Academic Pumla Dineo Gqola’s new book Rape: A South African Nightmare explores the troubling realities of South African rape culture. In a deftly argued, compelling book, Gqola explores how factors like South Africa’s history of violence, dispossession, and poverty breed a toxic brand of masculinity that stretches from colonialism to the present day. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Gqola about feminism, the landscape of sexual violence in South Africa, and how the nation might tackle its complex relationship with rape.

Why do you consider yourself a feminist?
I call myself a feminist because it allows me to feel like part of a global political movement to achieve freedom from gender and sexual oppression, and to create a world in which people’s gender does not increase the likelihood of being brutalized, dehumanized, and otherwise trivialized. Thus, while I felt very restricted by ideas of what human beings could and could not do because of their gender long before I knew the word “feminist,” calling myself a feminist allows me to be part of a larger movement that has historically changed the world, and continues to do so in very specific ways.

I started calling myself a feminist when I was fifteen because I recognized that it described people who see the world like I did, and felt like me: the absolute rejection of limitations placed on me, and other girls/women, for being girls/women, as well as this idea that the bodies we are born into need to be prisons that mark us as less than, safe to violate, and always belonging to others before we belong to ourselves. So, at fifteen, I embraced the label because it made me part of a chosen community of people committed to dismantling an oppressive gender order we call patriarchy in all of its forms. Whereas some of my friends and I had fought against the idea that boys were smarter than girls, that girls needed to do certain kinds of chores that boys were free from, and we were angered over the regimented ways in which school said boys did gardening while girls were enrolled in needlework, and the punishment for those boys who wanted to do needlework or girls who were forbidden from gardening, the label “feminist” helped me realize that there were in fact millions of other people who felt like I did in all societies in the world. So, to call myself feminist is a political way of linking myself to all of these millions of people.

How is the term “feminist” viewed in South African culture?
It depends which parts of South African society you look at. There has historically been a very strong feminist movement in South Africa, and so many people call themselves feminist. Many of our legislation comes from how successfully feminists and the larger women’s movement was able to organize and strategize during the transition from apartheid to democracy. At the same time, many of the gains that feminists and other gender-progressives make are often under attack through attempts to pass legislation that limits reproductive choice, or creates a parallel legal system for rural women that is deeply patriarchal. So, it is both a proudly claimed and vehemently opposed label and political movement, not unlike other contexts, I suppose.

What is the relationship between scholarship and activism?
There isn’t an absolute answer to this question. It depends entirely on context. In the South African situation, some of us in the academy straddle the divide between activism and academia. And activists often do academic work and other forms of research. So, there is a sense of an enabling relationship in both directions, but this is definitely not the norm. In the main, the relationship can be one of mutual suspicion. I think there is a palpable difference between people who come to feminist, class, anti-racist, decolonial activism prior to embarking on graduate research/academic life and those whose critical stance is primarily achieved in the academy. But both exist in very interesting kinds of relationships: sometimes mutually respectful, sometimes hostile.

How did you first become interested in the topic of African feminist sexuality?
I don’t know how it is possible to be a feminist, and an African feminist at that, without being interested in some aspect of African feminist sexuality, so it’s a hard question. My answer is going to have to be: for as long as I have been interested in sexuality at all.

Why were you drawn to write about the topic of sexual violence?
I have worked in various capacities doing anti-violence work: as a student activist in my late teens and early twenties, as a counsellor at Rape Crisis in my twenties, as someone whose initial research into Black Consciousness literature uncovered a preoccupation with writing about rape in the short stories I was analyzing, as a woman who lives in Southern Africa where rape is deeply embedded and talked about, and as an activist-academic who also writes in public media about contemporary aspects of our regional and continental public cultures.

How common is rape and sexual assault in South Africa? Where is it most prevalent?
The statistics on reporting say one in two women will get raped at least once in her lifetime. It cuts across race, class, urban/rural divide.

How did Jacob Zuma’s trial shape South African popular discourse about the topic of rape?
It was the end of innocence because we had to confront as a society the real picture of ourselves in relation to sexual violence. In many cases, the way Khwezi, the complainant, was treated echoed what happens in rape cases all the time. The same can be said of how much support Jacob Zuma received. The case both inside and outside the courtroom – because there was a huge theatrical spectacle well beyond the walls of the court – was a magnifying glass.

Why do you think South Africa reportedly has the most rapes per capita of anywhere in the world?
I don’t think South Africa in fact has more rapes than everywhere else in the world. We never knew this and there is no way of knowing it. It’s the media reportage that very quickly started conflating research that showed highest reporting rates to highest incidents of rape. For a time we had much higher rates of reporting – because for a time, in the early days of our democracy – women had increased faith in the criminal justice system. So, what we actually had was the highest rate of reported rapes in the world. All over the world, rates of reporting are atrociously low, as research from different countries repeatedly shows. Our reporting rates have decreased significantly, as rape survivors realized that faith in the criminal justice system is often not rewarded. So if we were working with rates of reporting today, rather than in the mid-1990s, our statistics would be unspectacular comparatively. This is not the same as saying rape incidents are lower.

Can you speak on the rape crisis in relation to black lesbians and to the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
The rape of Black lesbians is one in a range of manifestations of rape and rape culture, because all rape is an expression of violent power not sex, so while all women can be raped regardless of sexual orientation, Black lesbians are sometimes targeted for additional policing.

Can you describe the availability of legal support and counseling for South African survivors?This is a very big question. Rape is a crime in South Africa, and one that is prosecuted. However, there are very low conviction rates. Legal services are very expensive in South Africa and public prosecutors are grossly overburdened, not just in rape cases. Non-governmental organizations that provide legal, counselling, emotional, and social support are thinly stretched and underfunded.

What steps can we take towards dismantling rape culture?
I spend two chapters on this question in my book, but the short answer is that we need to interrupt the continuum in societal attitudes, norms, and behaviors that enable rape and rape culture.

How do we stop talking passively about rape and respond differently to rape?
We can stop interrogating people who tell us that they have been raped, and we can stop making excuses for rapists, pretending that they are exceptional alien men rather than ordinary men who live in our midst, and we can start creating responsibility and consequences for rapists that go well beyond prosecution.

What has been the response thus far to the book?
Rape: A South African Nightmare is relatively new, but there has been a lot of support to it. There has also been some anger in response to aspects of the book, such as how I trace the relationship between rape and race in South Africa’s history.