Academic journal article African Studies Review

The South African Sexual Offences Act and Local Meanings of Coercion and Consent in KwaZulu Natal: Universal Human Rights?

Academic journal article African Studies Review

The South African Sexual Offences Act and Local Meanings of Coercion and Consent in KwaZulu Natal: Universal Human Rights?

Article excerpt

The Case of Gender-Based Violence: Assessing the Impact of International Human Rights Rhetoric on African Lives


In 2007 South Africa's Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, which had been debated since 1999. The law includes a statutory provision with new legal definitions of rape and consent. Influenced by Western human rights ideology and vocabulary, the Sexual Offences Act represents one form of discourse in South Africa about sexual coercion and consent. By using ethnographic methods, this article examines the wide disparity between some of the state discourses about coercion and consent and local beliefs and practices about the meanings of these terms in the Zulu township of Mpophomeni. Proponents of South Africa's new democracy often ignore poor young women's and men's local understandings of rape and of the violence they encounter on a daily basis. Against this background, the article offers recommendations to improve the current law and its effectiveness.

Résumé: Le parlement de l'Afrique du Sud a finalement ratifié en 2007 un projet de loi sur les délits sexuels qui était en débat depuis 1999. La loi contient une clause statutaire avec de nouvelles définitions sur la notion de viol et de consentement sexuel. Influencée par l'idéologie occidentale des droits de l'homme et son vocabulaire, cette loi représente une forme de discours en Afrique du Sud sur la coercition et le consentement sexuel. À l'aide de méthodes ethnographiques, cet article examine la grande disparité entre certains discours officiels sur la notion de coercition et de consentement, et les croyances et pratiques locales dans la commune Zulu de Mpophomeni. Les partisans de la nouvelle démocratie sud africaine ignorent souvent les perceptions locales des jeunes hommes et jeunes femmes vivant dans la pauvreté sur les viols et la violence qu'ils rencontrent au quotidien. Dans ce contexte, cet article offre des recommandations pour améliorer cette loi et son efficacité.


While attending a workshop on gender violence in 2005 at the Zenzeleni Community Centre in the Zulu township of Mpophomeni, I was struck by the leader's forceful presentation and the mixed reactions of the small group of young women and men in attendance. Thembelishe, the workshop leader, was a university-educated black South African woman in her late twenties who worked for a local nongovernmental organization. Dressed in a dark business suit, she spoke eloquently in Zulu and English to the group of four young women and nine young men about gender-based violence and South Africa's legal definition of rape. Thembelishe began her presentation by explaining the meaning of gender-based violence and emphasized that it encompasses child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. She spent a great amount of time on the meaning of consent. "According to South African law," she said, "the most important element of rape is consent." She emphasized that a woman has the right to say "no" to sexual intercourse. She also remarked that South Africa was trying to restore order in society through its laws.

Bongani, a young twenty-five-year-old unemployed man who attended the workshop, strongly disagreed with Thembelishe and expressed conservative views about sexual relations based on the practice of lobola (bridewealth or brideprice). He stood up and in Zulu shouted angrily: "A young woman does not have the right to say no to sex, because I paid for her either through lobola or because she is a prostitute! I deserve to have sex at any time. A woman is here on earth to bear my children!" (March 23, 2005). Other young men challenged Thembelishe 's presentation, saying the practices and legal situation she explained were unfair and that the services offered at die nongovernmental organization diat employed her were useless for men. Some of them complained that the organization was "on die side of women."

While some women openly challenged Bongani's opinion, Thembelishe waited patiendy until the group became quiet. …

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