Rape Crisis Cape Town: How it All Began by founder Anne Mayne
In March 1973 I was gang raped in the early evening while taking a short cut through a small park. Though I was not physically hurt except for a few bruises, I was so psychologically traumatised by this near death experience (one of the rapists threatened to kill me if I didn’t cooperate) that I had difficulty functioning normally for a long time afterwards.
Directly after the three rapists let me go I went to my best friend who lived in the flat above me. She dusted the grass and dirt off the back of my clothes and made me a cup of tea. She said “Congratulations for being alive! I would have probably panicked and been murdered!” This was the best thing anyone said to me until I met up with rape survivor advocates in the U.S. two years later.
At that time I was a political activist, working against apartheid, so I was fully aware of how inhuman most of the South African police were, and the idea of reporting what had happened to me to those violent men was out of the question. I sought medical help from the Venereal Disease clinic in Green Point and received a wide spectrum antibiotic injection in case I had been exposed to an STD, (the AIDS virus was not around then). The doctor was a kind old man who told me that if I became pregnant I should get back to him. Abortion was totally illegal in those days!
I was extremely emotionally disturbed. My moods swung from almost paralysing depression to manic hyper activity, I was hyper vigilant and I would wake from deep sleep with my heart racing, I had panic attacks, so I decided to see a psychiatrist. This doctor had possibly not heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or he would have made sure I that saw him on a long-term basis. Perhaps he that believed rape is not such a traumatic experience, especially when the victim was only mildly bruised, and perhaps he thought I had “asked for it” anyway! He gave me no trauma counselling, just tranquillisers. I did not take them for long because they made me feel drunk and I couldn’t carry out my work properly.
I could not go to my family while I was in such a traumatized state because my parents were very dysfunctional and my relationship with them was bad. I knew I would get no support from them. So apart from a very few friends who I told, I struggled on alone not knowing that I had all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, plus rape trauma syndrome. I was in such a bad state that I nearly committed suicide by jumping out of the ninth-floor window of the office where I was working. One thing I did, that helped calm my physical fear and to some extent it stabilized my emotions, was to join a Karate Dojo.
One kind friend, Keith Goschchalk, gave me a book for my birthday. It was “Rape – the first sourcebook for women” by the New York Radical Feminists, edited by Noreen Connell and Cassandra Wilson. This book probably saved my life! It explained that this kind of sexual attack happened to all kinds of women and children and that it was not anything the women did that precipitated the attack, I realised that I was not to blame and I was not alone. I became determined to try and get in contact with women who understood this kind of male violence. I believed that then I would be able to speak out and stop feeling alone, dirty and unacceptable to “normal society”. Also the book has a chapter on Rape Crisis Centres and how to organise them. Reading this book made me feel so much better!
My political work with the Young Progressives section, of the then Progressive Party was suddenly very disillusioning. The party had complied with the government’s new legislation that political parties could not organise across so called “racial” lines. The party had to ask its black members to leave, or it would be banned. I left too!
I thought that if a Rape Crisis organisation could be set up we could work with and for ALL South African women and take a stand together against male violence. So I put my energy into that. I so much wanted to the US and meet the New York Radical Feminists who had put together the wonderful book! Towards the end of 1974 I inherited some money and could make my dream come true. 1975 was the United Nations International Women’s Year and there was going to be an international conference in Mexico City. I had a South African friend who had gone to work in New York and I contacted her and told her my story. She said she could help me with accommodation in New York and off I went.
The women I met in the US were generous and helpful. I visited Rape Crisis Centres and went to court with rape survivor advocates and listen to cases. I bought books that they recommended I read and I collected information leaflets. I saw that these American women were ordinary women, just like us in SA and thought that if they were doing it so could we. Also when I told these new American friends/sisters in the feminist struggle, what I wanted to do they said with the utmost conviction, “Of course you can!”
I also managed to get to Mexico City for the UN Conference. It was an overwhelming experience and I learnt so much about feminism and women’s issues in such a short time. When I returned to Cape Town loaded with information, in the middle of International Women’s Year, 1975, there was no body to talk to about my experiences! A woman called Hilary Robenheimer, who was one of the founders of the Women for Peace movement, had set up a Women’s Centre in Rondebosch. She rented a small shop on the Main Road where the Riverside Centre now stands. This shop was used as a place where women who were concerned with women’s issues could meet, hold workshops, discussion groups, consciousness raising groups and reach out to each other and network through the notice board. I put up a sign on the notice board stating that a meeting would be held to discuss the possibility of setting up a Rape Crisis Centre in Cape Town.
