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Johannesburg's mayor shares debunked and flawed statistics about rape in South Africa

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As South Africa continues to grapple with gender-based violence, the City of Johannesburg’s mayor, Geoff Makhubo, took to Twitter to share startling statistics about sexual violence. 

“SA has been confirmed to be the rape capital in the world,” he tweeted to his nearly 20,000 followers in April 2021. The post attracted more than 10,000 reactions, including 4,300 shares.



Makhubo also claimed that women born in South Africa had a greater chance of being raped than learning to read. This, he said, was according to Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization. 

“We can't pretend like all is well,” he concluded, and that may well be true. But any attempts to draw attention to pressing problems should be based on accurate information. 

Labeling countries ‘rape capitals’ flawed 

Claims that South Africa is the “rape capital” of the world have circulated online for over two decades. The ranking has frequently been attributed to Interpol but the international agency has denied making the claim. It previously told Africa Check that “false reports have been repeated by various media without verification”. 

South Africa’s police recorded 42,289 cases of rape in 2019/20. To make a fair comparison with other countries, we need to compare like with like. But legal definitions of rape differ from country to country. 

In South Africa, any person who unlawfully and intentionally commits an act of sexual penetration with another person without consent is guilty of the offence of rape. 

In many other countries, the law only recognises rape against women or doesn’t recognise spousal rape. Countries also have different methods of counting and recording rape, making rankings difficult. 

Underreporting is a third stumbling block. It’s well known that the rape statistics collected by the police are not an accurate reflection of the actual number of rapes that take place. But many countries, including South Africa, do not have recent and nationally representative underreporting rates. 

Given these variables “no international comparisons will be accurate”, Lizette Lancaster, manager of the Institute for Security Studies crime and justice hub, previously told Africa Check. This means any claim of a country being a “rape capital” is flawed. 

‘Statistical horror’

Makhubo also claimed that a woman born in South Africa has “a greater chance of being raped than learning to read”. This statement also has a long online history, dating back to 2002

In 2010, Tom Moultrie, professor of demography at the University of Cape Town, debunked the claim. He described it as a “statistical horror”. 

Using data from the 1998 Demographic Health Survey, Moultrie showed that the claim was incorrect. He said that 93.1% of South African women aged 15 to 49 had learned to read. If the claim were correct, it would suggest more than 93% of South African women would be raped in their lifetime. 

According to the survey, 4.4% of women aged 15 to 49 had been “forced to have sex” in their lifetime. This is the latest national estimate. 

The Demographic Health Survey was conducted again in 2016 but did not include a question on whether women had been forced to have sex. The survey estimated that 96.3% of women aged 15 to 49 were literate. 

‘Good quality statistics’ needed 

“You don’t need to have any statistics to be concerned about rape. The fact that it happens is sufficient to warrant action,” gender-based violence researcher Lisa Vetten told Africa Check.  

“When you start claiming that we are the ‘rape capital of the world’ or that rape is increasing, then you are making claims that are underpinned by numbers,” she said. “And you must support those claims with good quality statistics."

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