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South Africa searches for solutions after teenage girl’s gang rape and murder

Death of Anene Booysen leads to controversial measures by police seeking to crack down on widespread sexual violence

One subject has dominated South Africa’s media agenda so far this month: rape. The case of 17-year-old Anene Booysen – gang-raped and murdered, her throat slit and body mutilated by a broken bottle – has concentrated minds on a deep-rooted culture of sexual violence. It has led to calls for public protests as seen in India and forced South Africans to confront the question: what can be done?

Tougher law enforcement has been one inevitable answer. The front page of South Africa’s Times newspaper on Wednesday reported that police in Limpopo province are forcing all rape suspects to undergo HIV testing, with those who test positive to be be charged with attempted murder as well as rape.

“This is going to give police more ammunition to fight the scourge of rape,” spokesman brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi told the paper. “From now on we will take every possible legal avenue to ensure heavier sentences, especially in cases where the suspect was aware of his HIV status.”

But the solution has proved contentious. While South Africa’s Sexual Offences Act allows police to ask a magistrate to order an HIV test of a rape suspect, the move by Limpopo police is yet to be tested in court.

Isaac Mangena, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, said: “While we remain deeply concerned about the unacceptable increase of incidents of rape and gender-based violence that has gripped the country in recent days, we believe the police should be reminded of the fundamental rights afforded to all individuals in the constitution, including the presumption of innocence principle.

“We believe that the envisaged mandatory HIV testing of suspects by the police in Limpopo will not stand the test of the courts. The rights of both the victim and the accused persons must be protected and respected at all times.”

Cathi Albertyn, a law professor at Wits University, told the Times: “Technically speaking, the Sexual Offences Act allows the results of an HIV test to be used… as evidence… but proving attempted murder may be a step too far.”

Rachel Jewkes, acting director of the South African Medical Research Council, said four in five rapists are HIV-negative and questioned why the charge of attempted murder is required. “If a person is properly convicted of rape, the mandatory sentence is 15 years,” she told the paper.

South Africa’s progressive constitution enshrines gender rights and its parliament has one of the highest proportion of female MPs in the world. Yet the breathtaking scale of sexual violence – and the silence that often surrounds it – exposes the chasm between constitutional ideals and the harshness of daily life in townships and villages.

Some 56,272 rapes were recorded in 2010-11, an average of 154 a day and more than double India’s rate. A survey in Gauteng province found more than one in three men admitted rape. Many cases are known to go unreported and it estimated that only around one in 200 rapists will be convicted.

Political commentators have welcomed the sudden end to rape denialism and the growing willingness to confront the issue. Writing for the Daily Beast, Eusebius McKaiser, himself a rape victim when he was a boy, observed: “The newfound outrage over Booysen’s death might be connected to the global focus on a similar gang rape in India, which has enflamed that nation and set off calls for harsher sentences for rapists.

“It’s possible that the India case could have quietly touched the hearts and minds of South Africans more than they realised – and that Booysen’s tragic demise might herald South Africa’s own awakening on the issue. Whatever the reason, the country is now embarking, somewhat clumsily and haphazardly but with unprecedented frankness, on a journey of talking about an evil that has been ignored for too long.”

The two men charged with Booysen’s rape and murder appeared in court on Tuesday. The case was postponed until 26 February.

South African farmworkers sacked ‘in truckloads’ after strike, says union

Farmers accused of ‘vindictive’ response to two-week strike for 10 daily wage in fruit and wine sector

South African farmworkers were dismissed “in truckloads” on Thursday after calling off the latest round of a strike for a daily wage of 150 rands ( 10.65), their union said.

The Confederation of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) warned of a new flare-up in the Western Cape as a result of what they called the farmers’ “vindictive” response to the latest two-week strike in the 850m-a-year fruit and wine sector. Three farmworkers have died in clashes with police during stop-start strikes since November that have also led to hundreds of arrests.

The unrest comes as South Africa’s economy recovers from a violent two-month strike in the mining sector in which 50 people died last year. In further civil unrest this week, four people died in Sasolburg, in the Free State, as unemployed residents rioted in protest at a municipal demarcation move, which they believe will affect their job prospects.

Unions and charities supporting the Western Cape’s 500,000 farmworkers say pay and conditions are so bad that South African wines, grapes and Granny Smith apples have no more of a place in responsible consumers’ shopping baskets than they had under apartheid.

“The government should be forcing the farmers to the table but it is not,” said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the Black Workers’ Agricultural Sector Union, (Bawusa). “Our only weapon left is for the foreign retailers to pledge that unless the conditions are addressed, they will no longer import South African products.”

Pieterse said he had been inundated with calls on Thursday from members who said they had been dismissed when trying to return to work.

“I do not know how many have been sacked but in one instance, truckloads of workers were dismissed. In Wolseley, trucks drove into townships and dumped the clothes of farmworkers that had been left behind on the farm,” he said, adding that the Western Cape strike would resume on Monday unless President Jacob Zuma intervened and employers showed a willingness to negotiate.

But it is unclear whether the strike call will be heeded. Most farmworkers are not unionised, many are illiterate and face the risk of eviction because they live on their employers’ properties.

Poorly enforced labour rights and tenancy laws as well as the pitifully low statutory minimum daily wage in the sector – 69.39 rands ( 4.92) – perpetuate a culture of paternalism. To go on strike, workers have to stand up to employers with whom they work in the fields and who claim to make great sacrifices for their staff, such as providing transport to clinics or to schools.

The latest round of strikes in the Western Cape has come at the height of the table-grape harvesting and packing season. Portia Adams, a spokeswoman for the employers’ organisation Agri SA, said many farms had continued to operate using non-unionised labour from outside the farming areas.

Only two businesses among the Western Cape’s 5,000 farms negotiated pay rises with their workers during the latest strike, and signed up to a union call for no retaliatory sackings. The government has been silent on the issue, tacitly pointing to ongoing annual minimum wage talks.

But those fighting for farmworkers’ rights argue that far more needs to be done. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch found widespread exposure to pesticides, lack of access to drinking water or sanitation, and failure to pay sick leave. While the system of dop – payment in alcohol – has largely been abolished, the Western Cape still has the highest rates in the world of foetal alcohol syndrome.

Pieterse, a lifelong activist for farmworkers’ rights, said: “The farmers are intransigent, vengeful and arrogant. Yet they are the beneficiaries of post-apartheid South Africa.

“In the first 10 years of democracy, the wine industry grew tenfold, from 20m litres output before 1994 to 220m litres. The farmworkers’ conditions went the other way. Tenure rights laws were not accepted by the farmers. More than 1 million farmworkers were evicted. They remain slaves on the land of their birth.”

But Agri SA said the strike had cost farmers 300m rands since November and that Bawusa and Cosatu were misrepresenting the situation.

“The workers have not been dismissed. The intake of seasonal workers is simply far lower now. Seasonal workers do not have contracts so it is not dismissal,” said Adams.

She added: “Strikers engaged in illegal actions, including threats to farmers, violence and damage of property. If there were dismissals, this was for disciplinary reasons.”

Of the Western Cape’s fruit production, 58% is exported and, in Britain, one of the main importers is Tesco. Giles Bolton, the company’s director of ethical trading, said Tesco put in place an “ethical buying hub” in South Africa three years ago to keep tabs on suppliers’ treatment of their staff.

Bolton said: “The whole South African agriculture sector is very little unionised and it would help everyone if there was a more mature industrial relations atmosphere. However, it is not for us as a company to dictate to a foreign country that ‘you must pay X’. I think the African National Congress government would query us for saying such a thing.”