JOHANNESBURG — "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.
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?
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."
On a whim, he walked up his office corridor and asked people to sign a letter of complaint. He faxed a petition with 28 names to the Advertising Standards Authority, and last week he learned the spots had been pulled off the air.
"I didn't think they would take it so seriously," Mr. Dries says. After all, complaints about advertisements that demean women - such as the one for a hamburger chain that blatantly compares a woman's breasts to burger buns - have been dismissed in the past.
Yet the advertising authority (in this case, a panel of five men and two women) ruled that Theron's words amount to discrimination against men. "It creates a negative stereotype of all South African men," explains Deline Beukes, executive director of the industry's regulatory body. "It suggests they are all either rapists or they are complacent about rape. Men have stood up and said: 'I don't want to be vilified.' "
Some people have taken issue with another aspect of the ad: that it is in English and Afrikaans, when rape occurs most in black townships. Although rape is most common in black townships, a spokeswoman for Rape Crisis acknowledged on one radio show, the numbers are largely a reflection of South Africa's demographics.
The banning order on the commercial has been even more controversial than the ad itself, provoking front-page headlines, drawing criticism from Freedom of Expression Institute in Johannesburg, and attracting attention from media around the world.
The groups that commissioned the ad, the rape crisis center in Cape Town and Femina magazine, launched an appeal on Oct. 11. "They [the advertising board] are missing the whole point," says Jane Raphaely, the editor of Femina. "Rape is endemic in South Africa because so few men take it seriously."
Ross Chowles of Jupiter Drawing Room, the ad agency that produced the commercial free of charge, agrees with critics who argue the ad would have little immediate impact on rape-crime statistics. A commercial won't stop a determined rapist, but, he says, it may make a law-abiding man think twice the next time he laughs at a sexist joke.
"It is only when innocent men ostracize the guilty that we will have a change," Mr. Chowles told a radio talk show that devoted 90 minutes to the debate last week.
Ms. Bower, of the rape crisis center in Cape Town, says that in the end, the advertising board did women a huge favor: For the first time, men are calling her center with offers to donate money and professional services. And on a recent tour to Europe and North America, Bower received many questions from women's groups that may be interested in starting up similarly hard-hitting campaigns.
Theron, who personally helped craft the scripts, appeared in the ad free of charge but on condition that it be shown only in South Africa.
"The ads were never meant to be sexist or discriminatory," Theron said in a brief statement issued by her New York modeling agency, Q.
"The point we wanted to make is that everyone should be held accountable for this problem, and everyone can be part of the solution."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society