Warrior Healers of South Africa

Warrior Healers of South Africa

by Merle Hoffman

Vision of the new South Africa: a political mural in the township of Crossroads.
“We the People of South Africa
Recognize the injustices of our past
honor those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land
Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country and
believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”
       –Preamble of the constitution of the Republic of South Africa
adopted May 1996

“Routine is a seductive mistress.”
       –Nelson Mandela

“Women who seek equality with men lack ambition.”
       –computer screensaver of Carol Bower
Director of Rape Crisis Center, Cape Town

In March of 1997 I traveled to South Africa, intellectually knowing what to expect, but not expecting what I would feel once I arrived there.

I had read a great deal about the obscene history of apartheid; the media images of the townships and of Soweto’s agony were burned into my consciousness. I had followed the struggles of Nelson Mandela, the closest living example of Plato’s philosopher King, and had witnessed with the rest of the world the miracle of South Africa’s nonviolent political transition. In a conversation for this magazine with Rep. John Lewis, a hero in our own civil rights struggle, I had heard firsthand of the wonders of Mandela’s inauguration and sensed the hope that filled not just those who attended but everyone who ever dreamed of creating a new and just society.

In a sense I had come to think of the country in semi-spiritual terms — as a kind of morality play writ large. And indeed, with the recent formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a unique political and psychological experiment, concepts of sin and redemption and words like transcendence, healing, love, and justice take on a kind of physical immediacy. Almost every person I met with spoke intensely of the “new South Africa” or “our new country” in this shared vision of reclamation and truth.

One of the most vivid impressions of South Africa: the hopeful, friendly faces of children.

Everything moved me — the corrugated metal shacks of the townships, the hopeful friendly faces of the children who peered out from them, the unparalled physical beauty of the place, the primal drama of the wildlife in the bush, and most vividly and profoundly, the community of women I met, who are hard at work nation-building, justice-making and actualizing the feminist vision. May their energy, ambition and skill match their challenge, for the residues of apartheid are daunting.

The state, it seems, is in a state of recovery. South Africa has an almost 40 percent unemployment rate and an 80 percent illiteracy rate. A precipitous rise in violent crime, particularly crimes against women, have recently given it the dubious distinction of being labeled the “rape capital” of the world.

It was that fact that sent me to visit Carol Bower, a longtime feminist activist and progressive, and first director of Rape Crisis, which she and four other women founded more than 20 years ago in Cape Town.

The center is nonprofit, receives all its funding (about $250,000 a year) from foreign sources and has approximately 50 volunteers. It is located in a small private house 25 minutes outside the city. There is a protective metal gate, feminist posters on every wall, and women working at computer screens and speaking intensely into the phone — everything to make me feel instantly at home and at work among feminist warrior healers. Then there was Carol herself, whose energy, enthusiasm, commitment and faith have inspired me to continue to connect and work with this community of feminist visionaries. What follows is a conversation between us.

Hoffman: Tell me about your beginnings.

Bower: Most of us who started Rape Crisis had in fact been raped. Twenty years ago, when we started Rape Crisis, if you went with a woman to report a rape you guaranteed her a really horrendous time. Twenty years ago, I was thrown out of courtrooms for obstructing justice. Now we train public prosecutors and magistrates; we are training police personnel. We have a Constitution in place which guarantees basic rights to all people and has provided us with a window of opportunity to address a whole range of issues that we have not been able to address before. This doesn’t mean that anything is perfect or that we’re closer to what the ideal is. It just means that part of the job is to make sure women know what those rights are and how to access what they need to live their lives.

Hoffman: I understand that abortion was recently legalized here.

Rape Crisis has an extensive referral network and about 50 volunteers. Membership is for women only, and there is an intensive annual training course.

Bower: Abortion was legalized on the second of February, just under a month ago, and there have been a large number of demands for abortion subsequent to that. For many years, the only way you could get a legal abortion was if you reported a rape and the police person to whom you reported the rape believed you.

