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New South Africa Review One

New South Africa Review One

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Our burden of pain:
Murder and the major forms
of violence in South Africa

David Bruce

In the fifteen years since 1994, official statistics record over 328 000 murders, over 750 000

incidents of rape, close to 1.6 million incidents of aggravated robbery, and 3.6 million incidents

of assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm. Numerous other incidents, of common

assault, indecent assault and robbery, are also included in official statistics. Taking into account

the fact that statistics under-represent (particularly nonfatal) violence, it is apparent that

South Africa is a country seriously brutalised and traumatised by violence.1

Most South Africans are inclined to agree that the problem of violent crime is a serious one.

But a continuing feature of contemporary debates about crime is a question about whom it affects

(Pharoah 2009; Silber and Geffen 2009). These debates are partly racialised. Many white South

Africans, for instance, hold the view that crime, and violent crime, primarily involves young black

men targeting whites (Myburgh 2009; 2010), and many perceive women as the primary victims

of violence. Meanwhile, the recent outbreaks of xenophobic violence have led to suggestions that

much of the violence in South Africa is directed at foreigners, while alternatively, the view is often

expressed that it is poor people who are the principal victims (Silber and Geffen 2009).

The problem with all of these views is that while violent crime has common features and

underlying causes it is not a uniform phenomenon. Murder, for instance, is probably best

understood as a manifestation of a number of different forms of violence. But murder itself,

and each of these different forms of violence, affects different groups within South Africa’s

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population in different ways. In understanding the impact of violent crime on people in South

Africa, it is necessary to take a differentiated view of violence.

This chapter is therefore largely descriptive in its focus. It aims to describe how murder and

the related ‘major forms of violence’, the primary contributors to the overall problem of violent

crime in South Africa, manifest themselves. It engages not only with questions about the various

groups of victims affected by different aspects of the problem of violence, but also some of the

other key commonalities and differences. In so doing it hopes to contribute to establishing a firmer

basis for understanding what we are talking about in South Africa when we discuss violent crime.


Violent deaths in South Africa2

Available data on homicide3

indicates that it is young, black (particularly coloured and

African) men who are most affected by violent death. Data from the National Injury Mortality

Surveillance System (NIMSS) for 2004, 2005 and 2007 on the age distribution of homicide

consistently shows between 38 and 39 percent of homicide victims to be in the twenty to

twenty-nine age category, with 65 to 67 per cent of homicide victims being between twenty

and thirty-nine years of age (table 1).4

Since 1994, agencies involved in collecting data on crime have mostly avoided collecting data

relative to racial categories so such data is relatively hard to come by. The available information

is therefore somewhat dated but there are no apparent grounds for believing that the trends

Table 1: Contribution of five-year age bands in 10–49 year age group to overall homicide rate
for 2004, 2005 and 2007






35-39 40-44


Other All














per cent0.6





















per cent0.7





















per cent0.7





















per cent0.7










Source: NIMSS 2005, 2006, 2008.(Figures for 2004 are estimates based on a bar graph provided in the NIMSS

report for that year. There is no NIMMS report for 2006. The ‘other age groups’ column refers to those victims

nine years and under, and fifty years and over.)



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reflected in this data have changed substantially since then. NIMSS data for 2000 and 2001, for

instance, indicated that homicide accounted for 50 to 51 per cent of non-natural deaths amongst

coloureds, and 48 to 49 per cent of such deaths amongst Africans, while the proportions

amongst Indians (26 to 27 per cent) and whites (17 to 18 per cent) were significantly lower

(table 2). Unless Indians and whites had substantially higher levels of non-natural death overall,

which is not demonstrated by the data (Statistics SA data, cited in Myburgh 2010), this indi-

cates that there are more homicide victims among coloureds and Africans. A study of murders

of women in 1999 indicated that intimate femicides of coloured women (18.3 per 100 000)

were substantially higher than those for Africans (8.9 per 100 000), Indians (7.5 per 100 000)

and whites (2.8 per 100 000) (Mathews et al 2005.)

A distinctive feature of murder in South Africa is the high proportion of male victims. Statistics

provided over the last decade by the national injury mortality surveillance system consistently

indicate that male victims have accounted for 87 to 88 per cent of homicide victims. The

proport ion of male homicide victims in South Africa is far higher than global averages as well

as averages for poor and African countries (Altbeker 2008: 129–130).Homicide victims are

marginally less likely to be male in rural or small towns than in metropolitan areas, partly

reflecting differences in patterns of homicide between these areas as well as the greater con-

centration of women in rural areas.5

Data on the profile of perpetrators of murder is by its nature more difficult to come by. In

a study of murder in six areas conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and

Table 2: Percentage of non-natural deaths linked to homicide by racial categories






49 %





48 %

27 %

51 %


Source: NIMSS

Table 3: NIMSS data on gender of victims of death by violence (homicide), 2000–076






Male victims

7 268

9 700

9 014

7 933

10 306

Female victims

1 073

1 463

1 371

1 143

1 598

Total male and female

8 341

11 163

10 385

9 076

11 904

per cent female






Source: NIMSS

Our burden of pain


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Reconciliation (CSVR) (2008a), the proportion of suspects and victims of thirty-five and

older was 22 per cent. However, suspects who are identified tend to be associated with specific

types of homicides (for example argument-type homicides, often occurring between acquain-

tances – see further below) and cannot be generally taken to be representative of the age

distributio n of perpetrators. As a general rule, however, it seems that while both suspects and

victims are likely to be young adults, in the age band twenty to thirty-nine, and particularly

twenty to twenty-nine, more suspects than victims are younger and more victims than suspects

are older than these age categories. For instance, 20 per cent of suspects were younger than

nineteen whilst 11 per cent of victims were in this age category.7

Murders are, overwhelmingly, perpetrated by males. For instance, in the CSVR study of

murde rin six urban areas with high rates of murder, 94 per cent of suspects were male and

6 per cent female. However, the proportion of arrests of women in argument-type murders is

much higher; in the CSVR study 9 per cent of the arrests for argument-type murders were of

women; argument-type murders accounted for 310 (48 per cent) of the 641 identified suspects

and 28 (78 per cent) of the 36 arrests of women, although they accounted for only 26 per

cent of the murders overall.8

In most other categories there were proportionately fewer arrests

(relati ve to the total number of cases) but also few or no arrests of women. Thus all the

suspec ts arrested for killings committed in the course of another crime (80 per cent of which

were robberies), for killings carried out in self-defence (the victims in these cases had allegedly

been involved in carrying out crimes), and for killings related to rivalry between groups (such

as taxi associations) were male (CSVR 2008a: 93). This suggests that if the sex of all perpe-

trators in all categories of murder had been known, the proportion of male perpetrators

would probably have been even greater than 94 per cent (in a 2009 SAPS docket analysis the

figure is 95.1 per cent).