It was a pleasant surprise to see four women waiting for this meeting to start when I opened the door! I gave them all a copy of an information leaflet that I had brought back from the US and asked them to read it and then we could have a discussion. They were fascinated and horrified by the information in the leaflet and we decided that we needed to do what the US women were doing. We put an ad in the newspaper with the phone number of Ann Levett’s house where I was staying; Ann was my partner at the time. We stated that we were a group of women who wanted to help any woman who had been raped.
We decided on weekly meetings to report back on any developments and one of the women Louraine Jones, who was a trained Lifeline counsellor, said she could get us speaking engagements with the Rotarians, so that we could educate the community about what we were attempting to do and also possibly they would fund some of our work. This all happened, Louraine and I spoke at number of Rotarian meetings and duly got money donated to print 4 000 leaflets. The leaflets were modified versions of the ones I brought back from the US. We always told people that there had been no research done yet in South Africa so the statistics quoted in the leaflets were from the US, but we guessed that the situation in South Africa was probably worse.
I remember the first call we got on the home phone line. She was a young woman who had been raped while on holiday in Johannesburg. With Louraine’s experience in Lifeline counselling and the information we had gained from reading the US feminist literature we gave her as much psychological support as we could. She did not want to go to the police as it had been a date rape and the families knew each other. She said she could not go through the trauma of a criminal trial.
From then on, probably as a result of the ad in the newspaper and the distribution of leaflets we began to get calls. Not many, but each one was so time consuming that it was good that we didn’t get a flood of calls. We were honest with the women who came to us, we told them that we were inexperienced in supporting women in this kind of crisis, but we would do our best and anything we learnt while helping them would go on to help other women. The women were completely trusting of us when we spoke to them in this way. They were grateful for any support. Louraine and I were the only two women who were active and dedicated to the plan to set up a proper Rape Crisis organisation, Ann Levett supported us in the background, the other women would come to the meetings and give us support and make useful suggestions. Then a woman called Simone Witkin joined. She was wonderfully practical, she distributed information and faithfully fulfilled tasks she was given at weekly meetings. Both Louraine and Simone worked full time and often did Rape Crisis work from their offices during working hours. I was still able to live carefully on the money I had inherited.
I had been working in an organisation called Child Life before I went to the States. I told my boss that I wanted to leave because I wanted to research the possibility of setting up a Rape Crisis organisation when I came back from the States and she was very understanding and wished me luck. Just when it was becoming problematic to use the home phone for crisis calls a pharmacist in Claremont, who had probably heard of us through the Rotarians offered to pay for a Medical Alert bleeper. That meant that the volunteer who was carrying the bleeper would call back anyone who called in and left his or her number. So we did not have to have someone sitting by a phone and we did not have to give out a private number to the public. The pharmacist renewed the Bleeper contract year after year without so much as checking up on us or asking for the organisation’s constitution or an annual report! He was a very nice man and he believed in us.
The National Council of Women and the Business and Professional Women took an interest in our work and we were invited to speak at their meetings and conferences, all of this helped to spread our message and raise our profile. A leading National Council of Women member Mary Grieves helped up draw up our first constitution.
In 1977 the Women’s Centre closed down and we had to find another place to meet. We found a conference room in the Werdmuller Centre in Claremont and from there had to find other venues for our weekly meetings. We realised that we had to structure ourselves much more formally if we were going to get funding and Ann Levett was very useful in helping us to design our counselling course. We knew that we had to raise the awareness of potential counsellors to the feminist analysis with which the organisation operated. We had to raise awareness that rape was not something that only “sick”, “disturbed” men did to certain types of women, but that rape was tactic used by all kinds of men from all walks of life, to control and terrorise all kinds of women and children, and this was because we lived in a society where men had too much power and thus abused it.
I have spoken to women who went through those early counselling training courses and they all say it changed their lives. Not only did they learn useful skills in counselling but they gained the confidence to fight sexism that oppressed their lives and they went on to achieve things and take up challenges that they may never have had the courage to do if they had not developed a feminist analysis.
For a few years, probably until 1979 Lauraine, Simone and I did most of the work of keeping the organisation going. We met a doctor, called Isha Ahmed, she ran a general practice in Elsie’s River and she was very supportive and helped us to understand the medical/legal issues around rape. Quite by chance the core members of the early Rape Crisis were Lauraine, from an Afrikaans background, Simone from a Jewish background, Isha, from an Indian Muslim background and me from an English background.