Hoffman: Abortion was only legal in the case of rape?

Bower: Rape, incest, and if there was clear indication that it was life-threatening to the mother, or if there was some genetic problem with the child. It was horrendously complicated. Now in the first trimester, any woman, whatever her age, can get an abortion without parental or spousal consent. And in terms of rape it’s possible to get an abortion without any problem up to four months — and you don’t have to have reported it.

Hoffman: That is a major political and philosophical advance — definitely more liberal than some of our state laws. How did that happen?

Bower: That all changed because we’re in a new South Africa, and there is a much better awareness of human rights. And this is about reproductive rights and a woman’s right to make her own choices. Details like, “How many weeks?”were debated, but abortion on demand was a principle that is basically entrenched in our Constitution simply as reproductive freedom. Every woman has the right to make those sorts of choices for herself.

Hoffman: Do you have an anti-choice movement here?

Bower: Yes. They’ve been around for a while with their little bottles of pieces in formaldehyde. Normal stuff. And the Catholic Church has spoken out very strongly against our abortion and pregnancy goals.

Carol Bower at Rape Crisis, which she and four other women founded over twenty years ago.
Two members of this community of feminists, which focuses on counseling, education and research.

Hoffman: But your Constitution is amazingly progressive.

Bower: Oh yes. This is one of the strange anomalies of this country now. In some ways we have among the most liberal laws in the world and we certainly have an incredible Bill of Rights and an amazing Constitution. But it’s one thing to put legislation in place; it’s another for it to have real effect and impact positively on women’s lives. Having the legislation in place is a big step in the right direction. Now what we need to do is make sure women know what their rights are and what that legislation is, so they can take part in it.

Hoffman: Tell me about your staff.

Bower: We work a lot with volunteers. Rape Crisis started out primarily as a counseling and education organization, but over the years that has changed. But our volunteer base is currently concentrated in those two areas.

Hoffman: What type of counseling do you do?

Bower: We do couple and conjoint. We will counsel any family member or partner particularly if they were witnesses to the rape and themselves were restrained and weren’t able to assist. We are offering a series of counseling up to a maximum of twelve sessions. Thereafter if you need more, we will look at why. As is often the case, there is a history of abuse and we have an extensive referral network. We have an annual training course which is very intensive including the history of the organization and a feminist analysis of rape, a feminist perspective on rape, and a feminist perspective on counseling.

Entry into the organization is reserved only for women. We don’t have male members. We’ve been asked a lot about it, especially in the new South Africa, but we’ve stuck to that very adamantly.

Hoffman: What are your relationships with other rape crisis centers?

Bower: We differ quite strongly ideologically from some.

Hoffman: In what ways?

Bower: Well, they’re not specifically feminist organizations, and we are. And although our counseling services are a very visible and important part of what we are doing, for us its one of a range of things that we are doing.

Hoffman: You move beyond treating casualties?

Bower: When you lobby barristers and legislators, when you do research, when you do public education, then you are improving the situation for a much wider number of women. We have a research project that is looking at the sexual offensives court started in Wynberg [a suburb of Cape Town] a couple of years ago. Our researchers are doing an evaluation of the experience of women who have been through that court in terms of their own recovery and the way they feel they were handled in that situation…

There were a couple of high-profile rapes recently that caused us a lot of trouble in a lot of ways. One was a family in Observatory, in Johannesburg. It’s a horrendous story, an absolute nightmare. Two assailants broke into their home, tied them up, raped the two teenage daughters in front of the parents and the various other relatives who were there, cleaned them out and left. There was a great deal of frothing at the mouth, as one can imagine, and the family concerned started an organization which they call Operation Camelot calling for the immediate castration of rapists. In that particular case, a man was arrested the very next day and within twenty four hours was released on bail of $1,000. Everybody went completely batty. Charges against him were dropped. It was a case of mistaken identity, a difficult position to be in.

