Knowing Rape: Surfacing Ethnoracialized Victims in Post-Apartheid South Africa


ACLS Fellowship Program


Population Studies and Training Center


In South Africa, those working in and alongside law enforcement often make the claim that victims of sexual violence don't know they have been raped. The claim is leveled at ethnoracialized women, Black women living in rural areas of the country's former bantustans (“Black homeland” or native reserve). Claims of misrecognition such as these typically follow from the observation that the vast majority of women who experience non-consensual sex in South Africa do not seek assistance through legal channels. In this way, “knowing rape” is simultaneously an epistemological, phenomenological and procedural imperative. To “know rape” is to know rape as a criminal category that is defined in legal statute as non-consensual sex, the harm of which lies in liberal-legal ideas of personhood. My book explores how “knowing rape” animated efforts to recruit victims into the workings of the carceral state. Drawing on 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the town of Thohoyandou, South Africa, this project shows that “knowing rape” constituted a gendered civic duty, one that was tied up with moral citizenship. This was a duty disproportionately born by ethnoracialized women, women who were enjoined to embody the harm of criminal sex for the sake of the nation.