These stories are told by three exceptionally brave men who have come forward to talk about surviving rape in South Africa's prisons. Isak, Francois, and Thabo* decided to help bring prisoner rape out of the shadows, and raise public awareness about this widespread violation of fundamental human rights. These are the first South African survivors of prisoner rape to tell their stories in this way.
Isak: I Have a Purpose
Isak was raped by two gang members in an overcrowded cell in a Western Cape remand detention facility. This was his very first sexual experience. Isak asked for help from nurses, wardens, priests, social workers, and even a magistrate who all rejected him and told him to expect this treatment in prison. He only received medical attention three years after he was raped when he was sentenced, and learned he was HIV-positive. Isak calls on the Department of Correctional Services to stop this from happening to others, and encourages survivors to speak up. Isak feels stronger than before, and says “I know I have a purpose in this life.”
Francois: I’m a Survivor
Francois was violently raped twice in an Eastern Cape correctional centre, once at knife-point, and another on Valentine’s Day. He reported the rapes to the warders, but never received counseling or support. In despair, Francois attempted suicide. After being released, he sued the Department of Correctional Services, and after 10 years he accepted a settlement offer based on the promise that they would take action to stop inmates from being raped. When nothing changed, Francois decided to tell his story. Francois encourages other survivors to seek help and says “I know I can make it because I’m a survivor.”
Thabo: My Story, 21 Years Old
Thabo went to prison when he was just 21 years old and was repeatedly raped during the decade he spent behind bars. Thabo attempted suicide but was not successful, unlike three other inmates he knew who were raped then took their own lives. Experiencing serious trauma and shame, Thabo struggles to interact with people. He says he came back from prison with a lesson and an illness (HIV). The biggest weight he has carried is that nobody in his family knows what happened to him. He urges youth to stay away from crime so that “unlike me, you can reach your dreams.”
The exact extent of rape in prison is unknown, but nearly half of all inmates surveyed by the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services reported that sexual abuse happens “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.” Sexual violence in prisons is linked to gang violence and its power structures, and inmates who are sexually abused are targets for repeated abuse, and usually are victimized again and again.
Reports estimate that a quarter of the inmate population has HIV. Rape creates a high risk for HIV transmission between inmates, inmates and officials, and the communities to which inmates return.
In 2013, the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) adopted the Policy to Address the Sexual Abuse of Inmates In DCS facilities. This was a historic and important first step towards ending prisoner rape in South Africa, but little progress has been made on its implementation: much work lies ahead to ensure that inmates benefit from the policy. But it is possible. The majority of sexual abuses can be prevented.
With greater awareness, we can all play a role in this, and in supporting survivors of this violence. These stories are the first of their kind in South Africa, and underscore the urgent need for action.
*Not their real names.
These stories were produced by Sonke Gender Justice, Just Detention International-South Africa, and NICRO, with funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, the MAC AIDS Fund of the Tides Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. Thanks to Community Media for Development and Digital Storytelling South Africa for creating and editing the stories. Most of all, thank you to these courageous survivors.