti-retroviral drugs are not immediately and freely administered is criminal.

The third night after, I am trying to sleep when I think of the oft-quoted statement by rape action groups that rape is about men exerting power over women. And I think that is so wrong. There was only one person who was powerful during my rape and that was me, I remained calm and in control of myself, while always allowing him to believe that he was in charge. What power did he have? A knife. A weapon does not make you powerful, it is only the weak who have to resort to weapons and violence and force.

He was a good-looking man, lots of women would find him attractive, why does he need to do this? The truth is, he does not, there are places where he can get help. I’m sorry he, and others like him, lack the courage to get that help.

He never took me prisoner because my mind was strong and clear, there are times now and there will be times later when I will feel depressed and fearful. But he cannot imprison my mind. I have the power. He will never be as powerful as me, even if he had killed me, he would have been left with the knowledge that I, and the others I am sure he has raped before, we were the ones with the power.

And if I have HIV? I pray that I don’t, but I believe all of this happened for a purpose, God sent me this challenge, I have to turn this evil into good and that too is why I am speaking out. Rape victims are not statistics, we are people, this is our story. We have nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a so-called moral society that does nothing that should be filled with shame.

* In the decade since Netcare, owners of Milpark and Garden City Clinic have spent millions converting all emergency rooms to be rape survivor sensitive and giving special training to staff and every year they give free ARVs to prevent HIV to thousands of indigent rape survivors. Vodacom has trained all its emergency call centre staff in how to assist rape survivors and now will trace calls from those who experience crime. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Richard Friedland of Netcare and Joan Joffe and Dot Field of Vodacom for listening to this often difficult rape survivor and caring enough about all women to put money behind their commitment to ending violence.

  • View more on our special report on 16 days of activism here.
  • Author

    • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


    Charlene Smith

    Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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