For all murders in which male suspects were identified, 15 per cent of victims were female

and 85 per cent were male (op cit: 93-94). Victims were female in 32 per cent of cases and

male in 68 per cent of the relatively small number of cases where suspects were female.

The paucity of data on issues of race relative to violent crime is even greater in relation to

perpetrators than to victims. It appears reasonable to conclude that the overall patterns of

homicide victimisation in terms of which coloureds and Africans are most vulnerable are also

reproduced for perpetration, with some evidence, once again, that coloureds are even more

strongly represented, relative to population numbers, than are Africans.

NIMSS data also suggests that firearms were previously the most commonly used weapons

in incidents of homicide but that sharp instruments (mostly knives) have now displaced

firearms (table 4). Changes in the profile of mortuaries in the NIMSS system are, however,

likely to change the picture presented here: firearms are more likely to be associated with

homicides in urban and particularly metropolitan areas, and so the predominance of firearm

homicides in early NIMSS data might partly be a reflection of the continuing urban/metro-

politan bias of the NIMSS system, which was particularly strong in its earlier years – although

it appears possible that implementation of the Firearms Control Act (60 of 2000) has also

contributed to a reduction in the number and relative proportion of homicides committed

by means of firearms.9

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Table 4: Weapons used in homicide, 2000–0710








Number of mortuaries









4 372

6 104

5 572

5 387

3 953

3 487

3 929

Sharp force

2 547

3 168

3 151

3 220

2 992

3 204

4 408

Other method (blunt








instrument,strangulation, burn)

Total by weapons

8 203

10 925

10 170

10 3348 469

7 868

11 029

per cent firearms








per cent sharp instruments








Source: NIMSS

Our burden of pain


Homicide in South Africa is largely differentiated between ‘argument-type’ and ‘crime-type’.

If these categories are understood very broadly (so that the argument-type homicides are

understood to include a variety of interpersonal disputes and conflicts such as those related

to domestic violence and ‘love-triangles’), then it appears that on a national level ‘argument-

type’ homicides are the most predominant, with a recent South African Police Service (SAPS)

study indicating that these account for 63.6 per cent of homicides. Crime-type homicides

accounted for a quarter (15.9 per cent) of this figure (table 5).

As indicated in table 5, killings categorised by the SAPS as ‘domestic related’ (a category

which may be equated with that of ‘fatal intimate partner violence’) make up over 7 per cent

Table 5: Types of murder in South Africa by gender of victim11





All victims



( per cent)

Argument type




51.6 (50.4)

/argument general

Domestic related



7.5 (7.3)

Jealousy/love triangle



4.6 (5.5)




63.7 (63.2)

Crime type

Consequence of another crime



15.8 (15.9)





5.0 (4.8)




3.8 (4.5)




11.8 (11.5)


85.6 per cent14.4 per cent100

Source: SAPS 2009; 2010

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of murders in this study. It is notable here that while female victims predominate (accounting

for roughly 60 per cent of victims), there are also substantial numbers of male victims. The

proportion of male victims here is comparable to that in the CSVR murder study (2008a: 90)

where 31 per cent of intimate partner killings involved the killing of a man by a female.

Intimate partner homicides account for 30 per cent of homicides of women. This figure is

similar to that recorded in the CSVR study (31 per cent), though lower than that recorded in

a major study of ‘intimate femicide’ which, based on an analysis of the murder of women in

1999, found that the killings of female intimate partners by men accounted for 50.2 per cent

of killings of women where the relationship between victim and perpetrator could be deter-

mined, and 41 per cent of killings of women overall (Mathews et al2005: 2). These killings are

presumably distinguished from the SAPS category of ‘jealousy/love triangle’ killings also used

in table 5 by the fact that the latter involve the killing of a rival rather than an intimate partner

– although there are murder incidents where both a rival and partner (or former partner) are

killed and jealousy plays a role in intimate partner violence and killings more generally.

There are certain factors which should be borne in mind in interpreting this type of data. The

first is that the data does not differentiate between different types of locations. Aggravated robbery

(robbery committed with weapons such as guns or knives) is the primary driver of ‘crime type’

murders and is heavily concentrated in and close to South Africa’s metropolitan areas. Crime-

type murders are therefore a far more significant phenomenon in metropolitan South Africa. For

instance, the CSVR report on murder in six areas (focused on areas within metropolitan South

Africa), found that crime-type murder constituted roughly a quarter, and argument type murders

roughly half, of murders in known circumstances. In one of the areas, KwaMashu, crime-type

murders in fact exceeded the number of argument-type murders (CSVR 2008a: 43).12

The use of the designation ‘crime-type’ also masks significant gender differences. The male

victims of crime-type murders would overwhelmingly have been killed during incidents of

robbery. The SAPS report indicates that 2 per cent of victims had been raped and murdered

and these victims may be assumed to have been mainly (if not exclusively) female. This sug-

gests that over 60 per cent of the female victims of crime-type murders (or 13 per cent of

female victims overall) were women who had been raped (this may have included some inci-

dents involving both rape and robbery).13

A further critical point which should be taken into account in referring to this data, is that

it is only a representation of murders in ‘known circumstances’. A 2004 SAPS report found

that 37 per cent of murders were, however, in circumstances described as unknown while in

the study of murder in six areas, murders in circumstances which were ‘unknown or unclear’

accounted for a full 53 per cent of cases (op cit: 31). The latter report also concludes that mur-

ders in unknown circumstances are more likely to be crime-type than argument-type murders

and that the picture which we have of murder would be slightly different if we had data on

the murders in unknown circumstances. The consequence would probably be that the pro-

portion of argument-type murders would be somewhat less than the above data suggest, and

the proportion of crime-type murders would be slightly greater. Nevertheless, the available

evidence would appear to support the above picture in general terms and particularly the

conclusion that argument-type murder is the major type of murder in South Africa.



