I grew up in a village outside Polokwane in Limpopo. At school and in the community we would always hear older boys talking about lepanta. As a young boy, I knew lepanta to be a Sotho word for “belt”. I soon learnt that it was coined by boys in the street corners to mean “when two or more boys have sex with one girl at the same time”.
These older boys would say with pride: “Ka weekend re bethile ngwana o mongwe lepanta.” (Over the weekend we took turns having sex with a certain girl.)
Whether the girl agreed or not we didn’t know. But it was the way these boys would proudly say it that, as a young boy, made me and other younger boys aspire to engage in lepanta.
It sounded like a cool thing to do. So cool that some of the older boys would ask each other after every weekend if they scored a lepanta session or if they just had “boring sessions” with their steady girlfriends. And it created such pressure on some of these boys that when they were asked, they would lie just to fit in.
At the time, I thought it was a cool thing to do. It was fashionable, and I wanted to fit in. I started wondering about how to engage in lepanta. Do I get a girl and then tell her that my friends and I would like to have lepanta with her? Do I recruit my classmates to go look for a beautiful girl (or any other girl even if she is not attractive), and ask to have lepanta with her? Or do I actually force a girl on her way from school, lock her in my mother’s house and call my friends…?
As it happened, I never asked anyone how it was done. I chose not to ask, because I didn’t want to be seen as stupid. And no, I have never engaged in lepanta. I was toying with the idea because the peer pressure was mounting to give it a go. But before I could, I was already starting to mature and differentiate between right and wrong.
I realised as I was growing up that most of these mapanta happened after drinking sessions in the tavern. A boy would talk to a girl, propose to go home with her that evening, and buy her lots of beer until she was drunk. Then he would take her home and call his friends from the tavern to take turns sleeping with her. That’s how some of my school mates told me it was done. The girl may or may not know that she actually slept with the whole village’s soccer team. And in those days, girls, even if they knew, didn’t have much say.
For her to go back home and report it was a no-no. Her family wouldn’t believe her. And why was she at a tavern in a first place, and not at home? It was also about a taboo issue and the fear of stigma: what would the community say? Police stations were far away from the village for girls to go report their ordeal. Most of these incidents would pass, and simply disappear.
And what did the community say about this culture of lepanta? Nothing. As I grew wiser, I realised how wrong that was. Did others in the community feel similarly? I doubt it.
I recalled my childhood last week as I tried so hard to comprehend what went wrong in the minds of the seven teenagers arrested in Soweto for gang raping a 17-year-old mentally unstable girl. I remembered I was once their age, and tried to figure out what could have triggered them to commit such a heinous deed.
Looking for answers, I ended up laying the blame squarely on the communities we are raised in, in general, and the parents in particular. The communities we are raised in are brutal and okay even the most shocking adolescent behavior, including lepanta. We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that lepanta is new. It’s been going on for ages and it’s called many things by different people.
In a report by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), researchers talk about this behavior being made “famous” in the 1980s by a gang in Diepkloof, Soweto who used to call themselves jackrollers. This subsequently led to the practice being referred to as “jackrolling” in black townships and involved the forceful abduction and rape of women.
To quote from the report: “There are a number of aspects which make jackrolling different from ordinary rape. Firstly, it is primarily a youth phenomenon. Although rape is committed by males of all ages, jackrolling is committed by people who are still fairly young. Secondly, it is almost always committed in the open, and the rapists do not make attempts to conceal their identity. As a matter of fact, it seems that part of the exercise is to be as public as possible about the offence so as to earn respect. Most incidents of jackroll are committed in places like shebeens (informal township bars), picnic spots, schools, nightclubs and in the streets.”
When I was growing up, the jackrollers wanted their acts to be seen by as many people as possible because, unlike the youth of today, they didn’t have cellphones. The gang rape in Soweto was recorded on a mobile phone, as were many others in recent times, presumably for the members of the group to be able to distribute their “heroic” acts to their peers so that they can earn some respect. The 17-year-old girl’s ordeal couldn’t have been reported had it not been recorded on a phone. But how many other such incidents go unreported?
It’s been suggested that parents, including those of the Soweto boys, could have known about these problems. They could’ve observed events happening around them. They could have picked up on behavioral changes in these boys, but decided to ignore them or just let it pass as part of adolescence. I don’t buy that most of them are now “shocked” that their sons have committed rape.
“He’s not bad. He can’t have done this. This is not my boy. There has been a mistake. He can’t be this monster people say he is. I know that he is not evil,” the grandmother of one of the Soweto boys was quoted by newspapers as saying.
I agree with Pretoria University criminologist Christiaan Bezuidenhout’s comments in the Times that parents grapple to understand adolescent identity and behaviour.
“What parents forget is that children become adolescents, with one of the key elements of this phase being experimentation and the testing of boundaries and the consequences of their actions. Along with this, every person has two identities: one of which is your personal identity, which you show your parents and your teachers; the other is your social identity, which comes out when you are with friends. Combine these elements with the group psyche, a strong leader and a vulnerable victim, and you have the perfect recipe for deviant behavior. It doesn’t matter if the victim is mentally disabled. In fact, this makes her an even more attractive target.”
This may sound crazy but the problem is widespread. The Medical Research Council (MRC) says 7% of men in Gauteng have been involved in gang rapes. And in Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, one in ten men have “jackrolled” or engaged in lepanta. Most of them have never faced justice.
And so the vicious cycle continues.
“What is happening is a frightening and very common problem, which is increasing as older youths teach and show younger ones how to carry out these horrendous acts,” said the MRC’s Professor Rachel Jewkes.
The scary part is that this is not only a South African phenomenon. In the US, one in four rapes is regarded as gang rape committed mostly by young adults with the average age of 23, and it happens mostly in schools and tertiary institutes.
The horrific ordeal of a 17-year-old girl has opened our eyes about this widespread practice and is a chance for us, as a society, to reflect. It has presented an opportunity to reassess our role as a community, and as parents.
Gauteng Community Safety MEC Faith Mazibuko told parents not to relegate their parental responsibility to government and teachers. But it’s also about time that government change how they deal with the issue of rape in general. It’s no longer just about sex education (which is lacking anyway). The Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities should join hands with activists and law enforcers. She should perhaps form a unit to deal with rape, and take campaigns to schools (as is done in the UK) to teach young kids, especially boys, about the dangers of engaging in rape and gang rape.
In South Africa we can no longer wait for yet another sex video before we express anger. The police have arrested only seven teenagers in Soweto but there are many other young kids across the country who think lepanta is fashionable. It could be your son, or my brother or your daughter.