A disturbing trend in violence against lesbians in South Africa was exemplified most recently by the brutal rape and murder of out lesbian soccer star Eudy Simelane last year. In April of 2008 Simelane’s body was found in her hometown of Kwa-Thema, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been beaten, raped and stabbed 25 times in the face and legs.
The incident is the most publicized in a series of sexual assault crimes qualified by international human rights group ActionAid as "corrective rape," where men seek to attack lesbians believing that it will turn them away from what is regarded as a deviant lifestyle. Since Simelane’s murder, violence against lesbians in South Africa has been on an alarming rise, according to news organizations and gay rights groups.
The Triangle Project, a gay and lesbian advocacy group in South Africa, reported in 2007 that a survey by the Human Sciences Research Council indicated 80% of South Africans are against same-sex relationships. Moreover, gays and lesbians are viewed as "un-African" and intolerance towards homosexuality remains high. "If there is someone out there trying to rape lesbians, I can appreciate it, ’cause it’s just to let them know they must be straight," said a young South African man interviewed on film by The Guardian in Johannesburg.
Simelane’s murder follows the double rape and murder of two other out women in July of 2007. Public outcry in response to the crimes has been extensive, but the police and justice system are slow to move. Only one man has been convicted so far and according to ActionAid and The Triangle Project trials are held back by defense delays and "lost" files. ActionAid views the situation as symptomatic of the government’s neglect in pursuing and punishing rapists, enforcing the mindset that men have the right to assault women and contributing to the recent outbreak of assaults on lesbians.
According to research by ActionAid, there are an estimated 500,000 rapes a year in South Africa and 24 out of 25 men accused of rape go free. “Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang-rape women, who murder lesbians…they walk the streets as free men,” said Tsidi, a survivor of hate crime in Cape Town.
The conviction of one of Simelane’s attackers, who pled guilty last year, is the first in the 31 documented murders of lesbians in South Africa since 1998. Two other men accused in the trial who pled not guilty were released. The South African government still refuses to completely acknowledge these crimes as hate crimes or seek justice for the victims.
In a statement, the national prosecuting authority of South Africa admitted that hate crimes are committed across the country, but said they were not a priority. According to The Guardian, during the sentencing of the one man convicted, a judge insisted that Simelane’s sexual orientation had "no significance" in her killing.
Triangle Project reports that 86% of lesbian women from the Western Cape live in fear of sexual assault, and they personally encounter up to 10 cases a week in Cape Town of women who were raped because of their sexual orientation.