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A South African rape, captured on video, exposes an epidemic

April 18, 2012 |  9:36 am

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- It wasn't a rape that would have ever made the headlines, had it not been for the cellphone. 

The victim: a 17-year-old girl, reportedly mentally ill, the daughter of a domestic worker. The alleged perpetrators: boys and men aged 14 to 20.

As she cried and pleaded with them, they urged one another on, joked and speculated as to whether she was really crying. Then they offered her about 25 cents for her silence.

In what some are calling an epidemic of unreported sex crimes, an estimated 600,000 rapes occur every year in South Africa.

What made this Johannesburg case different was the cellphone. One of the perpetrators recorded the March 31 rape, which took place in an open field, in a video that lasted 10 minutes and 33 seconds, and a second incident in which the group raped the girl in a township shack.

The rape video was spread from phone to phone, reportedly appearing on Facebook. It eventually fell into the hands of a daily newspaper and from there was handed to the police, who Tuesday arrested a group of alleged attackers, seven of whom are due to appear in court Thursday.

On Wednesday, South African radio and social media lit up with outrage. But, underscoring the discordant, often shocking responses about crimes against women in a country with one of the highest rates of sex crimes in the world, some young men found the incident funny and wanted to see the rape video.

"Is there are #RapeVideo making the rounds? Where is it? LOL wanna see that #RapeVideo," one young man from Cape Town tweeted, later telling critics that "some of you ACT concerned, some of you ACT like u care or you give a damn while it’s all just a #TwitterAct."

Others, horrified by a crime that activists say is an everyday occurrence, called for the rapists to be castrated. Many, including the head of South African diplomacy, Clayson Monyela, hoped that "the seven rapists find like-minded monsters in jail to give them a taste of their own medicine."

"#WhyAreWeSoAngry?," said another Twitter user, Jay Makopo. "We have #rapevideos going viral these days! Yeah, that's why we're so angry! I pray for change."

The Soweto girl, who had been missing since March 21, was found Wednesday, according to South African officials. According to local media reports, she was in the shack of a 37-year-old man who has been charged with abduction and statutory rape.

[For the record, 10:12 a.m., April 18: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described the man charged with abduction and statutory rape as elderly.]

According to the South African Medical Research Council, only one in nine South African rapes are reported. In 2010-11 there were 66,196 sex offenses in South Africa, according to police statistics, with the worst rates in the Northern Cape province: 168 cases per 100,000 people.

"When something like this video happens, you realize how firmly entrenched the culture of impunity is in this country, that these boys possibly didn’t realize that what they were doing was wrong and that they thought they could get away with it and if they didn’t get away with it, they didn’t think they would be seriously punished for it," Kathleen Dey, director of Rape Crisis in Cape Town, an organization that counsels victims of rape and sex abuse, said in a phone interview.

"Cases like this shine a light on ordinary rapes that happen every day in South Africa, not that rape is ever ordinary. Forgive me for saying ordinary, but it happens every day."

Dey blamed social attitudes toward gender and crimes against women, early sexualization of children globally, an overloaded criminal justice system in South Africa and low conviction rates for rape.

Several recent cases in South Africa of rape or statutory rape of minors have been recorded on cellphones, leading to prosecutions. And last September in Nigeria, there was outrage after video of a gang-rape of a young woman by university students in a college dormitory was posted online. As she begged them to kill her, they laughed.

Nigerian authorities initially refused to act on the video, claiming it was a fake because no one had reported being raped. However, after a massive public outcry, police eventually arrested two students of Abia State University.

In Nigeria, as in South Africa, activists said the video of the crime showed a huge unreported rape epidemic, and the fact that many men believed there were no consequences for raping or gang-raping a woman.

South Africa's Eye Witness News ran a still from the South African video on its website Wednesday. South Africa’s high-circulation tabloid Daily Sun proudly trumpeted its part in the arrests (complete with capital letters and exclamation marks) and controversially published a photograph of the victim, claiming to have her mother’s permission.

"ARMED WITH THE SHOCKING VIDEO, DAILY SUN, IN A JOINT OPERATION WITH COPS, HELPED TO BUST 13 MEMBERS OF THE GANG!" the newspaper reported Wednesday, adding that one of the alleged perpetrators was a commuter minibus driver, another was a mechanic and the remainder were at school. Two of the perpetrators were minors, according to local media.

The newspaper said the mother of a teenage girl saw the video on her daughter’s cellphone and confiscated it, showing it to a work colleague, who recognized some of the men and boys in the video. The woman handed the video to the Daily Sun, which handed it to police.

Ben Viljoen, Daily Sun deputy editor, said in a phone interview that the girl "would still be a sex slave" if the newspaper hadn't published the photograph, adding that she was released Wednesday after being recognized.

"Weighing up the dignity of the youth over her life, we made the call to get Sun readers to open their eyes and see if they could spot her. If we didn't, she would still be captive today.

"The reason why the reader alerted us [to the video], not the police, is because they don't trust the police. There had been reports made to the police that she'd been raped. Once the Daily Sun gets hold of it with our massive readership, there's really nowhere for the police to go."

Before surrendering the video to police, the newspaper took still photographs of the boys’ faces from it, and went into the township where the alleged attacks occurred, showing people the photographs. At least one of the journalists posed as a social worker. (Viljoen said he had "no problem" with this because if the reporter had admitted to being from the Daily Sun, people may not have been willing to point out the perpetrators.)

"Pretending to be a social worker, one of the [Daily Sun] team, in the company of the top cops, asked residents if they knew the boys in the video. Several residents identified them and pointed out their homes," the paper reported Wednesday.

It published an alleged confession to police by one perpetrator, aged 20: "I was on my way back home from a soccer match with my friends when I met the girl on the street. We dragged her to the nearest bushes where we all had sex with her.

"One of us took the video and I gave her two rands (25 cents)," the newspaper reported, citing the alleged confession.

It also quoted the girl’s mother saying that her daughter had been raped before, because of her mental disability. She said the first rape happened when the girl was 12.

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--Robyn Dixon

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