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Major forms of violence

As indicated above, murder is not a single discrete phenomenon. Often it takes place in the

context of an argument or a robbery or rape. Though it is regarded as the most serious type

of violent crime, it is not the most common. If we are to understand the overall problem of

violent crime in South Africa, it is necessary to understand how violence usually manifests

itself. For this purpose it is helpful to think of violent crime as mostly constituted by three

major forms of violence:

1. Assaults linked to arguments, anger and domestic violence: In crime statistics, these

incidents are reflected as offences such as murder, assault with intent to inflict grievous

bodily harm (assault GBH), common assault, and others.


Rape and sexual assault: In crime statistics these incidents are reflected in offences

such as murder, rape, indecent assault and others.14

3. Robbery and other violent property crime: These are linked to offences such as murder,

aggravated robbery (primarily involving robberies of civilians in public space but also

including vehicle hijacking and residential robbery), common robbery and others.

While it is difficult to quantify violence, and specific forms of violence, the available evidence

would suggest that it is reasonable to regard these three ‘forms’ of violence as making up the

bulk (at least two-thirds) of violence or violent crime in South Africa. Addressing the problem

of violence in South Africa is therefore principally about addressing these three forms.

It should be noted that the system of classification used here, by which violence is described

in terms of forms, might appear to resemble the offence categories which are reflected in

crime statistics. However, examples of other forms, which appear to be less significant, illus-

trate the fact that these are not synonymous with offence statistics. For instance, the form of

violence associated with the wave of attacks on foreigners which took place in South Africa in

May 2008 might be classified as another form of violence (possibly ‘xenophobic violence’ or

as a sub-form of collective violence) though individuals prosecuted for involvement in this

violence would be prosecuted for offences such as murder, assault GBH or common assault

or in some cases rape (other forms of violence are discussed briefly later in this chapter).

Related to this, as already indicated, murder, though a separate offence category, is not

regarded as a separate form of violence. Instead murder is understood as usually related to

one of the forms of violence, whether one of the three ‘major’ forms or another form of

violenc e. The argument-type murders are therefore regarded as part of the first form listed

above, while crime-type murders are mostly related to the third, and to a lesser degree the

second, of these forms.

Assaults linked to arguments, anger and domestic violence

It appears reasonable to take as our point of departure that all the major forms of violence can be

imagined as distributed within ‘violence pyramids’. In the case of assaults, this implies that less

severe assaults (that would be prosecuted as common assault) occupy the bulk of the pyramid at

the bottom, more serious assaults (that would be prosecuted as assault GBH) occupy a band across

the middle, with assault related murders (that is, argument-type murders) at the top. Although

for present purposes actual physical violence or the threat thereof is seen as defining the parameters

Our burden of pain


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of the term ‘violence’, abusive verbal behaviour and other forms of violence are clearly intercon-

nected, sometimes being part and parcel of an incident of violence and in other cases, merely

expressing the hostile feelings which in other circumstances are expressed in violence.

It would appear possible that the number of male and female victims is similar, the total

number of males slightly outnumbering that of female assault victims. In three major victim

surveys conducted in 1998, 2003 and 2007 the number of male assault victims has been

51 per cent, 57 per cent, and 59 per cent, suggesting also that the proportion of female assault

victims may have declined over this period (Pharoah 2008: 9).15

The sex of victims is also not

uniform across the violence pyramid. For instance a docket analysis conducted by the SAPS

some years ago indicated that 54 per cent of victims of common assault, 40 per cent of victims

of assault GBH and 18 per cent of victims of attempted murder were female (SAPS 2003: 33).

In the CSVR study of six areas with high rates of murder which differentiated between differ-

ent forms of murder, women similarly constituted 18 per cent of victims of argument-type

murders (CSVR 2008a: 45). Women therefore suffer proportionately less from the more severe

forms of assault at the upper levels of the assault pyramid. However, insofar as violence against

them is linked to domestic violence, it is often related to a pattern of repeat victimisation and

ongoing intimidation. In the worst cases this means that they live out their lives in circum-

stances which are continually tarnished and constrained by the fear and trauma of violence.

As already illustrated in relation to murder, women make up a small but significant minority

of perpetrators of this form of violence. Their involvement as perpetrators is far more signif-

icant in relation to assaults (the equivalent to argument type-murders) than to any of the

other major forms. In a small-scale study of violent crime dockets conducted in 1998, women

made up 10 per cent of perpetrators of incidents of violence in Mamelodi and 4 per cent in

Randburg. For female victims in Mamelodi, 17 per cent of perpetrators were female while for

male victims, 7 per cent of perpetrators were female. For Randburg, the comparable figures

were 3 per cent for male victims and 4 per cent for female victims (South African Law

Commission 2001 quoted in CSVR 2007: 74).16

As indicated, in the study of areas with high

murder rates, 9 per cent of suspects in cases of argument-type murder were female.

Linked to questions about the sex of the participants are questions about how to identify

the persons involved in these incidents. Insofar as violence is equated with ‘crime’, people

may be inclined to assume that the participants can readily be identified as either ‘perpetrators’

or ‘victims’ but, particularly in incidents involving two or more males who actively contribute

to the escalation of an argument into violence, it may be more appropriate to identify them

as ‘opponents’ who are simultaneously both victims and perpetrators.

This form of violence is often a way of provisionally resolving issues that are a source of

interpersonal conflict or of expressing the emotions emerging from it. Assaults are therefore

a means of maintaining control or power or obtaining cooperation in situations where the

people feel unable otherwise to do so, or of expressing anger related to this inability to main-

tain control. The people involved are usually known to each other, although available data

does not demonstrate that this violence takes place predominantly within the inner circle of

intimate or family relationships. Much violence involves people in ‘intermediate relationships’

such as those between neighbours, roommates, or colleagues – and many who are simply



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known by sight’. Although in the minority, assaults sometimes involve strangers, one example

being road rage assaults (including killings).

