Durban Deep looks like a green, beautiful and peaceful part of Roodepoort in the West of Johannesburg. But this little deserted mining town hides horrors many cannot even begin to imagine.
The houses are nestled between luscious green trees and thick tall bushes laced with colourful wild flowers. Though old and run down, the houses in Durban Deep look much better than what many South Africans call home.
Formal mining ceased in the area in the early 2000s. It is reported to have produced over $20 billion worth of gold.
Durban Deep is now home to illegal miners who try to make a living from the gold left behind in the deserted nearby mines. It has also become a place where rape has become common with no one to help the women… not even the police or the country’s legal system.
About four years ago, water and electricity was cut off from Durban Deep leaving the town in complete darkness. Many residents say that when the lights were turned off, the darkness engulfed their town was so deep, it persists even during the day time. Those who have suffered the most are women and children.
Living in a state of terror
“I am Terrified. This place is not okay. It’s not. I am so afraid. But I have nowhere else to go,” says 25-year-old *Naledi Molefe. She does not need to say that she is terrified. Her eyes are filled with fear.
Naledi was attacked and almost raped just a few days before speaking to SABC News. She was sitting on the local soccer grounds with her boyfriend at around 4:00 pm when a group of men approached them.
“They just started swearing at us. Then I asked them how they could insult us when they do even know who we are. Then they started beating us,” says Molefe.
The evidence of her attack is still very visible – bruises on her face and other parts of her body are very easy to see against her light complexion.
Though the beating and verbal abuse from the men left her in pain and feeling dehumanised, it was what happened towards the end of the attack that has left her even more terrified.
“As they were beating us, one of the men started trying to pull my pants down. The only reason he stopped is because my boyfriend begged him,” says Naledi crying.
Naledi was able to identify the men who assaulted her and her boyfriend and reported them to the police.
“They [police] caught one of them and asked him if what I am saying is true. One of the officers started slapping him around. He started crying but while there were still standing there asking him questions, he ran away. They did not even bother to chase him.”
She says she has seen that particular man walking around many times since the attack.
The men who attacked Naledi and her boyfriend are part of the “security”, a group of Basotho men who force residents to pay them in for “protection”. The group also forces illegal miners to pay them before and after they go underground.
Before her attack, Naledi would spend her days dropping off her CV to potential employers, but now she is too terrified to leave the house. Because they have no electricity, she cannot search for work online. The attack has not only made her a prisoner in her own home, it has diminished her chances of earning a living.
Fifteen year old *Zinhle was also almost raped by a group of Basotho men. Zinhle was sitting with a neighbour on her grandmother’s patio in the evening a day after Christmas last year when a group of men tried to abduct her. Her grandmother, *Elizabeth Kgwadi heard her scream and immediately ran outside but Zinhle was gone.
“The Basotho men have taken her,” the neighbour, who is young man, told her.
“They were trying to carry her to the toilet so they can rape her there, but the way they were holding her enabled her to bite them,” says Kgwadi.
She says her granddaughter bit and fought back so much, she bought herself enough time to attract the neighbour’s attention, and the men let her go and ran off without raping her.
After the attack, Kgwadi approached the police to open a case for her granddaughter. She was turned away.
“They told us that she was not actually raped, so there was nothing to report.”
She says only after activists got involved that the police opened a case.
Like Naledi’s case, even though the perpetrators where known and identified to police, no arrests were made.
In Durban Deep, Naledi and Zinhle are considered “lucky”. Many women in this community are not fortunate enough to say I was almost raped. They were raped.
You can scream but there will be no help
As one of the community leaders, *Mike Sibanda tells us, hearing a woman scream for help while being raped is not uncommon here. Sibanda is from Zimbabwe and has been living in the area for seven years.
“You see that house,” says Sibanda pointing to the house next to his.
