Nwabisa Makunga: When society breaks down

Like many places in South Africa, rape is not uncommon in Lady Frere.

In fact, the small rural Eastern Cape town made headlines last year, when a 65-year-old man and a 51-year-old woman were jailed for one of the most despicable crimes imaginable.

She had given him permission to rape her daughter in exchange for money she wanted to feed her alcohol addiction.

This sick arrangement began when the little girl was just 10 years old.

It continued, according to reports, for at least two years. The town is again in the spotlight. This time, a 55-year-old mother from one of its villages stabbed and killed a man, and wounded two others after she found them allegedly gang-raping her 27-year-old daughter.

The incident, which happened just more than a week ago, has gripped our country’s imagination.

According to the mother, she was at home one evening when she was alerted by a teenager that her daughter was being attacked by the three men.

She took off and found them in an unoccupied house in the village.

When she confronted the men, she says, one of them charged at her. She took out her knife and stabbed him. When another came for her, a struggle ensued and she fell on her knees but managed to stab him too.

She then stabbed the third man who, by then, was trying to escape through a window.

She was arrested on murder and attempted murder charges and was released on R500 bail.

The law aside, her bravery is indescribable.

To many South Africans, she is a supermom, a hero who took on three thugs on behalf of her daughter and, by extension, every woman who has directly or indirectly been a victim of sexual violence.

This is why after the incident, the community rallied around her and, to date, scores of citizens across the country are driving a crowd-funding campaign to help pay her legal fees.

The court process from hereon will determine if and how culpable she is, legally, for her actions.

Regardless of the circumstances of this case, that is a process we must all respect in the interest of upholding the rule of law.

For now, this incident serves as a powerful reminder of the complex societal failures which, when coming to a head, only lead to unspeakable human tragedy.

The first is an all-too-familiar breakdown in law enforcement.

According to the mother, when she was alerted that her daughter was being attacked, before going out, she called the police. No one answered the phone. Why? We do not know. My guess is that a lack of police resources or the mismanagement thereof is probably to blame.

Whatever the reason, it is unacceptable.

Small as it is, Lady Frere is not the safest of places.

A total of 993 crimes were reported in the 2016 police statistics period.

At least 194 of these were cases of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, 72 were sexual offences and 47 were murders.

That no cop was available to take an urgent call for help in a community where violence is so prevalent demonstrates how our police system often fails its most vulnerable citizens.

Second, this incident highlights the difficulty of fighting crime when those who commit heinous acts are an intricate part of the very communities they terrorise.

Last week village headman Mzukisi Sigqolana and ward councillor Linda Fatyela told reporters that the alleged perpetrators had been a “problematic” bunch in the village.

Sigqolana said he had held numerous meetings with their families regarding their behaviour, but seemingly to no avail.

At this stage it is unclear if that process involved police at all. Regardless, these young men appear to have continued on their alleged dangerous ways until that fateful day. Again, why? Apart from poor law enforcement, the next horrific part of this story perhaps gives us another clue.

As it turned out, the teenage girl who first alerted the mother to the crime was related to the perpetrator who died that night.

Since the incident, the emotional burden on her has been so unbearable that she tried to commit suicide.

From a hospital bed this week, she told how some in her family had verbally abused her, blaming her for the death of her relative.

Had she kept quiet, he would still be alive today, they said.

Herein lies one of the greatest tragedies of our time – victim blaming. Be it subtly or unashamedly, ours is a society that oftentimes places the burden of accountability on those who experience trauma rather than those who unleash it.

It is an unpalatable, yet sobering reality that unfolds in many homes and communities.

And it is the very attitude that legitimises anarchy and gives room for the worst among us to thrive.

-Nwabisa Makunga is The Herald deputy editor

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