We are a country with an appallingly bad human-rights record. We do have to presume people are innocent until proven guilty. Our demand is that bail conditions be looked at very carefully and tightened up, particularly where there’s a history of previous arrests or previous convictions, but at the same time we have to go with the basic provisions of the Bill of Rights.

There’s also the Robben Island Rape. The woman who was raped was a researcher of some kind working on the museum that they are putting in place [Robben Island was the prison island where Nelson Mandela was jailed.] She was spending the night there and someone came into the cottage where she was staying at 10:30 or 11:00 at night and raped her. There were only fourteen men on the island at the time. No one can quite figure it out. But she is very high profile and she was prepared to speak out, which is relatively unusual to find.

Hoffman: Is she black?

Bower: She’s black, yes. But she says the rapist was a white man. South Africans aren’t used to this stuff yet. They still get touchy about it. Fascinated maybe more than touchy. We have about 2.3 rapes a minute in this country. Every minute of every day.

Hoffman: What is the racial breakdown?

Bower: The breakdown follows the racial composition of the country. Less than 5 percent of rapes are interracial. And of that the vast majority are white men who rape black women and not the other way around. And people say the rate of rape is increasing.

Hoffman: What do you think is the reason for that?

Bower: There are many reasons. We are often asked why the rate of rape is increasing. My response to that is always, I’m not saying that it isn’t increasing; I’m just not convinced that it is. I think that there are two things happening. South Africa is a country with an extremely high violent-crime rate in general. Violent crime in this country — murder, assault with dangerous weapons, hijacking — happens on a daily basis. Those are increasing too. So, rape as a crime of violence is increasing.

Hoffman: So your analysis is that the increase is part of a general trend?

Bower: Part of that. The other thing is, I do believe it is easier for women to report rape these days. But there is no doubt that we have a very serious problem.

Hoffman: I did work in Moscow after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and there was a definite increase in violent crimes — particularly against women. The increased level of male frustration and anxiety with the political system was projected onto women — the usual scapegoats. Do you think a similar thing is happening here?

Bower: Oh yes. I don’t think you can have a system that systematically represses and suppresses the political aspirations of huge numbers of people for as long as we did it — [and I expect that] when you lift that lid, something is going to happen. The history of this country is that there is a lack of respect for human life. It’s just another life. It’s just another day. That’s why I like to try to look at it as a pattern. Violent crime has gone through the roof. It’s not just on the level of rape; domestic violence has also increased, incidents of abuse of children appear to have increased. The positive effects of the democratic changes that we have undergone, are starting to be felt, but it’s slow, slow, slow.

Feminism was a dirty word in this country for a long time.
We need to Africanize it.

Hoffman: Do women relate to each other collectively, as a class?

Bower: Not as strong as it could be. In this country feminism and feminist issues were, until comparatively recently, seen as a white middle-class thing. Black women did not have the time or the energy to get involved in all that “wishy-washy stuff”– when the bread-and-butter issues of political equality were literally killing their sons and brothers around them. It was difficult for us as white feminists to come to terms with that, but they honestly didn’t have the space to accommodate it.

Hoffman: Is there a difference in the way black and white women define feminism?

Bower: Feminism was a dirty word in this country for a long time… We need to Africanize feminism in a way. I went to Swaziland last November to evaluate a program for a funder. It was amazing. Swaziland is one of the most traditional patriarchal countries I’ve ever encountered. The king is all powerful and his advisory committee is a hand-picked group of chiefs. It’s very hierarchical and they are most interested in maintaining the status quo. Swaziland is so tiny that it is practically another province of South Africa. It blew my mind that in this tiny, traditional country where women do not matter at all, I met some of the strongest black feminists I had ever met.

Hoffman: You are describing a kind of organic, non-ideological feminism.

