by Annie Kelly
March 12, 2009
The partially clothed body of Eudy Simelane, former star of South Africa's acclaimed Banyana Banyana national female football squad, was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang-raped and brutally beaten before being stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs. As well as being one of South Africa's best-known female footballers, Simelane was a voracious equality rights campaigner and one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Kwa Thema.
Her brutal murder took place last April, and since then a tide of violence against lesbian women in South Africa has continued to rise. Human rights campaigners say it is characterised by what they call "corrective rape" committed by men behind the guise of trying to "cure" lesbian women of their sexual orientation.
Now, a report by the international NGO ActionAid, backed by the South African Human Rights Commission, condemns the culture of impunity around these crimes, which it says are going unrecognised by the state and unpunished by the legal system.
The report calls for South Africa's criminal justice system to recognise hate crimes, including corrective rape, as a separate crime category. It argues this will force police to take action over the rising violence and ensure the resources and support is provided to those trying to bring perpetrators to justice.
The ferocity and brutality of Simelane's murder sent shockwaves through Kwa Thema, where she was much known and loved for bringing sports fame to the sprawling township.
Her mother, Mally Simelane, said she always feared for her daughter's safety but never imagined her life would be taken in such a way.
"I'm scared of these people that they are going to come and kill me too because I don't know what happened," she said. "Why did they do this horrible thing? Because of who she was? She was a sweet lady, she never fought with anyone, but why would they kill her like this? She was stabbed, 25 holes in her. The whole body, even under the feet."
The Guardian talked to lesbian women in townships in Johannesburg and Cape Town who said they were being deliberately targeted for rape and that the threat of violence had become an everyday ordeal.
"Every day I am told that they are going to kill me, that they are going to rape me and after they rape me I'll become a girl," said Zakhe Sowello from Soweto, Johannesburg. "When you are raped you have a lot of evidence on your body. But when we try and report these crimes nothing happens, and then you see the boys who raped you walking free on the street."
Research released last year by Triangle, a leading South African gay rights organisation, revealed that a staggering 86% of black lesbians from the Western Cape said they lived in fear of sexual assault. The group says it is dealing with up to 10 new cases of "corrective rape" every week.
"What we're seeing is a spike in the numbers of women coming to us having been raped and who have been told throughout the attack that being a lesbian was to blame for what was happening to them," said Vanessa Ludwig, the chief executive at Triangle.
Support groups claim an increasingly aggressive and macho political environment is contributing to the inaction of the police over attacks on lesbian women and is part of a growing cultural lethargy towards the high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa.
"When asking why lesbian women are being targeted you have to look at why all women are being raped and murdered in such high numbers in South Africa," said Carrie Shelver, of women's rights group Powa, a South African NGO. "So you have to look at the increasingly macho culture, which seeks to oppress women and sees them as merely sexual beings. So when there is a lesbian woman she is an absolute affront to this kind of masculinity."
A statement released by South Africa's national prosecuting authority said: "While hate crimes – especially of a sexual nature – are rife, it is not something that the South African government has prioritised as a specific project."
The failure of police to follow up eyewitness statements and continue their investigation into another brutal double rape and murder of lesbian couple Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Massooa in July 2007 has led to the formation of the 07-07-07 campaign, a coalition of human rights and equality groups calling for justice for women targeted in these attacks.
Sigasa and Massooa were tortured, gang raped and shot near their homes in Meadowland, Soweto in July 2007, shortly after being verbally abused outside a bar.
Human rights and equality campaigners are hoping that the public outrage and disgust at Simelane's death and the July trial of the three men accused of her rape and murder will help put an end to the spiralling violence increasingly faced by lesbian women across South Africa.
Despite more than 30 reported murders of lesbian women in the last decade, Simelane's trial has produced the first conviction, when one man who pleaded guilty to her rape and murder was jailed last month.
On sentencing, the judge said that Simelane's sexual orientation had "no significance" in her killing. The trial of a further three men pleading not guilty to rape, burglary and murder will start in July.
In Soweto and Kwa Thema, women seem unconvinced that Simelane's case will change anything for the better.
Phumla talks of her experience of being taught a "classic lesson" by a group of men who abducted and raped her when she was returning from football training in 2003. She says that "practically every" lesbian in her community has suffered some form of violence in the past year and that it will take more than one trial to stop this happening.
"Every day you feel like its a time bomb waiting to go off," she said. "You don't have freedom of movement, you don't have space to do as you please. You are always scared and your life always feels restricted. As women and as lesbians we need to be very aware that it is a fact of life that we are always in danger."
SIDE NOTE: See video interviews with victims of 'corrective rape' here.