South Africa's Hidden War: Histories of Sexual and Gender-based Violence from Apartheid to the Present

Lead Research Organisation: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER
Department Name: Archaeology and History


Gender-based and sexual violence are some of the most significant issues facing South Africa today, with the country often cited as having one of the highest rates of sexual violence for a society not at war. This violence is often framed in public discourse as a post-apartheid 'crisis' and as something that is consistently worse in the present - more profuse, brutal, and brazen - than it was in the past. Yet such a framing has encouraged historical amnesia about past sexual violence and ignores the longer trajectories of such violence and its impacts. South Africa's Hidden War is a historical research project which explores how gender-based and sexual violence were conceptualised, experienced, and responded to in South Africa across the apartheid and early post-apartheid periods, from the 1940s to early 2000s. In conducting this research, the project also seeks to develop innovative methodologies and ethical best practice for researching violence in the past. The results of this research will be used to bridge existing disciplinary and sectoral divides between those who research and work to prevent such violence in South Africa. The project will foster greater contemporary understanding of women's past lives and experiences and promote greater awareness of the longer histories of South Africa's current gender-based violence problem amongst academics, activists, NGOs, and violence prevention organisations.

Due to its prevalence, contemporary sexual violence in South Africa is a popular topic of research amongst anthropologists, psychologists, and scholars of public health, with most scholars focusing on the post-apartheid period and the key question of why men perpetrate violence. In seeking to understand today's high rates of gender-based violence, such work often turns to the past for answers, finding them in the country's long histories of colonialism, racism, and state-sanctioned violence. However, the history of sexual violence itself - how it was understood, experienced, and acted against in the past - remains little explored, particularly over the apartheid period. Rape is consequently seen as a legacy of, rather than something that occurred during, apartheid. Women's voices and experiences are also overlooked in much of this research, which tends to focus on men and masculinity. South Africa's Hidden War responds to these gaps in research by exploring how women themselves narrate and remember past sexual violence in their own lives and communities. This research is conducted through an innovative and interdisciplinary methodology consisting of three main strands: archival research, used to trace how sexual violence has been understood, debated, and addressed by various historical actors over time; oral history interviews with women across multiple generations and communities to explore the meanings they attach to sexual violence within their broader memories of apartheid and its aftermaths; and focus groups and workshops with women to investigate their own conceptualisations of sexual violence, its perpetrators, and means of addressing the problem. This methodology is facilitated by the project's direct collaboration with local NGOs and violence prevention organisations.

Addressing the shortcomings of existing research on sexual violence in South Africa is a matter of urgency to ensure that the country's current gender-based and sexual violence 'crisis' is properly historicised and that women's own voices and past experiences are incorporated into scholarship and violence prevention work. Through its planned academic outputs, impact activities, and digital archive, this project will have a lasting impact on how the longer histories of sexual violence in South Africa are understood by historians of gender and violence across the globe, interdisciplinary scholars of violence in South Africa, and individuals and organisations involved in South Africa's contemporary women's movement and violence prevention efforts.


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