South African Stories

R.W. Johnson

The voice on the phone was terrified and tearful. ‘I’m in such trouble, such trouble.’ It took me quite a while to get Josephine to say what had happened. She is the 18-year-old daughter of my domestic servant here in Johannesburg. Josephine, like her two sisters, is a boarder at a school near Pietersburg, 350 kilometres away. In the school holidays the three girls come and stay with their mother, Doris, who lives in a cottage in my garden – I had waved them off back to school only a few weeks before, Josephine, the eldest, shepherding her smaller sisters.

Josephine had left her school to visit cousins in the area over the weekend and, late on the Sunday, had got a taxi back to the school. The driver had dropped his other two passengers and then driven Josephine to his house in a nearby township where he had overpowered and raped her. He had then locked her in a back room, told her that he would keep her there for his pleasure for a month, and then kill her. After that he had gone off to a shebeen, saying he might bring back some of his friends later that night to ‘have some fun’ with her too. Josephine had managed to attract the attention of two small boys in the street and they had helped her escape. She had been back at school for a day but all she could do was cry, she said. I told her I would send her mother to fetch her right away. Doris was almost hysterical when she heard the news but I bundled her into a taxi and told her to hurry.

I rang my friend Brian who runs an epidemiological unit mainly concerned with HIV/Aids. It’ll cost you, he said, but if she can get AZT and 3TC in the first 12 hours you can cut the Aids risk by 80 per cent. Brian has twice had to apply such emergency treatment to nurses working in his unit after they pricked themselves with needles used to draw blood from the HIV positive prostitutes who are the central figures in his unit’s attempt to control the scourge. I explained that it was already more than 24 hours since Josephine had been raped and that 36 hours would probably have elapsed before she arrived. It might still be worth a try, he said, but the antibodies in her blood would be replicating at a terrifying rate by now.

When Josephine arrived I rushed her to a top specialist – a calm Englishman who’d been out here for 18 years. ‘I can’t do without the drama, the dynamism of being here,’ he explained almost apologetically when I asked what a man of his eminence was doing in a crowded, chaotic hospital. He was a keen Chelsea supporter and in between carrying out the tests on Josephine he and I chatted about the great days of Charlie Cooke, David Webb and Peter Osgood. He told me it was already too late to try AZT and 3TC on Josephine but he was cautiously hopeful. ‘To get Aids there has to be mixing of blood, which means there has to be a break in the skin or an open sore due to some other sexually transmitted disease. Chances are that the taxi-driver is a sexually reckless fellow and has at least one of these STDs, so Josephine’s chances of syphilis and gonorrhoea are high but I can deal with that,’ he explained. ‘The key question is whether he was so rough while he was raping her that he broke her skin. It’s because rape is so traumatic that it so often results in Aids transmission. Especially gang rape, of course, which is almost bound to do it.’ That Josephine escaped before the collective ‘fun’ began had, I now realised, been crucial.

After examining Josephine, the specialist told me he could find no break in the skin but he wouldn’t have the results of the tests for another six weeks. ‘In any case,’ he pointed out, ‘at least 20 per cent of all black 18-year-old girls are HIV positive already and that figure is rising rapidly towards 30 per cent. She could have been HIV positive before the attack.’ I told him I didn’t think so: I have lectured Josephine endlessly on the perils of Aids since she was 15, and she is a religious girl. Josephine stayed with us for a week but, despite my efforts, would not talk to the rape counsellor I sent her to.

Jo had told the police about the rape. She had given them the driver’s name and address, and there was even a corroborating witness who knew about other rapes he’d carried out. Josephine remained nervous: the man had told her that he’d kill her if the case ever came to the attention of the police. I phoned several times but they never seemed to know anything about it and there was a lot of fruitless hunting around for a case number. The taxi driver was seen walking around as if nothing had happened. Clearly nothing would be done. Jo recovered bit by bit. Then, at last, test results came through: HIV negative, praise the Lord. With many misgivings she returned to school.

A few days later I looked at my phone bill and realised something was wrong. It was enormously high and I didn’t recognise some of the numbers at all. I left the printout in the kitchen and next morning Doris’s manner told me everything I needed to know. We all make mistakes, she said with a grin. We learn only from our mistakes. The really big mistake, I said, is that you’ve been stealing from me. Over half this phone bill is yours and you’ve been coming into the house specially to make calls, many of them very long distance and for half an hour at a time. I told you the alarm code of the house and you’ve been coming in when I was away and on days when you weren’t working in the house. You have systematically lied to me and cheated me. At a time when I was doing everything I could, paying for Josephine’s schooling, lending you money, spending money on the Aids doctor, the lot. How long has this been going on? It’s just this month, she said, crying now. Sometimes I get lonely in the house and want to chat to my friends so I call them.

I go and check. It’s actually been going on for many months, the amount creeping up all the time. Doris obviously thought I never checked a bill and for a long time she was right. I call her in furiously. I could sack you for this, I say. I told you when I first employed you, I have to trust someone who works in my house, that’s the only rule. You’ll never be happy again with me now, she wept, you’d better sack me.

In the end I say: look, the deal is this. I won’t sack you and you can stay if you want. But the reason I do this is for your daughters, especially Jo. You should beat me, Doris says. You can beat me all afternoon, I will deserve it. I don’t want to beat you, I tell her. It’s not about beating, it’s about trust. It takes time to rebuild trust. I change the alarm code, keep it secret, make her pay for the last month’s calls. It’s all very difficult and sullen for a while.

Jo rings again, an incoherent, frantic message on the answering-machine. As so often with phone calls from Africans made from cafés or friends’ houses, there were loud background voices, slamming doors and much general clatter, but I half-imagined that I heard the phrase ‘raped again’. That couldn’t be right. Then Doris comes tearing in, eyes wild, getting ready to scream. It was right. In South Africa, the rape capital of the world, the odds were in favour of its being right. They reckon that only in 1 in 20 rapes gets reported but even so 131 are reported every day, one every 11 minutes. If you believe the 1-in-20 thing then it’s one every 33 seconds. It’s quite possible: many African men still believe (and will even tell you) that it is their right to have their way with any woman they want, whenever they want.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in