Lisa Vetten Mieke van der Voort  
Hilde de Bruijn Archive  
Dr Achille Mbembe
Zoé Inch

Lisa Vetten

Transcription from live event at the Drill Hall, Johannesburg, 4 February 2006.

Thanks, what I really want to focus on in my presentation is to look at crime, violence, space and place. It comes very much from a sociological perspective rather than an art perspective so it's a different set of jargon and ideas I think to what most people in the room would be familiar with. And I think in a way, to pick up on Achilles point, how does one make the personal political, I think it goes back to in some ways, what I want to close with, to go back to the old feminist slogan of how the personal is political. And I'd like to illustrate that in some of the research findings I'm going to present, about how women look at keeping themselves safe from rape and domestic violence in a city like Johannesburg.

At the very minimum, what we need for violence to happen is a victim, a perpetrator, a place and a space. And I want to explore some of these ideas a little bit further, looking particularly at space and place as a way of looking at how fear danger and safety are negotiated by women in inner city Johannesburg. In relation to this I want to draw from three different pieces of research that we have conducted here. The one was an analysis of gang rapes reported at 6 inner city police stations. The other was a series of interviews with women living in some of the squats in town or some of the homeless shelters. As well as the series of focus groups with women sex workers, waste management workers, homeless women, security guards, women living in the city, about their experience of safety and danger and how they negotiate that on a day to day basis.

The point about I think why it's useful to look at place and space as not just abstract concepts, its that I think one finds power and politics being expressed in time and space. And I think ‘place'is a means of ordering relationships in many different ways between people in the world both on a gender dimension between men and women, but I think being in South Africa, also across racial lines and of course the numerous other divisions that I think has divided us as a society. So place is a way of capturing where we fit into South African society and violence is in some ways a means of keeping people in their place, putting people back into their place and reminding people of what their place is. So I think in a very concrete way you can see something quite political being expressed. One can also see just I think from the way people respond, to use a very obvious example, how you behave in a church. It's very clear that we understand, perhaps at an unspoken level that some rules apply in some spaces that do not apply in other spaces. And that particular spaces make some behaviour legitimate and in other areas illegitimate. To give another example drawing from some of the women we spoke to, is for example to be a women, to walk on particular streets in Hillbrow at a particular time of night is to make perhaps a particular statement about a sort of occupation you might be engaged in. And it is I think very often, for particularly men, for those of us who have had that experience of being ‘curb-called', it's for people to draw particular conclusions about who you are because you occupy that particular space in time. So I think that's why space and place can be useful in terms of understanding how it is that they can play a role in shaping how violence comes to take place.

Just as a last dimension in terms of gender relations is that again, going back to the idea of place, I think both culture, religion and politics have created a distinction between the public and the private. What is women's realm and what is men's realm. Women's realm is usually the private while that of men is usually the public. And I think one can find that very clearly expressed, and its a theme I want to pick up at the end of the speech, when we look at what happens to women when they get raped in public places. And what the reaction is to that. Just to begin with, I'll start with some of the findings from the women we spoke to, which tell us a little bit about how they read safety and danger in situations and places and what are the strategies that they use to deal with those particular sets of experiences. I think for a lot of women, time, for them is important. There are some places you avoid at a particular time of day. Early in the morning, once dusk happens and as it progressively becomes darker. That is a cue for you to start avoiding particular places. In terms of spaces here one finds particular individuals signifying safety or danger. So for example for quite a few women, the sight of a woman who could be classified as a sex-worker or who looks like she might be homeless was for them an indication that a particular place was unsafe. Yet in talking to homeless woman and sex-workers, they had a very different ways of reading a lack of safety. I mean for a sex-worker, particularly those who worked on the streets it was how much time did you have before you got into a car with somebody, how could you guage in that moment whether or not they were safe. If they took you home, who else might be waiting…who might also be expecting free the sex, having been paid for one, the assumption is made that those particular women should now provide sex for all.

I think other examples that women gave as to how they negotiated their safety was also for instance for some women the fact that there was a disco nearby. These particular women would ask the bus driver for the stop (the stop used to be where the disco was) to please move the stop so they didn't have to get off there because they associated the drinking, the people, what was happening there as being a source of a lack of safety. The presence of men, whether alone or in groups is also associated with danger. So for example one woman's comment:

When you get in there to use the toilets you find a man standing on a hill near the bridge. He is just waiting there so that if you get inside the toilet he will jump you. Rape you and finish with you. If you are unlucky he will also stab you.