In terms of the circumstances giving rise to violence of this nature, it appears that many

conflicts are related to mundane disputes of one kind or another, such as over money or pos-

sessions or alleged insults, with jealousy also prominent as a factor, particularly in incidents

of male violence against women. The reason why such disputes become violent in some

circumstan ces but not others may be an expression of various factors including cognitive

pattern s, feelings of humiliation or threatened self-esteem. It would nevertheless also appear

that many people experiencing these emotions avoid actual physical violence, so that dynamics

specific to the situation, the social setting and the individuals involved are also important in

understanding these incidents. Participants may already, for instance, have developed a famil-

iarity with the use of violence. Many perpetrators are highly selective about the people that they

choose to aggress against and will often only engage in actual violence where they (perhaps

subconsciously) have judged the other person to be weaker or less capable of inflicting harm

(Collins 2008). Those who aggress against others irrespective of these considerations would

be people who are already severely hardened or brutalised by violence.

The approach to categorisation of violence used here is fairly loose. The category of ‘assaults

linked to arguments’ used here is a broad category which some may wish to define as incor-

porating different types of violence. For instance, a study in the United Kingdom identifies

one category of homicides as ‘confrontational homicides’ in which ‘the offender and victim

engaged in a form of honour contest or face-to-face encounter’ which ‘shared the fundamental

common feature of the victim and offender actively engaging in an altercation together’

(Brookman2003: 39).Another category of homicide is identified as ‘revenge homicide’.

Although these are also related to ‘a history of ongoing strife (albeit sometimes fairly recent)

between the relevant parties’, they are also all ‘planned to some extent’ and characterised by

the ‘lethal intent’ of one of the participants (op cit: 43).17

Similarly, domestic violence is often classified as a distinct form of violence. Although

domestic violence incidents often have specific distinguishing characteristics (such as the asso-

ciation with repeat victimisation), there are also many such incidents which share features in

common with other argument-type assaults. Furthermore, not all incidents of violence, or

argument related assaults, in which women are victims, whether at the hands of men or other

women, are incidents of domestic violence.

There is obviously not one single satisfactory system of classifying violence. The approach

taken here is to see incidents of violence in which some form of argument or conflict gives

rise to an assault of some kind as constituting a single form. Related to its all-encompassing

character, therefore, this form is by far the largest form of violence, as well as the principal driver

of the murder rate. Though some are inclined to emphasise that victimisation by violenceaffects

people of all classes, it appears fairly clear that assaults are more prevalent, and also are far

more likely to involve extreme or serious violence in poorer or working-class communities.18

As is the case elsewhere, in South Africa most violence ‘has been found to be both intra-class

and intra-race, partly reflecting lifestyles in which males engage in honour contests or domestic

oppression’ (Levi and Maguire 2002: 807).

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Rape and sexual assault

Rape, and (in a short while) robbery will be discussed far more briefly mainly to emphasise

some of the ways in which they may be differentiated from assaults as a form of violence. As

with assaults, sexual assaults may be assumed to have a pyramid-like distribution with acts of

‘sexual harassment’ and ‘indecent assault’ accounting for the largest volume of incidents at

the bottom of the pyramid, rape a band across the upper middle section of the pyramid, and

rape related murders occupying the apex of the pyramid. Apart from the – by definition – sexual

nature of acts of sexual assault, the most obvious way in which rape may be differentiatedfrom

assaults as a form of violence is the fact that women (particularly young women) predominate

overwhelmingly among victims, and the virtual total absence of the phenomenon of female

perpetration. The victimisation of men has primarily been documented in prisons (Gear

2007). However, a recent study based on interviews with young men in areas of KwaZulu-

Natal found that 2.9 per cent of respondents reported rape of a man, as opposed to 27.6 per

cent who reported rape of a woman (Jewkes et al2009: 24).19

Although acquaintances are promi-

nent as perpetrators, rape is also distinct from assaults in that the phenomenon of predatory

crime, linked to perpetration by strangers, is far more significant. In a study of rape in Gauteng

based on cases reported in 2003, 39 per cent of rapes were committed by a perpetratordescribed

as a ‘stranger’ or ‘known by sight’ (Vetten et al2008: 34).20

Many rapes are in part sexually motivated. For reasons to do with political contestation

over how to understand rape, this is regarded by some as a controversial statement,21


the observation is not incompatible with explanations which emphasise that rape is often

facilitated by patriarchal ideas which privilege male sexual entitlement and male authority

over women more generally. Rape may also be punitive in motivation (in the context of group

conflict this may be punishment of the rival group rather than just the individual) or a means

of self reassurance or reassurance of others (where it is perpetrated in a group for instance)

about the masculinity or worth of the perpetrator.

As in robbery, physical coercion or threats of physical harm are therefore often a means of

overcoming the victim’s resistance, many victims apparently submitting to rape for fear of

being hurt with a weapon or otherwise physically assaulted.22

However, in addition to the

rape itself, other harm is sometimes inflicted on victims even where they do not resist. Thus

in the Gauteng study referred to above, 39 per cent of adult victims had non-genital injuries

(injuries unrelated to the act of forcible penetration itself) (op cit: 41). While some of those

who had injuries were women who had resisted the rape or tried to escape, others who had

such injuries had apparently not done so (CSVR 2008b: 45-49).

As indicated above, a substantial proportion of crime-type murders of women are related

to incidents of rape, and rape homicides may account for as many as one in six homicides of

women. However homicides take place in less than 0.5 per cent of rape incidents.

Rape has a similar class distribution to that of assaults but since it is sometimes predatory

in nature it sometimes involves men from poorer backgrounds specifically targeting more

affluent women, including incidents where there is a racial component to such targeting. This

is sometimes related to the fact that acts of robbery (including those carried out across the

class and racial divide in South Africa ) are sometimes accompanied by rape. In a small study



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of residential robbery, rape occurred in 4 per cent of incidents (Newham 2008:11). Vehicle

hijackings have sometimes also been accompanied by acts of rape.

