Sexual violence rife at South African borders

Date: August 5, 2010
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Musina, 5 August. Unlike schools and offices in South Africa, the criminal gangs along the border between the World Cup hosts and Zimbabwe did not take a break because of a sports tournament.

As thousands of foreign fans flocked to the football stadiums and hundreds of journalists arrived to cover the first African World Cup, along the border another influx of foreigners received a different sort of welcome. They were not met with bright green and yellow flags and vuvuzelas, instead, these foreigners faced armed attacks and a pattern of sexual violence employed systematically to traumatise already vulnerable people.

“All I was thinking about was the work that I will do in South Africa,” says 16-year old Grace Moyo*, as she sits rocking the two-year-old child she cares for. “I was just saying God help me so that I will find work.”

It was the day before the World Cup opening ceremony when Moyo began a journey she had taken once before, crossing, without papers, the parched bush-land, three barbed wire fences and the Limpopo River.

Just as her small group reached South African territory she saw four armed men waiting. They forced the women to remove their clothes before raping each one of them in turn.

“When they were trying to rape me – I fought against them and so they put a gun to the baby’s head and so I let them rape me,” continues Moyo. “I think that if I didn’t have a child they would have killed me.”

Known as the magumaguma, from a word meaning “to grab”, the men took all of Moyo’s clothing when they left, a final indignity to punish her resistance. Tied up on the side of the road, the women were left in the midday sun. None of them filed a case with the police.

The civil society organisations working along the border say her story is typical: If there are men crossing, they are forced to have sex with the others in the group. If there are no Zimbabwean men, as in Moyo’s case, the magumaguma, both men and women, do the raping. Condoms are never used.

“It is a crisis,” says Mikael Lepaih, head of mission for Medicins San Frontieres (MSF). “We are seeing a pattern,” he says. “It leads to questions as to if the gangs are using HIV as a weapon.” Since January of this year 143 rape survivors have sought medical treatment at MSF clinics in Musina, some as young as 14 years old.

“These numbers are only those that register with us,” says Tambu Matambo, the MSF Musina deputy field coordinator. “We think the numbers are much higher.”

Matambo had recently worked with Moyo and put me in touch with her for this story.

Forced rape of family members is now so common that Zimbabweans deny being related: “If the gangs realize you are related they force you to have sex with each other,” says Matambo.

While special courts set up for the World Cup offered rapid justice for fans visiting the country, the police seldom register sexual violations along the border, and nobody has been prosecuted for the attacks. The South African government spent 53.5 billion rand, or six percent of the country’s budget, on stadiums and transport infrastructure. Along the border Zimbabweans were met only with humiliation.

Despite ending deportations last year, South Africa’s treatment of Zimbabweans is partly to blame for their vulnerability, says MSF. In a country where domestic workers earn on average R75 a month, most Zimbabweans cannot afford the R1100 needed to buy a passport, leaving people with little choice but to cross the border without documents, and dependent on the very criminals who rob and rape them. Once they cross many apply for asylum status.

“Most of the people say political problems as such are not the issue, it is economic problems.” says Thabe Mogoboya from Lawyers for Human Rights, a legal organisation that works in Musina. Coming to South Africa, “is a recipe for a better life. But if this is the case, your claim for asylum is unfounded according to the refugee act,” he says.

The asylum process allows people to stay for 30 days while their case is decided, but 99% of cases are turned down. Even with the option to appeal it is a system that fails to recognise the reality of migration between the two countries, says Lepaih from MSF.

Worse still, the systematic nature of the sexual violence, regardless of gender, may suggest the collaboration, or at least tacit consent, of border officials and police officers, says Thabe Mogoboya, particularly on the Zimbabwean side. “It needs both governments to say let’s do something about this problem,” he says. “More so when there are allegations that the Zimbabwean soldiers are involved.”

For a country anxious about foreigners, turning a blind eye to systematic abuse along its border is a way of dissuading further migration.

About 300 Zimbabweans, like Moyo, file for asylum at the Department of Home Affairs in Musina every day. Hundreds more cross without papers and are never registered.

South Africa is being congratulated on its success, but now that the world’s largest sporting tournament is over, it is time to apply the same urgency and efficiency used to host the World Cup to its problems along the border.

*Grace Moyo is a pseudonym.

Becky Palmstrom is a Rotary World Peace Fellow at UC Berkeley. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.



0 thoughts on “Sexual violence rife at South African borders”

Pete says:

Thank you. This was an important piece that I hope other media will pick up on. I’d like to have seen some formal comment from the authorities, however, so that they could be held accountable for their lack of action.

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