top of page

Large-scale Sexual Violence: South Africa during the Apartheid Era

This case note documents the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. It contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Background of the Conflict

Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racism manifesting as racial segregation, violence, discrimination, and oppression that was openly carried out in South Africa and (today’s) Namibia from 1948 to 1990. It was fundamentally characterised by authoritarian political culture that normalized white supremacy and domination with the control over the nation’s political, social, and economic domains resting solely in the hands of the white population (Mayne 1999). The social stratification in this system involved white people enjoying the highest status, followed by Asians and coloureds, and then Black Africans (Mayne 1999). The trauma and socioeconomic and political impacts of apartheid continue to date (Leander 2015).

Apartheid ranged from segregation in public spaces and events (“petty apartheid”) to discrimination in housing and access to employment opportunities based on race (“grand apartheid”) (Crompton 2007). The systemic and structural violence that Apartheid was effectively had legal sanction with the passage of laws such as the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950, and the Population Registration Act of 1950. While the first prevented mixed marriages, the second made it impossible for South African citizens to marry or pursue any relationships across racial lines, and the third classified South Africans into racial groups (Baldwin-Ragaven, London, and duGruchy 1999). Residence was determined based on racial classification (Walton et al. 2011). As a result, Black people were forcibly removed and restricted to ten designated “bantustans” or tribal homelands – and announced that those who were relocated to these regions would lose their South African citizenship status.

Following internal resistance to apartheid through the years – events that included grave violence and the arrest of key figures like Nelson Mandela, Apartheid legislation were eventually repealed in June 1991.

Prevalence of Sexual Violence

Under apartheid, white men were never tried or convicted for the offence of rape (Davis 2015). Further, the rape of white women alone were prosecuted (Armstrong 1994). Black women were not able to report incidents, either, as police stations were “deeply unfriendly places” during Apartheid (Davis 2015). There was social acceptance that rape of black women was part of life (Armstrong 1994). Accurate statistics are not available as only a small percentage of cases were reported. Available information points to the fact that South Africa’s rape statistics have been rising since at least 1955, increasing by 132% between 1955 and 1990 (Glanz, 1993). South African research has found linkages between violent masculinities in society and high rates of sexual violence against women (Buiten & Naidoo, 2013; Salo, 2005; Walker, 2005). Posel (2006) and Armstrong (1994) noted that sexual violence during apartheid was largely marginalized and not seen as an important issue needing attention. “Women were afraid and ashamed to speak about their experiences but when provided with an opportunity to do so in a safe environment, were more willing to come forward” (Goldblatt and Meintjes 1996:9).

Basis of the use of Sexual Violence

While there are very few data points to determine whether sexual violence was carried on a deliberate basis targeting large groups of women, it is clear that the structural and systemic violence that apartheid was, provided an enabling environment for the large-scale sexual violence and rape women faced. It was unquestionable that the escalation of rates of rape and sexual violence and the socio-political silence around it was intertwined with the racial justice of the apartheid system (Armstrong 1994). Rape was largely seen as a part of life for poor black women – and was thus never taken seriously. “A black woman's life was considered valueless, and what had happened to her unimportant. We wanted to question that assumption: rape is abhorrent and cannot be condoned, whoever the victim is” (Armstrong 1994: 36).

Sexual violence took place along the private-public continuum. Within households, women and girls were subject to rape and sexual violence as the violence targeting men under the apartheid regime redoubled the assertion of patriarchy. In Catherine Campbell's (1992) study of violence and masculinity in Natal, it was clear that "in a community where the opportunities for assertion of masculine power are limited, violence is a manifestation of the structural forces of patriarchy reasserting themselves at a time when race and class oppression has dealt the status of adult men a particularly severe blow.”

Girls who faced sexual violence outside their homes were often targeted by street fighters supporting one or other political movements (Armstrong 1994). It was a means of “forcible prevention of women’s participation in the public sphere beyond the household” (Armstrong 1994: 38). There was evidence that rape may have either been sanctioned by the security forces or used with the effect of terrorising, intimidating and punishing women and their communities (Goldblatt and Meintjes 1996).