Robbery and other violent property crime

Robbery is differentiated from the other forms of violence by overtly acquisitive motives,

which characterise it as violent property crime. In most robberies the victims are threatened

with violence or violence is used to overcome their physical resistance, but violence is not

used to harm them other than in this respect.23

Some incidents of property crime, which start

off as ‘not-violent’, also turn into incidents of violent crime. Thus, some criminals break into

people’s homes or businesses with the intention of escaping undetected with stolen goods.

They may nevertheless be armed. Sometimes employees or residents return to the business

or home, catching them in the act, thus precipitating a murder or other violence intended to

prevent the returning person from raising the alarm or identifying the criminals to the police.

Robbery is also differentiated from the other major forms of violence by being far more con-

sistently a stranger crime.24

The fact that robbery is an acquisitive crime also has major ramifi-

cations in terms of the class (and racial) distribution of robbery victimisation, the potential gains

from robbery of more affluent victims (including private citizens, businesses, banks, trucking

companies and the cash-in-transit industry) making these the most desirable targets. However,

it does not necessarily follow that affluent people are more likely to be targete d by robbers, as

wealthy people and formal businesses are better able to finance the installation of security devices

and the hiring of private security companies to protect them, and poorer people are more

physical ly vulnerable to attack partly when, as pedestrians, they are present in public spaces.

It is unclear whether women or men are more likely to be robbery victims, but the factors

shaping the gender distribution of victims of robbery have some resemblance to those already

identified. Men are more likely to be income earners, (and more likely to be high income earners),

and therefore more likely to be in possession of the kinds of goods which robbers target and may

also be more likely to walk in places or at times where there is a greater risk of robbery. But if one

assumes that men are in general physically stronger than women, and more likely to be armed

with weapons such as firearms, they may be ‘harder’ targets (the possibility that they may be

armed with a firearm may however be a motivation for targetting them, as the acquisition of

firearms is sometimes a principal motivation for robbery). Whatever the overall distribution of

robbery victimisation by gender, it appears that men are far more likely to physically resist a

robber y, or be expected to do so by the robbers, contributing to the fact that men constitute a far

higher proportion of victims of murder during the course of robbery than do women (women

are far more likely, however, to be the victims of robbery related rapes). In the study of murder

referred to above, men accounted for 92 per cent of crime (mostly robbery) related murder victims

(CSVR 2008a:45). Where victims don’t cooperate with the robbery, such use of violence might

partly serve to punish the victim for not accepting the perpetrator’s control of the situation and

is not necessarily purely a means of overcoming victim resistance (op cit: 70–73).

Official statistics on robberies differentiate aggravated robbery (robbery with a weapon

such as a gun or a knife) and common robbery (where the robber does not use a weapon, for

instance ‘bag-snatching’ or ‘smash and grab’ incidents). Aggravated robbery statistics in turn

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differenti ate between seven sub-categories: vehicle hijacking, residential robbery and business

robber y (these are sometimes called the ‘trio’ robberies), bank robberies, cash-in-transit heists

and truck-hijackings and ‘street robberies’, the last-mentioned being an omnibus category for

robberies which do not fall into the first six categories and which mostly take place in public

spaces. In a report on violent crime in South Africa, the first six of these were labelled the ‘high

profile six’ related to the fact that they are given much prominence in the media and in public

and official discourse around violent crime (CSVR 2009). The prominence given to them is related

partly to the fact that they are the forms of robbery and violent crime which have the biggest

impact on the formal business sector and middle class, the groups which have the greatest power

to shape official discourse around violent crime.25

Aggravated street robberies, however, account

for a clear majority (and possibly more than two-thirds) of inciden ts of robbery and may be

assumed to be the form of robbery that makes the greatest contribution to the murder rate.

Robberies as a contributor to murder are particularly significant in metropolitan and other

urban areas because it is in these areas (notably in South Africa’s ‘multi-metropolitan’ Gauteng

province) that robbery, particularly armed or aggravated robbery, is most entrenched.

Other forms of violence

There is no single way of defining the forms of violent crime and there are potentially multiple

ways of doing so. One attempt at providing a comprehensive list of forms of violence, for

instance, differentiates twelve different forms of violent crime (CSVR 2007: 57). Examples of

other categories of violence based on this list might include:

• Conflict between groups over territory, markets, or power (such as conflict within the

taxi industry or related to conflict between gangs).

• Vigilantism and excessive use of force by law enforcement personnel.

• Violence related to resistance to law enforcement action.

• Hate crime including xenophobic violence, racial violence or anti-gay violence.

As illustrated in table 5 it appears that both vigilantism (4.9 per cent of murders) and self-

defence (3.6 per cent) related killings are small but significant contributors to official murder

statistics. As indicated in the discussion related to that table, available data also puts rape

homicide at roughly 2 per cent of all homicides, indicating that these are fewer than vigilantism

related and self-defence related homicides. However, this should not by any means be under-

stood to imply that vigilantism, for instance, is more widespread than sexual violence, but

merely that a very high proportion of incidents of vigilantism have a fatal outcome, while

rape homicides make up a much smaller proportion of rapes.

The series of violent attacks against foreigners in May 2008, and other events of this kind,

have given some prominence to the issue of xenophobic violence, raising the question about

the relative significance of this kind of violence in contributing to overall levels of violence in

South Africa. However, there is no reason to believe that xenophobic violence, or other hate

crime, is anywhere near as significant as the ‘major forms of violence’ referred to above.26

The issue of violence involving foreigners also illustrates some of the difficulties in defining

‘forms’ of violence. For instance in some incidents of violence related to arguments where

foreigners and South Africans are involved, some reference might be made, in a disparaging



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Table 6: Number of youth victims of firearm and sharp force fatal injuries (derived from NIMSS data)28


Sharp force








per cent increase










per cent increase










per cent increase



way, to the foreigners’ identity. However, the incident might be a dispute over money or other

property, or motivated by jealousy and more appropriately classified as an ‘argument related

assault’ than an incident of ‘hate crime’, notwithstanding that a foreigner is involved and

xenophobic prejudices are manifested in the incident.

