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South African President Tackles Rape in National Address

South African president Jacob Zuma opens the South African Parliament as he speaks in Cape Town, February 14, 2013.
South African president Jacob Zuma opens the South African Parliament as he speaks in Cape Town, February 14, 2013.
Anita Powell
South Africa’s president handled the usual topics during his State of the Nation Address Thursday night: unemployment, education, and the nation’s struggling economy. But for the first time since he was elected in 2009, President Jacob Zuma tackled an issue that is increasingly coming to define this nation: rape.

Zuma was expected to speak about education, about his government’s plans to tackle the abnormally high unemployment rate, and about an upcoming summit of emerging economies, which he duly did:

"I would lnow like to report on progress made since the last State of the Nation Address and also to discuss our program of action for 2013," he said.  "I will look at five priorities - education, health, the fight against crime, creating decent work as well as rural development and land reform."

But on Thursday, the president took a surprise turn by speaking at length about a South African teenager. That would be Anene Booysen, the 17-year-old from a small town in the rural Western Cape.

Anene died earlier this month after a horrific and brutal gang-rape. A doctor who treated her described unthinkable atrocities - her attackers allegedly sliced her open from the stomach down and pulled out her intestines with their hands. They then left her to die.

The outrage over her death resonated to the top this month, and on Thursday, Zuma made a point of highlighting her ordeal in his address to parliament in Cape Town.  He said Booysen's death was an example of the "brutality and cruelty meted out to defenseless women," which he denounced as unacceptable.

South African police documented more than 64,000 rapes last year.

A widely cited 2010 study found that more than a quarter of South African men have admitted to raping a girl or woman. One in seven men admitted to gang rape.

Zuma said that police have been successful in prosecuting rape - in the last financial year, he said, they achieved nearly 370 life sentences and had conviction rates around 70 percent.

He also highlighted ways the South African government is fighting harassment and gender inequality, including the Protection from Harassment Bill and the Domestic Violence Act.

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