Project Overview

Due to its prevalence, contemporary sexual violence in South Africa is a popular topic of research amongst anthropologists, psychologists, and public health physicians. Most scholars focus on rape since 1994 and explore the key question of why men rape. Yet this has led to two pressing gaps in research. First, sexual and gender-based violence has largely been portrayed as a contemporary ‘crisis’ unique to the post-apartheid period. Meanwhile, the longer history of sexual violence has often been ignored. While scholars have looked to the past to explain today’s high rates of violence, they have not explored the history of rape itself over the apartheid and post-apartheid periods. Second, there has been an overwhelming focus on men and masculinity in the existing scholarship, with rape often linked to a ‘crisis of masculinity’. This has led to a neglect of girls and women’s voices, meaning that current explanations of rape have been developed with little consideration of women’s experiences.

South Africa’s Hidden War is a historical project which aims to develop the first extensive history of sexual violence in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, an era of African women’s increasing urbanisation and shifting gender norms, it will investigate how conceptualisations and experiences of, and responses to, sexual and gender-based violence have changed over time. Drawing on anthropology, historical geography, and criminology it will locate sexual violence within the wider histories of urban communities, investigating how gender ideologies, urbanisation, and apartheid policing facilitated an upsurge in violence against women during the latter twentieth century. It will explore sexual violence in a range of contexts: as a tool of the apartheid state and white supremacy; in everyday life and within intimate relationships; as a facet of crime, gangsterism, and economic struggles; and as a consequence of political violence and contestation.

Research Questions

  1. How have South African women defined and conceptualised sexual violence, and how have their understandings of this violence changed over time?
  2. How do women narrate and remember sexual violence in their own communities, and what position does such violence occupy in their wider life histories?
  3. What strategies have women and their wider communities used to address, limit, or seek justice against sexual violence?
  4. How has public concern over women’s victimisation developed over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

Methods and Sources

Researching the history of sexual violence anywhere involves multiple methodological challenges: the lack of accurate statistics; women’s reluctance to go to trial or speak publicly; the male bias of historical documents; and researchers’ fears of adding to women’s previous trauma or presenting the history of rape in a voyeuristic way that reduces women to their victimhood. In the South African context, these difficulties are furthered by the specifics of the country’s violent and white supremacist past. In the lead up to the 1994 elections, the National Intelligence Service destroyed an estimated forty-four tons of archival material (Harris, 2000). The records of South Africa’s magistrate courts, where most rape cases are heard, are only preserved for a short period of time before being destroyed, leaving a significant gap in legal records of the country’s sexual violence cases. 

In seeking to overcome these challenges, the project draws on a wide range of sources and interdisciplinary methodologies:

Archival research is used to trace how sexual violence has been understood, discussed, and addressed over time. The project explores historical anthropologies, media reports, legal records, fiction and non-fiction, and the documents of welfare, humanitarian, and women’s rights organisations.

The project will also conduct a significant range of oral history interviews with women across multiple generations to explore the meanings they attach to sexual violence within their broader memories of apartheid and its aftermath. These will take the form of recorded life history interviews to allow women to speak about what is most significant to them.

Lastly, the project will host a series of focus groups and workshops with women, in which they will be asked about their conceptualisations of sexual violence, its perpetrators, and means of addressing the problem. These workshops will draw on various participatory and arts-based methodologies and will take women as expert authorities on their own lives and experiences.