“Last year, there was a woman who was taken into that house by her boyfriend. Her boyfriend was part of a group Basotho men who stayed there. Once she was in the house, they started raping her. They would go in one after the other, taking turns to rape the woman. They started in the morning and it went on until late.”
Sibanda says the woman kept begging them to stop.
“I remember her screaming out ‘why are you doing this to me? They would tell her to shut up or they would beat her, but she kept screaming so they beat her while raping her.”
He says they see this often, but there is very little they can do because they too fear for their lives.
“We cannot call the police because it is dangerous. As some are inside raping the woman, others are outside looking to see who is looking at them. If they find out that you are the one who called the police on them, they will kill you.”
He tells of another woman who was raped and had to run out of the house naked.
“Her boyfriend took her to the back room, he had sex with her and went out, his friend went in after him and had sex with the girl. When the third guy came in she realised that she was not having sex with the same man. She ran out of the house naked, when she got outside, she found that there was a queue of men waiting to sleeping with her without her permission.”
Sibanda says the Basotho gangs believe that if you agree to date one of them, you belong to all of them,
“They all have the right to do with you as they wish.”
Sibanda points to the house across his.
“You see that one? Him and his girlfriend were coming from town at around 7 in the evening when a group of men attacked them. They made him lay down then they raped her on top of him.”
He points to another house, a little bit further away. There is another girl there who was raped. The Mosotho man took her from the streets in broad daylight dragged her to the house and raped her.
He says they did not help because they man told the people around that she was his wife.
“She is also a Mosotho woman, how do we know who they are to each other, you can’t just interfere.”
“We all live in fear, but what can we do? we have nowhere else to go,” says Sibanda.
Police visibility is very strong in Durban Deep, but residents say they are of no help. They accuse them of receiving bribes from criminals to turn a blind eye.
Foreign women suffer in silence
Cora Bailey has been working in Durban Deep since 2002. Initially, she was there to provide veterinary care for animals but when she started learning about the plight of the residents, she started getting involved. Bailey is so trusted by community members that many of them call her before the police or an ambulance when there is trouble, regardless of what time of day it is.
She was recently called in when a young Zimbabwean mother was raped in front her child.
“She was moving from a shack to one of the houses. She had thought that the house would be safer than the shack, but one evening while she was moving her belongings to the house, they caught her and raped her, right next to the house. She has now moved back to the shack,” says Bailey.
Bailey says the woman was afraid to lay charges or go to the clinic because she is an undocumented foreigner.
“That is common. Many of the foreign women fear that if they go to the police or seek medical help they will get into trouble and maybe even is deported back home, so they would rather suffer in silence.” She says if a woman’s partner works underground, that is also sometimes used against her by the men who want to abuse them.
“They will tell her to do as they please or else her partner will be in trouble underground.”
Bailey says many women, even those who are South Africans are choosing to stay silent because whether they report the crime or not, it does not seem to make a difference.
She has worked with many women in the community to help them lay charges. She says that in the time she has been there, not even one of the cases against women that she has reported has ever led to a conviction. Very few lead to arrests, and the accused is soon back on the street.
Police spokesperson, Juliet Mogale says most of the women who are raped in Durban Deep are undocumented foreigners.
She says even when they make arrests, the suspects often go free after a few days because the women back out. They are afraid that they too will be in trouble because they are in the country illegally.
“They are scared to report crime even after we have tried telling them many times that they will not get deported if they come,” says Mogale.
She declined to comment on allegations that some police officers are bribed by police to turn a blind eye.
No one is safe, not even animals
But it’s not just the women who are under siege.
One day when Bailey was in the community, a group of children came screaming her name.
“Cora, Cora, he’s having sex with the dog,” the children screamed. It was true, one of the men was raping a dog in broad daylight in front of everyone to see, including the children playing on the streets.
Some adults had seen him as well and the man was charged but he was not found guilty**.
“This is where we live. They rape dogs, can you imagine what they will do to us,” says a community member.
*Real identity withheld.
**Correction: The man was never formally charged.