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A voice against rape rattles South Africa

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 13, 1999


"people often ask me what the men are like in South Africa," coos Charlize Theron, South Africa's hottest export to Hollywood, raising big eyes toward her TV audience.

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Then, the sultry star of "The Astronaut's Wife" and "Mighty Joe Young" slaps down her countrymen by questioning their masculinity and suggesting "real men" would not stand by while a woman is raped in this country every 26 seconds.

The series of controversial anti-rape ads provoked an uproar, and now the country's advertising regulator has pulled the commercials off the air.

Outraged women's groups and their supporters - of both genders - are protesting against the ban, asking why people seem to be more upset about the commercial than they are about the staggering number of rapes in South Africa. In the radio and TV spots, Ms. Theron notes that more women are sexually assaulted here than in any other country in the world.

"Worst of all," Theron continues, "the rest of the men in South Africa seem to think that rape isn't their problem. It's not easy to say what the men in South Africa are like." She pauses, peering sadly at the camera: "Because there seem to be so few of them out there."

The script underneath reads: "Real Men Don't Rape."

The ad achieved its desired effect: It got a whole country talking about rape and prompted emotional debates around some rather uncomfortable questions: Should law-abiding men be condemned for complacency? What should they do to stem the abuse of women?

Ingrained patterns

Scores of people argued the biting message was just what was needed to raise awareness in a land where rape is often viewed as macho, routinely given low priority by police, and often deemed unworthy of harsh sentencing by judges. One judge sentenced a man to seven years in prison last week for raping his daughter, saying that a harsher sentence was not required since the convict represents a danger to his family - not the general public.

A survey of 1,500 students in South Africa's sprawling black townships found that 25 percent of boys (between 12 and 22) consider gang rape to be "fun." Another 16 percent said it was "cool." There are countless men in the countryside who still believe the myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS.

Men, argues Carol Bower of Rape Crisis in Cape Town, condone rape by being complacent about it. "Where are the men who take rape seriously?" she asks. "They aren't joining my group in big numbers; they aren't protesting against weak sentences for rape; they aren't marching on the streets when action is called for."

But many angry men have complained that they were "being smeared," "insulted," and "unfairly labeled as rapists."

"I was really upset ... especially because Charlize Theron was the one to do it," says Dries Rall, a Johannesburg engineer. "She's sitting in Hollywood, and now she comes home to criticize us. I am a South African man, and I am not a rapist. I don't want to be lumped in with them."