Legal redress

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) offered a platform for the voices of victims of violence and sexual violence during the Apartheid. However, the TRC’s mandate did not make a specific reference to rape or any other gender-based crime. However, lobbying and interventions at the behest of civil society expanded the scope of the term ‘severe ill-treatment’ to include a wide range of abuses including rape and other forms of gender-based violence (Goldblatt and Meintjes 1996). Feminist activists also succeeded in ensuring that rape and sexual violence were included within the scope of the terms torture and ‘severe ill-treatment’ (Buford and Van der Merwe 1999). A ‘Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ comprising trauma counselors and psychologists from the Gender Research Project of CALS and the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) was formed. They met once every six to eight weeks in 1996 and 1997 and discussed gender issues at the TRC. They focused on strategizing around how NGOs could intervene further, particularly in relation to a reparations policy. However, these movements lost momentum as women’s groups focused on what were deemed the more burning gender concerns facing South Africa at that juncture. For its part, rape was mentioned in only 140 cases addressed by the TRC, although it is estimated that the number represents only a very small fraction of the incidents of rape that occurred in the period of the TRC’s mandate (Goldblatt 2006).


  • Baldwin-Ragaven, Laurel; London, Lesley; du Gruchy, Jeanelle (1999). An ambulance of the wrong colour: health professionals, human rights and ethics in South Africa. Juta and Company Limited.

  • Buford, B. and H. van der Merwe 2004. Reparations in Southern Africa. Cahiers d'études africaines, 44.

  • Buiten, D., & Naidoo, K. (2013). Constructions and representations of masculinity in South Africa's tabloid press: Reflections on discursive tensions in the Sunday Sun. Communicatio: South Arican Journal for Communication Theory and Research, 39(2), 194-209. DOI: 10.1080/02500167.2013.791333

  • Campbell, Catherine. "Learning to KiII? Masculinity, the Family and Violence in Natal," Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 18, No. 3 (September 1992), pp. 614-628.

  • Crompton, Samuel Willard (2007). Desmond Tutu: Fighting Apartheid. New York: Chelsea House.

  • Davis, Rebecca (2015). How rape became South Africa’s enduring nightmare/ The Guardian.

  • Glanz, L. (1993) ‘Crime in South Africa: incidence, trends and projections’, in L. Glanz (ed) Managing Crime in the New South Africa: Selected Readings, Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

  • Goldblatt, Beth 2006. Evaluating the gender content of reparations: Lessons from South Africa. In: Rubio-Marin, R. ed. What happened to the women? Gender and reparations for human rights violations. New York, Social Science Research Council.

  • Goldblatt, Beth and Sheila Meintjes 1996. Gender and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: A submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

  • Krog, Antjie (1998). Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa. South Africa: Random House South Africa.

  • Leander (15 June 2015). "Despite the 1994 political victory against apartheid, its economic legacy persists by Haydn Cornish-Jenkins". South African History Online.

  • Mayne, Alan (1999). From Politics Past to Politics Future: An Integrated Analysis of Current and Emergent Paradigms. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

  • Posel, D. (2005). The scandal of manhood: ‘Baby rape’ and the politicization of sexual violence in post‐apartheid South Africa. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 7(3), 239-252. DOI: 10.1080/13691050412331293467

  • Armstrong, Sue. "Rape in South Africa: an invisible part of apartheid's legacy." Gender & Development 2, no. 2 (1994): 35-39.

  • Walton, F. Carl; Udayakumar, S.P.; Muck, William; McIlwain, Charlton; Kramer, Eric; Jensen, Robert; Ibrahim, Vivian; Caliendo, Stephen Maynard; Asher, Nhia (2011). The Routledge Companion to Race and Ethnicity. New York: Routledge Books.

  • Salo, E. (2005). Mans is ma soe: Ideologies of masculinity, gender and generational relations, and ganging practices in Manenberg, South Africa. Paper presented at ‘From Boys to Men: Masculinities and Risk’. University of the Western Cape, Cape Town.

  • Walker, L. (2005). Men behaving differently: South African men since 1994. Culture, health & sexuality, 7(3), 225-238. DOI: 10.1080/13691050410001713215

bottom of page