Then Rape Crisis caught the interest of the UCT undergraduates. They began to come to meetings and they changed the organisation. They gave Rape Crisis a boost of energy and skills and womanpower. They came from all the different disciplines and backgrounds and they enriched the organisation with their knowledge and skills. They also learnt a great deal about themselves and about the condition of women under patriarchy and apartheid through the training courses and their subsequent crisis counselling and public education workshops. We were now getting far too many calls for the few of us to handle. We were being called on to do talks and training many times a month, this was all being done by volunteers who were mostly in full time employment or full time students. We needed proper funding, an office and paid workers.
In order to get funding, we needed to get a government issued fund raising number. Because we were a radically anti-government organisation we did not want to be controlled in anyway by government rules and regulations. Leah Abramsohn negotiated with Cape Mental Health to get them to take us under their umbrella and thus we received funding from the Community Chest. This gave us enough money to pay the rent of a small office in Observatory and pay for a coordinator. I was still living carefully on my inheritance and never thought of budgeting for a salary for myself! I worked for 12 years helping to build the organisation and in the end I was burnt out and broke! This brought me face to face with how impractical I was at looking after myself! But the experience was a rich one and had other rewards. I met wonderful women, both volunteers and survivors, and I learnt valuable lessons.
In those early days we were confronted with all kinds of situations we had never dreamed of, the work we did exposed the extremely rotten foundations of our society. In the 80’s we were swept along by the rise of the UDF, there was a new, healthy energy in the country. “Struggle” activists saw rape Crisis as a kosha organisation and came to us for training an advice. We trained the activists, who were running advice offices in the townships so that they could support rape survivors and battered women and those who had been detained and raped as part of torture. Yet after liberation in 1994, Rape Crisis did not take root in the townships until Carol Bower became the director in 1996.
There were some important issues in Rape Crisis at that time, one was the radical, lesbian, feminist “cabal” as it was seen, which was accused of alienating heterosexual women who joined the organisation! The other issue was whether we should speak to groups who were associated with the apartheid system like the police and the army. Neither of these issues was clearly resolved in my memory.
This was also the time when Rape Crisis Cape became the resource centre for women in other provinces who were inspired to set up Rape Crisis in their towns. As the University students who were Rape Crisis volunteers graduated and left Cape Town to find work in their home towns, some of them had the skills, knowledge and motivation to set up or help set up Rape Crisis organisations where they lived. Gabby Marcus and Debby Bourn, who were very involved in the Cape Town group, set up POWA in Johannesburg. Durban Rape Crisis was inspired and helped by the Cape Town organisation; Beatie Hofmeyer ex Cape Town Rape Crisis, helped develop the Durban group when she lived there for a while. Judy Sanderson a young journalist and UCT graduate was instrumental in setting up the Pietermaritzburg Rape Crisis. The Musasa Project set up in Harare Zimbabwe was inspired and basically set up by Shelagh Stewart who graduated as a lawyer from UCT and who was a volunteer in Cape Town Rape Crisis. The Musasa Project is an all round women’s rights organisation that deals with rape, battering, and rights of divorced wives.
Once Rape Crisis centres had been set up in other cities, we had annual national conferences. These were very interesting and fruitful in the exchanging of information, but the national conferenced only lasted for about 4 years. Apart from POWA, I do not know if the other organisations exist anymore. In 1986, a Rape Crisis member, Leah Abramsohn was responsible for obtaining from the City Council, the house in Long Street, now used as offices and a resource centre by NICRO. We set it up as a Battered Women’s Shelter, Rape Crisis members worked to convert the house. We partitioned the rooms and built bunk beds for the children and collected old furniture. This was run for a number of years, by ex Rape Crisis volunteers who were now paid shelter workers.
I am proud of the contribution I made towards attempting to make Cape Town a safer place for women, though it is clear that out city has become progressively more violent over the years, but at least women and children are no longer being blamed for being raped, protocol to deal with rape survivors has been set in place in hospitals and police stations and we are beginning to get better legislation i.e. the Sexual Offences Bill passed in Parliament.
According to Carol Bower Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust is the oldest surviving of those organisations founded around that time which is still in existence, including New York, London and Toronto. I believe that the work done by the other organisations has changed society and the social services to such an extent that their specialised work is no longer necessary. Hopefully this will happen in South Africa one day. Meanwhile, may the work done by Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust go from strength to strength.
Founder of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust