A system waiting to be corrected: How ‘corrective rape’ is approached in South Africa

By Lebogang Mdlankomo

It was early evening in February 2010 when Lungile Dladla and her friend decided to take a shortcut home, across a patch of veld not far behind a local primary school.

Dladla, who is openly lesbian and known in her community as such, had visited a friend on the other side of town and was headed home.

“It felt too quiet but we carried on walking,” Dlada remembered.

A man passed Dladla and her friend, walking in the opposite direction. He was wearing a grey hoodie, and seemed like a regular person from the neighbourhood. But, after passing them, he covered his head with his hood and his mouth with a floral cloth. With most of his face concealed, he pulled a gun on the two women and ordered them to walk to a specific spot in the veld.

Dladla recalled that the place looked as if it was used regularly, and that the man seemed familiar with the space.

This was his lair. A place he took all his victims.

“You know how long thatched grass is? Well this area had a section where the grass was flattened out,” she said.

This was his lair. A place he took all his victims.

After undressing both of them, he blindfolded Dladla and tied her up. He raped Dladla’s friend, and then her. The attacker did not have enough rope to tie both women at the same time. He tied each of them in turn while he untied the other and raped her.

“It was the kind of rope normally used to tie up livestock with,” said Dladla.

All I could think was: I wish I could vanish or die before this guy gets on me.

Dladla’s friend tried to negotiate with their attacker, saying she would give him money if he let them go. When he refused she asked that he at least use a condom before raping them, but he said the only thing he wanted was to “take the lesbian” out of them.

“All I could think was: I wish I could vanish or die before this guy gets on me,” said Dladla.

When the rapist was done, Dladla heard him making his way out of the bushes. From a distance, he shouted that the two women could leave. Dladla’s attacker had kept her and her friend in the bushes for four hours.

After finding their way out, Dladla convinced her reluctant friend that they should go to the police station. When they arrived to report the rape, the police were only interested in attending to Dladla’s friend because she was dressed “like a girl”.

It was not until a former schoolmate, who worked at the police station, confirmed Dladla was a female that the police were willing to take her statement too. The women managed to open a case against the serial rapist who had been operating in the area, but it would take 18 months before Dladla’s case went to court.


Dladla is one of the few survivors of what has come to be known as “corrective rape”. The term was coined to describe hate crimes based on sexual orientation, in which a lesbian or gay person is raped or assaulted with the aim of “changing them back” to a heterosexual status.

Most documented instances of corrective rape and similar hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people involve serious physical abuse and even death.

After the murders of Eudy Simelane, Zoliswa Nkonyana, Salome Masooa, Sizakele Sigasa and Thokozane Qwabe – all women allegedly killed because of their sexual orientation – gender and justice activtists, and local and international media, have come to label the growing accounts of corrective rape as a uniquely South African epidemic.

paper by Lorenzo Di Silvio, published in the Georgetown Law Journal, stated that gay women targeted for corrective rape were more likely to find themselves isolated, with little support, and were generally vulnerable.

Though official figures do not account for corrective rape, broader trends also show that in South Africa black lesbian women are disproportionately at risk of discrimination from both their families and their communities. However, to date, there hasn’t been any provision made in the South African judicial system to prosecute such crimes specifically as hate crimes.

One of the few advocacy programmes working for the rights of lesbian women in townships is the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), which works with local government and law enforcement agencies to raise awareness about issues affecting LGBTI people within their communities.

FEW programmes director Phindi Malaza said the majority of the constituency was people living in townships, because those were the people who “experience[d] a lot of violence” compared to those living in suburbs.

Dladla, for example, lives in Kwa-Thema, an Ekurhuleni township on the East Rand near  Johannesburg, where a number of corrective rape cases have allegedly taken place. Though Dladla says people in her neighbourhood are open and accepting of her lifestyle, there are certain areas known as corrective rape hotspots. She singled out “Swazi” section, where she was raped, and “Etwatwa”, both regarded as dangerous areas for lesbians.

It’s all in the numbers

A 2010/2011 report by the South African Police Service (SAPS) stated that the total reported sexual offences in the country had decreased by 3.1%.

The detailed report, which does not separate out the different types of rape – such as stranger rape, partner rape, incest and male sexual abuse – shows that during the reporting period, reported sexual offences had decreased from 68 332 [in the previous period] to 66 196.

But LGBTI organisations say that corrective rape is on the rise. “With stats, it’s very difficult because the cases we know of don’t mean those are the only cases,” said Malaza.

Malaza believes the toll of people murdered because of their sexual orientation stands at eight to 10 in the first five months of 2012. She explained that some deaths and hate crime incidents were only discovered after the incidents had made it into the news.

While a member of FEW was investigating the brutal murder of gay pageant winner and activistThapelo Makhutle in the Northern Cape earlier this year, the organisation was told of another murder of a lesbian in the area, an alleged corrective rape incident.

Malaza said this showed that a number of incidents were still happening but not officially captured.

Just days before Joburg Pride took place early in October 2012, the body of lesbian Desiree Ntombana Mafu was found in the Roodepoort cemetery near Dobsonville in Soweto, also presumed to be a victim of corrective rape.

