Unthinkable Attack Jolts a Crime-Weary Country
November 16, 2001

JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 15 - The victim of the unspeakable crime smiles as if nothing had ever happened, gurgling at the steady stream of strangers who hover over her crib at Kimberley Hospital. She is 10 months old, with brown eyes and pudgy legs, and she is one of South Africa's youngest rape victims.

Six men have been charged with raping the baby girl, and her story has united an often-divided nation in collective outrage. Wealthy housewives, politicians and grandmothers from the townships have flooded talk-radio shows with angry calls demanding the death penalty and castration for the accused.

This week, Deputy President Jacob Zuma stood before Parliament and described the assault as "moral depravity of the highest order." His speech on Wednesday came one day after hundreds of protesters marched outside the courthouse in the town of Upington, where the suspects were appearing, and shouted, "Kill the abusers!"

In a crime-weary nation numbed by regular reports of sexual assault, this rape clearly hit a nerve. The police say that it is unlikely that all six men raped the infant in the attack, which took place three weeks ago. Investigators now believe one man was responsible and charges against the others may be withdrawn.

"In all probability it will only be one man," Senior Superintendent Rita Crafford said in an interview. "But whether it's one man or six, there are no words to describe this rape."

In recent years, South Africa has had one of the highest levels of reported sexual violence in the world. Between 1994 and 1997, the number of rape and attempted rape cases jumped from 42,429 to 52,159, police statistics show. In 2000, the figure was 52,860.

But analysts believe that more than half of the country's rapes are never reported to the police. Even reported cases rarely result in a conviction; in 2000, for example, only 7.6 percent of cases ended with a defendant found guilty, according to the police statistics.

Government officials complain that advocacy groups exaggerate the extent of the problem and unfairly taint the nation's image. But for ordinary people, the reality of rape - and the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with it - is so commonplace that screenwriters and playwrights explore the theme on stage and on television.

This year, the television program "Soul City" featured an old man who had to decide whether to report his promising young nephew, who was also a rapist, to the police. In the play "Beautiful Things," which is currently running at the Market Theater here, police officers place a professional black woman who has just been gang-raped in the hands of another band of criminals who rape her again.

The AIDS epidemic here has only added to the problem of sexual violence since many men believe that sex with a virgin is the only way to rid themselves of the disease.

"There is a civil war in this county and it's a war against women's bodies," said Mpho Thekiso, the program manager of the National Network on Violence against Women, which is based in Pretoria. "In the past, people used to hide it. Now people are coming forward."

South Africa's black government has been struggling to cope with a surge in crime since the end of all- white rule in 1994. Apartheid shattered and dislocated communities and families and its proponents created a police force that pursued black nationalists relentlessly, but did little in the way of solving crime.

"Apartheid sowed the seeds for the breakdown of the institution of the family," Mr. Zuma said in his speech. "The molestation of children and infants is a symptom of this degeneration."

"Government alone cannot eradicate this scourge, which resides within our communities," he said. "Each and every one of us has a role to play."

Critics say, however, that the current government has done too little to stop crimes against women and children. With the economy shedding jobs and many men long unemployed, poor communities are breeding grounds for such violence.

The baby girl, who was raped three weeks ago, lived with her 16- year-old mother and her grandmother in an impoverished township in the Northern Cape province.

Police say the rape occurred after the baby's mother decided to go out drinking with friends and left her little girl at home with someone she knew. When the grandmother returned, she found the infant crying and covered with blood.

Dr. Hamid Shabbir, the medical director at Kimberley Hospital, said the little girl already has had one operation and will likely have another.

Well-wishers, who had read about her plight, have filled her hospital room with toys and teddy bears.

"We struggle to streamline the traffic of the people," Dr. Shabbir said of the many strangers who are showing up to visit.

But if the police had not initially described the attack as a gang rape, the baby's story would not have been big news, advocates for rape victims say. She would have been just another rape victim, nearly invisible and soon forgotten.

"Rape is horrific, but it has become everyday," said Lisa Vetten, the gender program coordinator at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation here. "To generate headlines, something truly horrendous has to happen."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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