Bower: It is a strong grassroots, bread-and-butter feminism that I have not encountered, particularly in this country. The idea that feminism isn’t something that black women had time or space for is only now beginning to change. One of the things that is changing is the much more visible presence of strong black women. We have a lot more in government — M.P.s, deputy M.P.s, Speakers, Premiers. They are being seen in much more important places. Women realize that they have a certain amount of economic power, political power — just by sheer force of numbers. Just the concept. To stop and think that a third of our Parliament is female. It has to make you think. We live in a strange place. So much is changing and is good and wonderful.

Hoffman: It’s extraordinary. Its pioneering work — conceptually, theoretically, and operationally — and it is a gift to be part of it!

Bower: Just to see the credibility that we have now. When once we were scorned, laughed at, and thrown out. Now important — and I mean very important — people ask for our input, or ask us to comment on current issues. We go on radio, we go on television. It’s amazing for me to look at us and our credibility in those terms. Having been the far left lunatic fringe for most of my life to suddenly find ourselves in the middle… My fear is we’ll lose our activism. I’m nervous that we’ll be corrupted. I’m nervous that it will be all so comfortable and so wonderful.

Hoffman: A feminist paradise? Unlikely. But I was amazed to see no billboards here — no visible pornography. Do you expect it to happen as society becomes more “open”?

Bower: I think so, and as things just open up in general, I know there is a growing market for the hard-core stuff. And a lot of pornography involving children is starting to develop. I’m not sure what that means. There is definitely a bigger drug problem than we use to have. And these problems often seem to go together.

Hoffman: You talked about the feminists being — or your being — far left, radical left. What about the gay movement, the lesbian movement?

Bower: At one point they were inseparable. Rape Crisis was started by women who were mostly gay. The majority of the membership is still gay women. I think there are reasons for that, beyond the fact that it is comfortable to be gay in an organization like Rape Crisis. I think it goes to other responsibilities, whether people have children or not. I left, for instance, because I had a child three years earlier, and I found it extremely difficult to be the mother of a small baby and an active member of Rape Crisis, so coming back to it now that she’s fourteen has been a different experience, and there are other women in the organization who have children.

Hoffman: One of the ways the feminist movement is minimized or marginalized by the establishment in America, is to make it a “gay” issue.

Bower: Certainly in the ’70s and ’80s I think that was the case in this country, and I think it was based on the American model. The difference in the mid- to late- 90s has been the large number of black women in any organization that take on gender issues; there are large numbers of black women involved in them. We work quite closely with a wide range of different organizations. One organization, the Triangle Project, has grown from just dealing with gay-rights issues, to dealing with health care, adoption, and basic human rights.

Another difference in South Africa is that the majority is a black majority. Forty-three million people in this country and only three million are white.

Hoffman: That’s what makes the fact of your peaceful transition away from apartheid so miraculous!

Bower: I was driving home from work when it happened, and I saw someone holding up the newspaper, and it says “ANC Unbanned.” I was flabbergasted. It was such a shock. I mean when you talk about it afterward there were some indicators, but it seemed to come out of nowhere. One minute we were in the middle of a state of emergency, which was horrible, then next the ANC [African National Congress] was unbanned, and a week later Mandela was released. And suddenly it got to the point that you didn’t dare miss the news. It was the most incredible thing.

I remember voting, and I’d never voted until the general election in ’94. But I voted in the townships as a matter of principle because I worked in the townships for so long and I wanted to vote with the people I had worked with. And it was such an incredible experience. We all queued and shared bread or whatever food there was because it took hours. The queues went on for miles. Watching the television, there were all these talking heads supposedly analyzing, but there was nothing for them to say because the results were coming in. I think we rode on the euphoria of that for a long time. And obviously the reality sets in and the honeymoon is over, and we have a long hard road. I think this country has enormous potential, but we can’t pretend our history just didn’t happen.

And I think the vast majority of white South Africans don’t have a clue. I remember my sister phoning me right after things were starting to improve and there was a movie showing on television called “A Dry White Season.” So she phoned me all in a flap and said, “Please tell me it wasn’t this bad.”