The occurrence of violence in the lives of children

There are important differences in the victimisation of children (defined in different studies as

those under eighteen or those under twenty-one). In general, it seems that children suffer higher

levels of victimisation from violence. This violence, whatever the form it may take, is mostly at

the hands of their peers or people known to them. Thus youth respondents (aged twelve to

twenty-two) in a 2005 national youth victimisation study experienced assault at a rate 7.5 times

greater than those responding to a 2003 victimisation survey of adults (over sixteen years)

(Leoschut and Burton 2006: 47).27

In a study of violence at schools, those at primary schools

(roughly six to twelve years of age) were even more likely than those at high schools (roughly

thirteen to eighteen) to have been assaulted at school, though the opposite applied in relation

to robbery (Burton 2008: 18). However, the high level of violence in the lives of children is not

strongly associated with fatal or other serious injury. As shown in Table 1, the number of deaths

recorded in the twenty to twenty-four age group is more than double that in the fifteen to nine-

teen year age group, and this in turn is more than ten times greater than that in the ten to four-

teen age group. In addition, as indicated, looked at in per capita terms the homicide rate in the

fifteen to nineteen age bracket is substantially lower than that that in each of the succeeding

five-year age bands, up to and including the forty to forty-four year age bracket.

Table 6 indicates that this dramatic increase in violent mortality between older children

and young adults is partly related to an increasing level of firearm fatalities, with the number

of these types increasing far more dramatically than those related to the use of sharp force

between the fifteen to twenty-five and the twenty-five to thirty-four age bands.

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While the incidence of homicide appears to peak in the twenty-five to twenty-nine age band (see

table 1), the age band which is most affected by rape victimisation is somewhat younger. The

study of Gauteng 2003 rape dockets indicated that girls and young women in the thirteen to

twenty-two year age band accounted for 45 per cent of rape victims. By comparison those in the

twenty-three to thirty-two year age band accounted for 22 per cent of victims (CSVR 2008b: 54).29


This chapter has sought to present a picture of violent crime in South Africa focusing firstly on

the crime of murder, and then on the three major forms of violence. More could be said about

the characteristics of these types of violence: for instance, as in relation to the characteristic

times at which and localities in which they occur, the degree to which they are associated with

alcohol use, or the involvement of individuals and groups in their perpetration. Other debates

around the characterisation of violence also concern questions such as to what extent and in

what way violence is linked to the problem of organised crime.

A further key issue in characterising violence concerns questions about the apparent high

degree of violence in South Africa. Not only is violence widespread, but many people believe

that many of the perpetrators are particularly malevolent, engaging in violence gratuitously

‘for the sake of violence’ rather than for any other overt purpose. Though it appears to be

true that violence of this kind is part of the overall problem, as noted above, much violence is

in many ways ‘instrumental’. For instance, many robbers do not inflict deliberate harm on

victims who cooperate with them though they may not hesitate to kill or otherwise seriously

harm those who resist or otherwise obstruct the robbery.

Another major issue, which has not been addressed in this chapter, concerns the quantifi-

cation of violence. Internationally it is broadly accepted that crime statistics do not provide a

full picture of the extent of crime owing to the problem of under-reporting which is believed

to affect all offence categories with the exception of murder. Crime statistics therefore represent

not all crime but merely reported crime. Nevertheless, where they are recorded by the police

in a reliable way, they may often be regarded as indicators of underlying crime trends, though

they are also affected by changing patterns of reporting. But there is good reason to doubt

that current South African statistics pertaining to categories of violent crime can be under-

stood in this way. This is related to the fact that since 2003-2004, government has committed

itself to reducing violent crime in each year by 7 to 10 per cent. This and other factors have

fed into a widespread problem within the SAPS of deliberate non-recording of offences by

police at police stations. Non-recording is concentrated in certain categories of violent crime.

It is therefore not merely the case that violent crime statistics do not tell us the full story about

levels of violence, but also that they cannot be regarded as providing reliable indicators of

violent crime, or reporting trends (Bruce 2010).

The mechanism that has been developed within crime research to compensate for the

deficiencie s of crime statistics is the victimisation survey. Three major national victimisation

surveys (of persons sixteen and over)30

have been conducted in South Africa in 1998, 2003



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and 2007 (Household Surveys Unit 1998; Burton et al2004; Pharoah 2008) However, it would

appear that the outcome of these surveys can also not be taken at face value as providing a

full picture of violent, and other, crime in South Africa. In other countries it has been found

that there are often systematic ways in which victimisation surveys distort the crime picture,31

and this phenomenon is probably more extensive in South Africa due to its linguistic and

cultur al diversity and the very substantial stratifications, not just of class and race but also of

life experience, which characterise it. Attempts at understanding the extent and nature of

violen ce therefore need to use the results, not only of crime statistics, but also of victimisation

surveys, with some caution. Although not all of these sources are reflected here, this chapter

has engaged with South African crime statistics and victimisation survey data and has

attempted to present as ‘true’ a picture as is possible taking into account what is known about

the limitations of these types of data sources.

A third area, which has not been addressed in this chapter, is the important question about

why South Africa is so violent. Many efforts to engage with this type of question focus on

specific aspects of the problem of violence. Some of the more in-depth work on explaining

violence in South Africa, for instance, focuses primarily on sexual violence. But the problem

of violence is obviously one which goes far beyond this. The chapter then takes us towards

accounting for violence by providing a profile of the main manifestations of violence that we

must account for if we are to provide meaningful explanations. Explaining why South Africa

is so violent is obviously also part of developing responses to the problem of violence, and

such responses need to address the overall problem of violence rather than selective aspects

of it. Finally, it should be emphasised that the concept of forms of violence has been used

here to illuminate our understanding of the nature of the problem of violence in South Africa.

This is not intended to imply that there are rigid boundaries between these categories of vio-

lence. Research on violence against women, for instance, demonstrates that there are various

ways in which incidents of assault related to arguments and sexual violence overlap with each

other. Perpetrators of rape are frequently involved in other argument or assault type violence

against women, particularly their female partners. Thus a recent study found that 52 per cent

of men who admitted to having perpetrated acts of rape against women also admitted to

involvement on more than one occasion in intimate partner violence (for those who said they

had not raped the figure was 20 per cent). Sometimes intimate partner violence is intended

to coerce a female partner into agreeing to sexual intercourse or to punish her for being unwill-

ing (Wood and Jewkes 2001). As indicated above, incidents of robbery are sometimes accom-

panied by acts of rape. The distinction between robbery or violent property crime and assaults

related to arguments is also blurred somewhat if one takes into account that many of these

arguments are about money or items of property. In the CSVR study of murder, arguments

over money or other material goods accounted for 39 per cent of the cases where the motiva-

tion for the argument was apparent (CSVR 2008a: 62).

Related to this is the fact that many perpetrators of violent crime are linked to a number

of different forms of violence. Though available statistics indicate that, on average, less than

20 per cent of suspects in cases of serious violent crime have previous convictions32

this is

partly a reflection of the relative inefficiency of the criminal justice system in obtaining con-

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victions against perpetrators. A more telling figure is provided in a recent study in which,

among men who indicated that they had at some point been involved in rape, 58 per cent

also indicated previous involvement in stealing or robbery on more than two occasions, 44

per cent had on at least one occasion been involved in a fight with knives, and 26 per cent

indicated that they had at some point had possession of an illegal gun (for those who indicated

that they had not perpetrated rape the figures were 24 per cent, 20 per cent and 6 per cent

respectively) (Jewkes et al2009: 23).33

Another study involving interviews with perpetrators

of violent crime noted that:

[R]ather than taking place in discrete arenas, either as violence in the public domain

against strangers, or violence in the ‘private’ domain against intimate partners … many

of these individuals are implicated in a wide range of violent or coercive interactions,

whether with girlfriends, ‘friends’ or the ‘strangers’ they explicitly go to rob and hijack

(HSRC 2008: 103).

Violence in South African society is a multifaceted phenomenon, but the core of the problem

is a culture of violence and criminality, which is most concentrated in metropolitan areas and

which involves young men who are engaged in active criminal lifestyles, although their violence

or coercion may also be targeted at people who are known to them. Within the peer networks

in which they are situated, credibility is partly earned by demonstrating the readiness to resort

to extreme violence with a weapon, and this culture is therefore strongly linked to South Africa’s

problem of armed violence. Understanding why South Africa is so violent is therefore about

understanding how it is that South Africa has produced, and continues to sustain, this culture.



The terms ‘violence’ and ‘violent crime’ are used interchangeably. This chapter focuses on physical
violence and not other kinds of violence such as ‘structural’ or ‘symbolic’ violence.


At law, homicides may be distinguished as either cases of murder (the intentional and unlawful
killing of a human being), culpable homicide (the criminally negligent killing of another human
being) and justifiable homicide (intentional but lawful killings as in cases where people are judged
to have acted reasonably in self-defence against a threat of death or serious injury). Where it appears
that a death has been caused by the actions of another person the SAPS opens either a murder docket
or a culpable homicide docket (it is possible that the latter are usually opened in cases where people
are killed by a vehicle driven by another person). The main sources of data on fatal violence which
are used in this article are statistics from the National Injury Mortality Surveillance system on
deaths from violence, SAPS murder statistics and studies of murder in South Africa, usually based
on SAPS murder dockets. It may be noted that all of these sources of data deal with deaths resulting
from violence, including many which at law would be classified as cases of murder, but also some
which may be classified as cases of justifiable or culpable homicide. Related to this, the terms ‘homi-
cide’ and murder are to some degree used interchangeably in this chapter.


The National Injury Mortality Surveillance System and a number of docket studies undertaken by
SAPS provide the two major sources of homicide data. The former, which collects data on
non-natu ral deaths at mortuaries, has an urban, particularly metropolitan, bias. SAPS reports



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consistently lack information on sampling procedures.


Translated into per capita figures the picture looks quite different. Mapped against population
data on size of each age band this indicates that during these three years those most at risk of
homicide victimisation were in the 25-29 age band, followed by the 30-34, 20-24, 35-39, 40-44 and
15-19 year age bands. From this perspective the 40-44 group is victimised at more than double the
rate of 15-19 year-olds.


In 2005, NIMSS data indicated that women were 11.2 per cent of homicide victims in the metros
and 15.1 per cent outside them. Differences were slightly smaller in 2003 and 2007.
6 The totals for gender of victims are slightly higher than those for weapons (see table 4) as data on
gender is more consistently recorded than that on weapons. Data on the overall gender profile of
homicide victims and on the profile of deaths in the metros was not provided in some years.
7 The figure of 22 per cent cited earlier is from the same study cited in Graham, Bruce and Perold 2010:
63. The age distribution reflected here is specific to murder and is not common to all forms of violence.
8 Male suspects in argument related cases constituted 48 per cent of all male suspects. The high pro-
portion of male and female suspects in this category reflects the fact that suspects are more often
identified in argument related murders .


NIMSS data on the four major metropolitan areas indicates that there were decreases in firearm
homicides in each of these areas between 2003 and 2007, though in Cape Town the number of
firearm homicides increased from 2004 onwards after decreasing dramatically between 2003 and
2004. Trends in Pretoria and Johannesburg were also not uniform. Cape Town and Pretoria, how-
ever, recorded more homicides in 2007 than in 2003, related to increases in sharp force homicides
(CSVR 2009: 25).
10Figures do not add up to 100 per cent as percentages for other weapons/methods are not provided
in this table. ‘Other’ figures for 2005 exclude data on burn victims as this was not provided in that
year. The ‘other method’ category here excludes data in NIMSS reports headed ‘other’ as this was
not provided in most years.
11Table 5 has been constructed using data provided in the 2009 SAPS crime report (SAPS 2009: 10-11)
based on an analysis of a representative sample of 1 348 murder dockets linked to cases reported
nationally from 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2008 and a supplementary report (SAPS 2010) which
indicates that female victims constituted 14.4, and male victims 85.6 per cent. The totals reported
are not identical to those in the SAPS report which appear in brackets in the right hand column.
This table should therefore be seen as a close approximation of the SAPS data. The categories in
the left column are those applied by the author of this chapter. Those in the second column are
from the SAPS reports.
12Vigilantism type murders accounted for 7 per cent of murders in known circumstances, a figure
comparable to the 5 per cent in table 5. Though self-defence also accounted for 4 per cent in the
CSVR study there may be differences in the way in which the category is applied.
13See also Abrahams et al2008, which estimates that 16 per cent of female homicide victims in
South Africa are victims of rape. If female victims constitute roughly 15 per cent of all victims, 16
per cent of the latter figure provides a figure of 2.4 per cent.
14Child sexual abuse is understood here as part of the overall problem of sexual violence.
15The paper compares the results of the national victimisation surveys conducted by the Institute
for Security Studies in 2007 and 2003 with one conducted by Statistics South Africa in 1998. Note
that both women and men might under-report assaults for various reasons.
16More than three quarters (77 per cent) of the cases where women were victimised were assault
GBH (65 per cent) or attempted murder (12 per cent) cases, though the proportion was much
lower in Randburg (45 per cent) which is also a CBD area where robbery is prevalent, than in
Mamelodi (73 per cent).
17Arguably this distinction is not purely relevant to homicides but to assaults generally, though the
term ‘lethal intent’ would need to be substituted with, for instance, ‘assaultive or lethal intent’.

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18Data on per capita rates of murder for instance indicate that specific African and Coloured com-
munities have far higher murder rates than any of the middle class areas (for instance the com-
munities selected in CSVR 2008a were selected on the basis of per-capita murder rates). This
assertion is not supported by the data from victimisation surveys in Pharoah 2009 (at 9 and 11)
but it is assumed here that the latter data is not reliable. This should also not be taken to imply
that it is the poorest communities (such as those in rural areas) that suffer most from violence,
though it appears, for instance, that informal settlements in township areas often suffer much
higher rates of violence than the rest of the townships.
19Figures in the report indicate that 49 respondents indicated that they had raped a man of whom
43 were amongst the 27.6 per cent (466) who had been involved in the rape of a woman and 6
were amongst the 1220 respondents (72.4 per cent) who indicated that they had not. Until the
Sexual Offences Act, 32 of 2007 came into effect, South African law only recognised rape as an
offence which could be perpetrated by a man against a woman. Along with anal rape of women,
rape of men was regarded as ‘indecent assault’.
20Other data on this issue is presented in CSVR 2008b. Note that stranger rapes, and predatory
stranger crimes more generally, are probably more common in urban and metropolitan areas. In
addition, the proportion of stranger rapes varies substantially by the age of victims, contributing
to 48 per cent of rapes of women of 18 years and over.
21The origins of this controversy lie in the feminist politics of recent decades which have partly
focused on achieving acknowledgment of rape, including for instance marital rape, and date rape,
as a serious crime. The rhetorical formulation that ‘rape is a crime of violence and not of sex’ (pre-
cluding the possibility that rape may be a crime of both violence and sex) may be seen to have
been deployed towards this end.
22Data from studies of this kind do not indicate how many women were able to successfully resist
rape. As with robbery, resistance might enable a person to defeat the attempt at victimising them,
but simultaneously carries a risk of increasing the degree, and/or likelihood, of physical harm.
23It is also assumed here that robbery can be imagined within a pyramidal type of structure with robbery
murders at the top, aggravated (armed robberies) across a band in the middle, and ‘common’
(unarmed) robberies at the bottom. It is possible though that, in South Africa in particular, there
is a tendency for robbers to be armed so that, compared to the assault pyramid for instance, the
base of the pyramid is narrower. Whether this is true or not the data from the 2007 victimisation
survey (Pharoah 2008: 7), indicating that in 2007 robbers were unarmed in fewer than 4 per cent
of cases, is unlikely to be plausible. Common (unarmed) robbery is likely to be reported at much
lower rates than aggravated (armed) robbery. But even 2008–2009 SAPS crime statistics indicate
that common robberies make up at least 33 per cent of robberies. This, notwithstanding the fact
that these statistics probably reflect the impact of systematic non-recording by the police of
reported common robbery over several years (Bruce 2010).
24Note however that the National Youth Victimisation Survey indicated that in cases of robbery
involving young people perpetrators appear to be frequently known to the victim and included
‘known community members’ (38 per cent), learners at school (21 per cent) and other friends or
acquaintances (11 per cent) (Leoschut and Burton 2006: 57-58).
25This does not necessarily imply that the majority of businesses which are robbed are in the ‘formal
sector’ or that the majority of homes which are robbed are in middle class areas.
26The violence in May 2008 killed 62 people (International Organisation for Migration 2009:2), less
than 0.5 per cent of all people killed in incidents of violence in South Africa that year.
27Note the reservations expressed about victimisation survey data in the conclusion of this chapter.
One can only speculate as to whether the factors contributing to the limited reliability of these
surveys have different effects on youth and adult surveys.
28The number of victims is calculated here by multiplying raw figures on the number of homicide
victims in each age band (see table 1) with figures for the percentage of youth victims of firearm



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and sharp force homicide in each age category provided in NIMSS data. The latter percentages are
only provided in the NIMSS reports for these ten-year age bands.)
29Sexual crimes against children by adults are more likely to involve deception or manipulation or the
threat of violence as opposed to the actual use of physical force. The proportion of male victims of
sexual abuse (relative to the proportion amongst other age categories) may be greatest amongst
young (eleven years and younger) children.
30Figures from a national youth victimisation survey (Leoschut and Burton 2006) and a survey of
violence at schools (Burton 2008) have also been referred to in this article.
31For instance Silber and Geffen (2009: 38) cite a 1985 article indicating that ‘a study in the United
States showed that people with university degrees recalled three times as many assaults as those
with high school education’.
32In a SAPS murder docket study (2004) 14 per cent of suspects had criminal records of whom roughly
a third had criminal records for violent crime (CSVR 2007: 126–127). In a more recent murder
docket study 19 per cent of suspects had a criminal record (CSVR 2008a: 101). In a study of rape in
Gauteng in 2003, 18 per cent of suspects had previous convictions of whom just over half (52 per
cent) had convictions for offences involving some form of violence (CSVR 2008b: 97-98).
33Note that 13 per cent of rape perpetrators and 6 per cent of those who said they had not perpe-
trated rape indicated that they had been imprisoned at some point.


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Our burden of pain


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