So I think her comment is also a graphic indication of how a public facility like a toilet can become very dangerous for women. And I think what came through quite often in the research as well was how public toilets, because they are obvious places of where women will go to at some point, become a place where you will find potential rapists or voyeurs hanging out. Another example:

Where I live I don't use the train station in front of my flat. I don't use it because it is usually deserted and quiet and most of the people who walk there are men. Women are very few. Most of the time if you go there, you are alone.

But at the same time women also specified that men also offered a sense of protection and so when they walked home at night they assured that they were accompanied by men. Another example: I mean, most of the women we spoke to all identified Court Street in Hillbrow as being a place of particular danger. Again because sex-workers were said to work there:

You are afraid because you do not know what could happen to you when these people are high…

[This is talking about drug dealers]

…because not only do they sell drugs, they also use them. The radio blares the whole night. When it is dark, they would not leave you alone, they could grab you. There is no safety also because there are prostitutes who live in the area.

But then looking at how fear was created all came about as a result of social processes. Women became afraid not only of particular places because of something that had happened to them there, but because of hearing about things that had happened. One example:

Sometimes it is gossip. Most of us haven't experienced rape. When people mention that something happened in Hillbrow, in your mind the whole of Hillbrow becomes unsafe.

And then possessing local knowledge of what has happened in particular spaces was also identified as important:

In the toilets on President and Delvers, a girl who had been raped was found inside the public toilets. There is also a street at the corner of Market and Delvers where there are public toilets. A girl was raped in that place and she was killed. So a woman who does not know may walk into that place not knowing that it is unsafe, but there are taxis and a disco in that area and so the place is not safe.

And then there were other methods that women used to protect themselves and some of these were about myths or misconceptions about who is raped, how rape happens and how you prevent rape. There is one particular example of this woman; this is how she decided this is what happened to women who got raped and if she didn't engage in these particular activities or doings, she would then be kept safe:

It is women who drink that get raped. They drink so much and in the end they do not even know where they are. The way I see it, a person who sits at the disco until 10 at night, she is dancing and has to go home around 11. At that time it is late for a woman to be outside. We also do not take care of ourselves. Like the woman who was found raped and dead at the toilets, she looked like she was a prostitute. They sit at the discos, drink with the men and then when they are drunk, they leave the disco these men rape them. It is alcohol, a lot of women drink too much. A woman should look after herself.

Or the other example:

Rape happens when you walk in a place where it is very quiet. You meet a person in that place and he overpowers you and takes you to another place where he rapes you. I think that to avoid that from happening, women should not walk where there are no people, they should walk where there are a lot of people to be safe.

So through starting to construct some of these ideas around who gets raped and what it is that contributes to rape this is a means that some women practice in order to try and keep safe. Some of the other women pointed out:

But rape doesn't only happen in quiet places, sometimes even people you know, or a colleague could rape you. So it can be anywhere, so you must be careful about everyone. If you have been raped by someone you know, the police won't believe you. If it is someone who you know who rapes you it is also dangerous because he could rape you and threaten you and let you go or he could rape you and kill you so that you do not tell anyone. People will also say, we saw her walking with a person who is known to her.

There are some women who realise that trying to localise and contain danger in particular individuals or in particular spaces or in particular sets of events doesn't always work. That rape was a risk they ran on a constant level.

Then in terms of looking at some of the strategies that some of the women employed, they spoke about asking drivers to drop them off in different places, consciously going to different bus stops, train stops where they could get picked up, changing where they walked, asking men to walk with them, walking in groups, these were some of the strategies that they employed. Waste management workers before hand if they knew that had to work in a place that was unsafe they would file a report before hand so that in the event that anything happened to them it would have been registered that they had expressed fear or concern working in that particular area. And this was quite closely tied with some of the streets in Hillbrow which are used as part of the drug trade.

I think in terms of sex-workers they also use quite particular strategies. Many of them try to work from hotels rather than from the streets. Because at least from within a hotel you could force your client to pay upfront. You also had security guards who could protect you in the case of a client becoming difficult. Otherwise they also try to warn each other about difficult customers and try to ensure they always carry enough money for taxi fare so that if a client refused to pay for services, they wouldn't have to hitch or walk but could rather catch a taxi. As many women highlighted, the daily travel to and from work often exposed them to danger. Walking between work places transport terminuses and homes often after darkness had fallen, presented a number of opportunities that assailants took full advantage of.

