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South Africa’s Hidden War

Histories of sexual violence from Apartheid to the present

Today, South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual violence for any country not at war. Despite public outcry and new policy initiatives, understandings of South Africa’s rape crisis remain limited due to two main factors: a failure to understand the longer history sexual violence across the apartheid and post-apartheid periods; and the neglect of women’s own voices in research or policy. Addressing these limitations, this project explores the history of sexual violence in South Africa from the 1940s to the present through the voices of those most affected by it: African women and girls.

This project will inquire into women’s shifting understandings, experiences of, and responses to rape and sexual abuse across the apartheid and post-apartheid periods. It seeks to explore the histories of sexual violence in a range of contexts: in everyday life and within romantic relationships in South African’s townships; as a facet of the wider crime and gangsterism that was prevalent within these communities from the 1940s onwards; as linked to economic struggles over livelihood and survival; as part of or related to South Africa’s liberation struggle and the fight against apartheid; and as linked to the period of ‘transition’ violence that engulfed the country from 1990 to 1994. The primary questions it seeks to address are: how do African women define and conceptualise sexual violence, and how have these definitions changed over time? What strategies have women employed to limit, address, or seek justice against sexual violence, and where have they deemed these to be most successful? How do women narrate and remember sexual violence, and what position does such violence occupy within their wider life histories? And how did women’s experiences of sexual violence change (or not change) over the course of the apartheid and post-apartheid periods?

This project, led by Emily Bridger, is funded by a four-year UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship