News & events


08 August 2023

Motherhood and the Ambiguities of Rape in Tsolo

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Written by Bonelwa Nogqaza and Leslie Bank, as part of the Ukuvula Isango: Women Rise project

Do rural mothers condone rape? Does their love for their sons cloud their judgement when it comes to rape? Are young women in rural areas, who speak of the benefits of transactional sex, entrapping young men in rape cases when they feel cheated? Should mothers allow their sons to be handed over to the police on rape charges before consulting amongst themselves? Is it appropriate for a young woman to accuse her known partner of rape?

On Saturday, the 21st of July 2023, these questions were posed by a group of mature women in the back of a taxi travelling from Tsolo to Mthatha. The conversation started when one of the women complained that teenagers, as young as 14 years old, were publicly drinking and hanging around at taverns on the weekends. One of the women said: “It is hard to sleep when you know your children are out there and how unsafe the world has become”. Another said that she could not believe how “fashionable” taverns had become for teenagers since the pandemic, and how lax tavern owners were about selling liquor to underage children.

As the taxi moved along, the conversation shifted to the question of rape and motherhood. One of the women stated: “Bathi ke abantwana bethu basonxila baqalise ukwenza amabali e Rape” (When our kids are under the influence of alcohol, they create ‘non-existing’ rape cases). She was referring to a recent case where a young woman in Tsolo opened a rape case against her partner for allegedly forcing her to have sex against her will. She said he had dragged her into a room and raped her. The older women in the taxi wondered how the police could “arrest someone for having sex with their known partner”.

One of the older women said that these young girls are “playing their sons”; “just look how they dress”, and “what they expect from our sons these days”. She said that girls, like the one who made the rape claim, sometimes say “no” when they mean “yes”, making it “difficult for our sons to know what they mean”. Another said that young girls “always want money; they want men to be faithful and romantic, but when they don’t get what they want, they run to the police station”.

Top right image source: The Journalist 2016. Top left image source: GBV in South Africa, Report 2016.

The women seemed to agree that, while some men were genuine rapists, others were being “trapped” by young women who knowingly “play the rape card”. A further problem for the women in the taxi was that the accuser and the accused where a known couple. One woman in the back commented “Kaloku Ma’ban ban ibayi rape xa umntu ungamazi” (It becomes considered as rape when you do not know the perpetrator), implying that rape usually occurs between people that are unknown to each other.

The real problem, one of the older women in the taxi suggested, was that the mother of the young woman should have prevented her daughter from taking the matter to the police so quickly. She continued to suggest that opening a case against this young man without the involvement of both mothers was rash and ill-considered. She said: “Yhu khange abena nimba umama walomntana, umbambisa njani umntu uthandana naye” (The mother of the victim did not show empathy towards the perpetrator’s mother; how do you just get arrested for being with someone you are involved with?). The women in the taxi then agreed that empathetic motherly intervention would have been a better way to navigate this conflict than rushing to the police.

In speaking of this, they referred to ‘inimba’ or ‘the umbilical cord’ that ties children to their mothers and symbolises their natural maternal bond. In Xhosa culture, the concept carries connotations of nurturance, compassion, care, empathy, and protection exclusive to mothers. For other women in the taxi ‘inimba’ signaled the pains of labour, which men could not feel, and the life-threatening risk of birthing that not only naturally bonded mothers to their children, but also mothers to one another.

A 2018 article titled “The Inimba It Cuts”: A Reconsideration of Mother Love in the Context of Poverty,” Rubin suggests that the cultural idiom of “inimba” not only implies a deep love for one’s own children and their welfare, but also an extended maternal compassion and empathy for the children of other mothers. She found in urban townships in Cape Town that it was not uncommon for Xhosa mothers living in conditions of extreme poverty and forced migration to rely on each other for support and childcare as well as to often send their children home to live with their own mothers in the rural areas. Rubin shows that in discussing these intergenerational maternal bonds women often invoked the cultural idiom of “inimba” as a collective expression of motherhood. (Also see Lee 2009)

In the taxi conversation, one of the women said that, by referring the matter to the police, the mother of the young woman behaved like a witch, “uyathakatha/ungcolile” because she had contravened the spirit of “inimba” by not consulting the mothers and families involved. According to the women in the taxi, the mother of the accuser should have then consulted with the mother of the young man first, and then they should have reflected on the correct course of action together, in the interest of the two families. They proclaimed that the mother acted inappropriately in terms of the significance of ‘inimba’ as an expression of the unity of mothers.

Even the young makoti (wife) in the taxi seemed to support the views of the older women, as she was asked: Ye sisi uyiva njani lento siyithethapha” (What’s your view on the conversation we are having?). The makoti replied: “How can your partner rape you?”. Her comment fueled those at the back of the taxi to repeat their claim: “Xa belahlwa baye bafuna ukutyhola abantwana bethu nge rape” (When they are getting dumped, they threaten our sons with rape cards).

As I disembarked and the women dispersed when we arrived in Mthatha, I wondered about the sharp and angry responses of the older women. The view of these women seemed to diminish the gravity of the rape and GBV crisis in rural South Africa. They presented a view that certainly does not concur with many commentaries of the rape crisis, such as Pumla Gqola’s book, Rape: A South African Nightmare and her other autobiographical writings on the rural Eastern Cape. What startled me after hearing this conversation was that none of the older women in the taxi took the side of the young girl in this matter. I was amazed by how defensive they were of the young man and his alleged sexual violence, and how easily they appeared to dismiss the young women’s account of her pain and trauma of rape in favour of a defense of cultural ideals of motherly solidarities and maternal bonds.


Gqola Pumla Dineo. 2015. Rape: A South African Nightmare. Auckland Park South Africa: MF Books Joburg.

Lee, Rebekah. 2009. African Women and Apartheid: Migration and Settlement in Urban South Africa. London: TaurisAcademic Studies.

Rubin, Sarah. (2018). “The Inimba It Cuts”: A Reconsideration of Mother Love in the Context of Poverty. Ethos. 46. 330-350. 10.1111/etho.12210.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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