This is something I want to pick up specifically in looking at some of the gang rape research. Because there are some quite interesting differences between rape perpetrated by two or more men, and rape perpetrated by single rapists. Just to give you some sense of that because it talks again to the important differences between place and space. The greatest proportion of women who were gang raped, which was 41%, were walking at the time of the attack. One in ten cases they were socialising, and in another 10% of cases waiting for transport. And in 4% of cases they were sleeping or at home. Where as if we look at the victims of single perpetrator rapes only 21%, that's half the number, were walking at the time that they were raped. By contrast very many more of them were either at home or socialising. In terms of looking where the location of the rape occurred again important differences between single and multiple perpetrator rapes. If we look at the multiple rapes, 36%, that's just over one in 3 occurred in a private space like a residence or less commonly a work place. Where as with the single rape, 66%, that's almost 2 out of three occurred in a private place. And further 16% of women that were raped by single perpetrators were attacked in their homes, were as only 7% of women attacked by multiple perpetrators were attacked in their homes. So one can see there's quite a close relationship between public space and gang rape which is very different to single perpetrator rape and private rapes. And then looking at where the greatest proportion of gang rapes happen these were in public places with 31% taking place in open spaces like parks, stretches of veld (open field)and parking areas. The gang rapes that took place in parks, 11 of these were situated within the 2 km radius in which we sit, bounded from the end by the park up at Harrow Road to the park a little bit further down. So one could actually find a localisation in some ways for some forms of gang rape.

What was also particularly striking about gang rapes in contrast to single perpetrator rape, this why we ultimately entitled our study “Urban Predators”, is the greater number of rapists involved the more likely one is to find a gun being used as well as a car. So seeing a situation where a woman is abducted off a street at gun point and taken somewhere where rape occurs. This is considerably more common with the gang rapes than with the single perpetrator rapes.

And then just to return to some of my initial points about space and place, when we released some of this data about gang rape in inner city Johannesburg the immediate response was ‘women stay off the street between the following hours, don't catch transport, don't go here, don't go there'. And I think that communicated a number of very problematic messages. Firstly what it was saying was that public spaces were not for women. And if women wanted to use public spaces and public amenities like parks like public transport, like public toilets, they need to restrict and alter their behaviour. And that in a sense women who disregard those injunctions to keep safe in public spaces are to some degree, asking for it or getting what they deserve because they didn't take proper precautions to keep safe. That where again, this division of the public and private space, women who occupy public spaces or behave in public spaces in ways that they shouldn't are in a sense contributing to their own misfortune.

The other problem with the contradiction that one runs dealing with place and space and the division between public and the private, is that by warning women to stay out and away from public spaces it again reinforces the notion that women are safest at home in private space. But I think once one starts looking at the statistics for domestic violence and rape that it would appear actually it is private spaces that pose the very much greater danger to woman than public spaces. So I think those messages about the public and the private and who may use what space and who must constrain their behaviour in what space, only tends to reinforce and perhaps add to that political dimension, a situation where women are not safe in public and sent right back into the private where they are even less safe.

So those are just some thoughts I want to leave with you about public and private and how personal attempts to keep oneself safe in public spaces are in a sense diminishing women's use and occupation of the public and driving them back into the private where they continue to face increased risks to their safety.

Thank you.




Lisa Vetten has, since 1996, specialised in the issue of violence against women. She has extensive counselling and training experience in this field and has also conducted research on this topic. In March 1998, Lisa was appointed the Gender Co-ordinator at the CSVR. She has conducted research into the policing of domestic violence, the sentencing of women convicted of killing their intimate partners, the relationship between HIV/AIDS and violence against women. Lisa regularly facilitates training and education workshops (especially for criminal justice personnel) on issues related to gender and violence against women. She is a consultant (on gender violence issues) to the South African education television drama series, Soul City. As an expert in the field of violence against women in South Africa, Lisa is regularly asked for comment by newspapers, radio and television, and has has acted as an expert witness for the state in two trials involving men who have killed their intimate female partners.