The reality is that in South Africa there has only been one precedent-setting case, in which the hate crime element was incorporated in the sentencing of a rape or murder trial.

Criminal intent

Only a fraction of suspected corrective rape cases are prosecuted – and Dladla’s rapist was not charged for raping her because of her sexuality.

During the trial, she was asked if she could identify her attacker, to which she replied “yes”. The rapist was then asked to plead.

As her attacker pleaded guilty to rape and the court accepted his plea, the hate crime element was not considered as the intent when he was sentenced, she explained.

The rapist was convicted on 11 accounts of rape at the Benoni Magistrate’s Court. One of his victims was an 11-year-old girl – from the school situated opposite the veld where he took most of the victims.

On April 28 2008, Eudy Simelane, a 31-year-old lesbian from Kwa-Thema was killed on her way home from a bar. A forensic report showed that she was stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs and was also raped.

The sentencing of Simelane’s killers in September 2009 was central to bringing attention to attacks against lesbian and gays in the country, but Judge Ratha Mokgoatleng did not establish sexual orientation as a motive for her death.

The only current conviction which specifically recognises sexual orientation as the cause of violence was obtained in February this year, when four men were convicted of stoning and stabbing 19-year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana to death in February 2006. The group of men had pursued Nkonyana and beaten her because she was openly lesbian.

In her ruling, Magistrate Raadiyah Wathen said she believed the brutal killing of Nkonyana was fuelled by hatred. It was the first time discrimination based on sexual orientation was named as an aggravating factor in a South African criminal trial.

Protection and legal services

The LBGTI community feels that the discrimination they face is not being addressed by the criminal justice system. Founder of Lawyers against Abuse and Wits Law Professor Bonita Meyersfeld said this was because “any legal developments happen in a very staggered way”.

She said victims of corrective rape often did not receive justice because “a lot of them [rapes] are taking place in under-resourced, rural or far-flung jurisdictions”.

Meyersfeld believes there is also a level of ignorance about the prejudice related to sexual orientation and how the law should respond to that prejudice. “Judges are scared and do not want to been seen as advancing an agenda, therefore there is a prosecutorial and judicial deference to the status quo,” Meyersfeld said.

LGBTI organisations and the South African Human Rights Commission have now rallied together to ensure that the criminal justice system effectively recognises hate crimes and corrective rape as separate categories.

The Hate Crimes Working Group has compiled mediation systems to assist in addressing hate crimes in South Africa. These include the reform and policing of hate crimes, improving the judicial response to hate crimes and developing improved monitoring of such cases.

In May last year, a task team was commissioned by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to create legislation that addresses hate crimes. The team, including representatives from the judiciary, SAPS, Social Development and LGBTI organisations, will be involved in developing a legislative intervention plan and public awareness strategies.

Malaza, who is part of the team, says they will evaluate “existing legislations instead of coming up with new laws. Instead of coming up with another policy, let’s review the existing ones and see why they are not working”.

The police don’t understand the idea of someone being a lesbian.
Law enforcement not clued up

Dladla’s case – and many others highlighted in the media – follow a similar pattern. Members of the LGBTI community say SAPS officers do not deal with reports in a tactful manner, adding that statements taken down by police officers rarely exceed a page and are often not detailed enough to be used effectively during a criminal trial.

Lovey Mbongela*, a lesbian from Unitas Park in Vereeniging, said: “When you go and report such a case they think you brought it upon yourself – and they don’t follow it up. There is no justice in South Africa when it comes to lesbians.”

“The police don’t understand the idea of someone being a lesbian,” added Zama Mdluli* from Alexandra.

Dladla said she was quizzed about her sexuality and sex life for 45 minutes before the rape matter was handled.

Human and LGBTI rights attorney Mpho Nefuri said: “Police services need to be conscientised on these issues.”

Nefuri is currently representing a lesbian couple who were allegedly assaulted by three security guards in the Carlton Centre because they were kissing in public. She said the police are not trained to assess merits, and this contributes to victims being discouraged from reporting cases.

Professor Meyersfeld says she advises her clients not to go alone to the police station. “It’s the most unsafe place you can go to after a rape.”

 It’s the most unsafe place you can go to after a rape. 

Meyersfeld believes that police officers are not sensitive to the idea of different sexual orientations and homophobia.

Dladla’s case was “closed” by the SAPS, who also failed to communicate with her, and was only re-opened – and transferred to another police station – after Kaya FM newsreader Nomzamo Khumalo assisted Dladla with enquiring about the progress.

There are a handful of organisations that offer their services to help victims access justice. The Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (Adapt) in Alexandra has “criminal justice co-ordinators that assist victims of rape, regardless of their sexual orientation, who have been victimised at police stations”, said assistant co-ordinator of the men’s programme, Thapelo Rahlogo.

The organisation offers support to victims through the justice process – from the point of laying a charge, to helping them understand the details of a trial.

Perhaps if Dladla had had the opportunity to get help from an organisation like Adapt, justice would have been served much quicker.

Dladla said it was disappointing to see how the SAPS and government were not proactive about hate crimes against LGBTI. “Maybe one needs to be lesbian and a rhino so that something is done!”


This feature was originally produced for the 2012 in-depth project of Wits Honours in Journalism class.