Given the gravity of South Africa's problems with sexual abuse, the public service advertisement seems at first glance a bit harsh but hardly over the top. There is no profanity, no graphic depictions, no high-volume, wisecracking Andrew Dice Clay-like celebrity. It's just South Africa's most glamorous Hollywood actress staring into the camera and questioning her countrymen's manhood.
"Hi, I'm Charlize Theron," she begins. "People often ask me what men are like in South Africa. Well, consider that more women are raped in South Africa than any other country in the world. That one of out of three women will be raped in their lifetime in South Africa. And perhaps worst of all, that the rest of the men in South Africa seem to think that rape isn't their problem. It's not that easy to say what the men in South Africa are like. Because there seem to be so few of them out there."
The 30-second spot has sparked an electric debate in South Africa over discrimination, sexism, democracy and political correctness. When an organization known as "n Groep Beswaarde Manne"--Afrikaans for 28 men and one woman--took offense, it complained to the government agency responsible for protecting the public from ads that are dishonest or prejudicial.
After reviewing the complaint, the Advertising Standards Authority banned the ad last month, saying that it did indeed discriminate against men by suggesting that all condone rape. Since then, the issue has dominated editorial pages, talk-radio and barroom conversations throughout South Africa.
"What exactly must I do in order not to be called a rape condoner?" asked one radio personality here. "What does my girlfriend do that I don't do? Rape doesn't happen because non-rapist men are apathetic any more than people get hijacked because I haven't joined a neighborhood watch."
"Its utter nonsense to ban the ad," said Jabu Dube, a college student. "I think most men who watch it are made to feel a little uncomfortable, but that's not discrimination. This is political correctness gone overboard."
Post-apartheid South Africa is a sensitive place. Since voters of all races abolished the white-minority government five years ago, the nation has been trying to bury its oppressive past while erecting a durable democracy. It is a difficult balancing act. How do you acknowledge a grievance without alienating the ones responsible for it?
The push to rename streets, parks and buildings for long-ignored black liberation heroes has met resistance from whites who do not want to see the names of their community's heroes removed. While South Africa's democratically elected black-majority government has largely protected speech and freed media from the censorship practiced by the apartheid government, it has drawn criticism from civil liberties organizations for proposing legislation that would ban the use of "hurtful" ethnic slurs. These include "kaffir," a derogatory term for blacks, and "boer," its equivalent for the descendants of South Africa's Dutch-French settlers known as Afrikaners.
"We're trying to develop a whole new culture in terms of how we relate to one another as people," said Sheila Meintjies, a professor of political science and gender issues at the University of Witwatersrand. "We're trying to recognize that people have been victimized and hurt, but we're trying our best not to step on any toes while we're pointing our fingers. You can't do it all. You've got to draw the line somewhere."
Meintjies and many others believe that the anti-rape campaign is the line in the sand. The incidence of reported rapes in South Africa is the highest in the world.
"The point we want to make is that everyone should be held accountable for this problem, and everyone can be a part of the solution," actress Theron--who has starred in such movies as "The Devil's Advocate" and "Two Days in the Valley"--told reporters last week.
The rape crisis center that produced the ads has appealed the ban, and a judge could rule on the issue this week.