I said, “I’m sorry, but it was much worse. That’s nothing.”

She asked, “Well, why didn’t you tell me?”

I said, “Well what do you think we were doing for the last twenty years?” That’s the thing. Whites, they just didn’t want to know. They couldn’t believe it, and they didn’t want to know. And it didn’t matter what you said; people simply refused to believe it. And they still don’t. The things that you hear come out of the Commission — it breaks my heart to hear it.

Hoffman: What do you think of the concept behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: the idea that you can redeem yourself by confessing?

Bower: Oh, I have lots of problems with it. I think it’s an amazing idea. I think we need to heal and to talk, but some of it is so bad. I don’t see why people should get away with it. Just because you admit that you did it.

Hoffman: Where is the justice? And how can you heal?

Bower: I had friends killed, you know. David Webster was a friend of mine, I knew him well. He got shot by these people. I can’t just…I can’t, I can’t. It just doesn’t make sense to me when we lost Steven Biko. We came close to losing Mandela. Let’s face it: If the state had got its way he would have been hung.

We did such stupid things for such ridiculous reasons — the cruelty. Not just what they did, but how they did it. The way it was a sort of sport or a game. I don’t expect we should be able to say “I’m terribly sorry,” and everybody says “Its OK, it doesn’t matter anymore.” It does matter. And I think you send out bad wrong messages, and I think it contributes to the general lawlessness. I don’t think we should run around acting out the extreme measures that are being called for. I believe there should be some point at which it’s not OK to get on with it.

Hoffman: The challenge is to balance the need to heal and move the country forward with the demands for justice, which includes the personal accountability of the perpetrators.

Bower: I think of all the people in prison, all the people shot in cold blood outside of their homes. I don’t see that it’s possible to pretend none of that happened or even to acknowledge that it happened, but not do anything about it besides talking. But I do believe that if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission does nothing else, it will take home to the vast majority of white South Africans what actually happened. Because when my sister says “Why didn’t you tell me?” she’s forgotten how many times I tried. And how my family wouldn’t speak to me for years.

Hoffman: But now you are at such an exciting place — a critical point in history with the opportunity to make radical change.

Bower: Just having the chance to say a law stinks, like the problem of defining rape.

Hoffman: How has the definition evolved?

Bower: Rape used to be “unlawful sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who were not married” and had to involve penile-vaginal penetration. Now marital rape is acknowledged. But it’s still gendered and must involve penile-vaginal penetration. So anal rape, oral rape, male-on-male, whatever — that’s all sexual assault.

At least we don’t also have the death sentence now. There are some reactionary groups calling for its reintroduction. But that will never happen while Mandela is President. Which is how it should be. I believe the death sentence never made any difference. As a sheerly practical issue, if rape was a capital offense, which it used to be, it was limited basically to blacks. In the history of South Africa there were something like 120 [rapists executed] since 1910. All of them were black, except two white men who kidnapped a young black woman, raped her repeatedly over three days, put her in a car trunk and set it on fire. Every other single rapist who was hung in this country was black.

We always had problems with the death sentence. For one thing, when rape was a capital offense, the court process is so much more traumatic because there’s a man’s life involved. It becomes a more complex issue. Beyond that, we have evidence that when a man can be hung for the rape of a woman, he is likely to kill her so she can’t recognize him. I’m not saying that happens in all cases, but it has happened in several. We were happy about the moratorium on the death sentence, and we will not support its reintroduction. It’s enormously, enormously complicated.

Hoffman: What is your plan for the immediate future?

Bower: There are a couple of things I would like to look into. One is the development of a resource center, specifically looking at rape in the subcontinent and research on these issues in southern Africa. I’ll need funding for that. I would also like to fund the research department, which is on a contract that ends in May. So that needs to be looked at. I would also like to see our counseling service go much more into the community. We shouldn’t have centralized service. Counseling should be something you can walk to or get to easily.

We’re not going to be funded forever. I want to start finding ways to make some of the things we do generate some income. Plus, funders are much more comfortable when they can see that you’re doing your bit. We also don’t have a board yet, and I want to start thinking about putting one in place. But I believe the biggest thing is to be high profile. If every woman in Cape Town gave Rape Crisis twenty-five cents a month, we wouldn’t need any funding at all.

Hoffman: You need to raise that consciousness…that each woman is responsible for the movement.

Bower: That’s right, that we own this. If we don’t do this, no one will, and we can’t do it without money.

Hoffman: Build an infrastructure based on feminist entrepreneurship. Teach women how to get into business, what to do with economic power, job training — all of it. I call it “Feminomics” — capitalism with a conscience and a consciousness!

Bower: What I like about that idea is when women realize they have power because there are so many of us and get them to stop thinking, “Oh I can’t do that.” If we all did.

Hoffman: It’s not enough to individually hold power. There has to be a consciousness of women as a political class. That there is a commitment that once you rise up, you look back. Many women may singularly have economic and political power, but you have to look back and look around and make that power collective.

Bower: That’s what we need to do. If you think about it, it doesn’t matter if a women’s group is international or local; it needs that acknowledgement.

Hoffman: That we’re all standing on each other’s shoulders.

Bower: That’s right, and if we don’t do it, no one will. And if we all make a minor contribution as a conscious act, then there are enough of us to swing it. So I’m looking to have outside funding for the next three to five years, and then I want Rape Crisis to be self-sufficient.

Hoffman: That’s the vision that I have been following with my work at Choices for the past 26 years — but I know I’m just part of a long process — women’s freedom is the work of generations. After working on reproductive rights for more than a quarter of a century — we are still in a place where doctors and health care workers are being killed — sometimes you feel that you are continually running in place. It’s a joy to hear and see your enthusiasm in building in a sense a new society. It was what I tried to do in Russia, but it wasn’t time.

Bower: Sometimes I find myself asking, “Is this what it’s all about?” And of course it is, the day-to-day stuff. Making sure the place runs smoothly, building a commitment with staff, a sense of going somewhere. I think this could be the best work I ever do.

My dream for this country is to take the best that we can of communism and capitalism and make it into something that works for us. I think in a very real sense we do have an opportunity to do that. I don’t think it will be perfect, but it can be.

There’s a huge opportunity around human rights issues, the criminal justice system. So much has been looked at, and because it’s a new society, it’s possible to say, “I think we should change this,” and people will listen.

Hoffman: That is so important because in my country there is the assumption that we are already living in the “best country in the world” and that all the visionary and radical work has been done — so you are left to recapitulate or do variations on a theme. In your “New South Africa” everything is collectively being questioned and deconstructed — which allows you much more freedom to change almost anything.

Bower: It’s new for us. None of us know what it means to go on with this experiment. It’s very flexible. It’s an enormously creative process we’re engaged in and a very challenging and exciting time. So many left for many reasons. When I had my daughter it was tempting, but I could never quite do it. And I’m so glad I stayed. We definitely have problems, but there’s something underneath, a bedrock that is sound.

The people of this country are amazing. Such a huge reserve of kindness and tolerance.

Maybe it’s because I’ve always worked so closely with blacks. I always say to white South Africans, “They don’t want anything different from what you want — a secure home, education for their children, food on the table, and money for the movies.” It’s not such a big deal. We all want basically the same things. Apartheid worked well at keeping blacks and whites apart. It didn’t work in the sense that it gave black people an advantage it never even considered; that was because they worked in whites’ homes and gardens and lives. They know us far better than we know them. They do. Black people have a far better understanding of white people and where we’re coming from than we do of them.

Merle Hoffman is Publisher/Editor-In-Chief of On The Issues magazine, and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc. and Choices Mental Health Center.

All photos for this article by Merle Hoffman.