Alison Botha is a remarkable woman. On December 18, 1994, the then 27-year-old was brutally attacked and raped in Port Elizabeth by Frans du Toit and Theuns Kruger. Alison was stabbed more than 30 times and she had 16 cuts to her throat. Holding her intestines in with one hand, and holding her head on with the other, she stumbled to find help. The story captured the world’s attention, as did her remarkable will to live.
In the newly released docudrama about her life, Cape Town director Uga Carlini, retells Alison’s story via interviews and re-enactments.
Alison, now a motivational speaker, is the mother of two sons, aged 12 and 9. She talks to Good Housekeeping editor Sally Emery about the movie, her life now, her everyday heroes and the lessons we should be teaching our children.
Q: The movie has been incredibly well received. What does this mean to you?
Alison: I am quite overwhelmed with the positive response – and so grateful that people are supporting it. It is encouraging to see that people ‘get’ that this is much more than a rape or crime story – that is inspirational and encouraging. I know that Uga Carlini, the director, really struggled to ‘sell’ the idea of this movie at the time that she was trying to find funding and people to back the project. So, it is really wonderful to now see that the response has been exactly what we believed it would be.
Q: How difficult is it to wake up every morning – even now, more than 20 years after the attack – and strive to triumph over this evil?
Alison: It was a long time ago – and after some soul-searching and quite a lot of therapy – that I decided that I wasn’t going to blame every bad mood or tough time on my attack. It’s true that it will never go away and that there might be some times, like when dealing with the possibility of parole for my two attackers, that it will still haunt me. But I have bad days like everybody else, and I had them before my attack too. By believing every struggle is because of the attack, it gets more power than it deserves, and that’s what I don’t want to do.
Q: How much input did you have in terms of the film? How difficult was it to relive that time in the interviews that make up the documentary?
Alison: I had a lot of input when we discussed what the film was going to portray and the look and feel of the film, but not where it came to the film-making and stuff that I really don’t know much about. I obviously did all the interviews, and that was all me speaking my own thoughts. I didn’t find it that hard really because I am used to speaking about what happened to me. It was harder for me to speak about more personal stuff that I usually prefer to keep private.
Q: Were you pleased with the result? How difficult is it for you to watch it?
Alison: Yes – I think the movie is beautifully done and I am very proud of the final result. It doesn’t ignore the drama but it also doesn’t try to make it more horrific than it needs to be. I like the fairytale elements and the idea of it being me telling my story. I was worried that I would find the reenactment scenes difficult to watch – and they certainly weren’t pleasant. However, above that, I actually found myself having an inkling of what others might experience when hearing my story – to see it in the third person. I was amazed at my will to survive and in such a calm and determined way.
Q: Have your sons seen it – would you let them watch it?
Alison: No, they haven’t seen it and will only watch it later – when they are a little older perhaps – and only if they want to. Although they both know about what happened to me, I believe it would be traumatic to actually put visuals to what they’ve heard and to see their mother so horribly hurt and vulnerable.
Q: What is the specific message that you would like the people who watch the movie to take away with them?
Alison: I hope people will find whatever messages and lessons speak to them – there are probably many. But, if I had to say one that I would like to come through, it’s that we are all heroes in our own stories and that we don’t need the traditional ‘happy ending’ to have a life worth living and loving. We often strive so hard to ‘do better’ and ‘be more’ when we are actually doing very well just getting through whatever life is dealing out at the time. We don’t need to be more – we are enough.
Q: On your website you have a call for people to sign a petition to stop your attackers getting parole. Why is this so important to you?
Alison: When I submit my applications to the respective parole boards (every two years), I attach the current list of signatures (from the www.gopetitions.com site). I don’t know if it makes a difference to the parole boards or not – or whether they even take it into account, but it matters to me. It’s not just me, alone, begging the officials not to release these two people – it’s over 20,000 other people too – and those people represent the society that doesn’t want them back.
Q: You inspire so many women around the world. Which women inspire you?
Alison: There are many strong, wonderful women that I admire, but my biggest influence and inspiration is my mother – for her wisdom, fortitude and faith. I am also inspired by all the other single mothers who daily fight the battles that come along with looking after children on your own. These are my real heroes – those that have battles of their own, perhaps cry themselves to sleep, but still get up in the morning to do what needs to be done for their children.
Q: What do you think can be done, specifically in South Africa, to put an end to violence against women?
Alison: Oh – I wish that there was an easy answer to this question. There might be many things that can be done, but I think it might start with us being less tolerant of what is happening. We are no longer horrified by the statistics. We hear them and are shocked, but that’s where it stops. We demand news about rapists and murderers – it is US who buy the papers and magazines that cover stories of the famous people who are known women abusers, rapists and murderers. We say we don’t agree with what they have done, but are nevertheless morbidly fascinated and feed on the attention placed on them. We do not demand action for the victims. We do not hold government accountable. We don’t like it, but we don’t demand change. It is time we stood together and demanded more than what is being done.
Q: What lessons should we be passing on to our daughters?
Alison: I believe more should be done by parents and through the education system to teach girls about their own self-worth, their infinite value and that they are worthy of being protected and of taking great care of themselves. Gender equality should no longer be something they have to fight for – it should be something they understand and expect (and demand, if necessary) as the norm.
Q: And our sons?
Alison: The lessons to our sons should be the same. That they and girls are unique and equally worthy of respect, protection and to be valued. It is unfortunately still a patriarchal society that we live in, and our sons should be encouraged to be part of the change, to be the example to others and to be brave enough to call up their peers on inappropriate and degrading comments, jokes and behaviour.
Q: In so many ways, this attack has defined how you have had to live your life. Do you ever imagine what path you would have taken if the attack hadn’t happened?
Alison: It is difficult to imagine, but I know it would have taken me longer to believe in my potential – I was someone who didn’t really believe in my own abilities to ‘be the change I wanted to see in the world’. To have been almost forced into acknowledging what I am capable of, was a huge push in the direction of living a life of purpose. So, in many ways, I have to be grateful for having had this horrible thing happen.
Q: You give motivational talks around the world and frequently refer to your ABC’s for life – Attitude, Belief & Choice. Can you tell us a bit more about this.
Alison: Being asked to share of my ordeal and recovery with others, was hugely instrumental in the way I dealt with it. I was forced, in a way, to look at what lessons I had learnt from the whole experience – and in trying to give my audiences something that they could apply to their own lives and with their own struggles, I came up with my A,B,C philosophy. The fundamental understanding that we need to accept is that ‘we are not always going to control all circumstances that we find ourselves in, but that we ALWAYS control how we respond to these circumstances.’ We all need to take responsibility for the control we have over the personal tools we’ve got at our disposal, no matter who we are or where we find ourselves. We each control our A,B,C in any situation – our Attitude towards ourselves, our Belief in our own potential and our Choices in response to what life throws at us. Essentially, no matter what happens or what someone else chooses to do, we have control over how we respond.
Q: Describe a day in your everyday life.
Alison: I guess my life is part single-mom and part inspirational speaker. When I am at home, I will get up, make lunch boxes, get my sons up and take them to school. My morning usually consists of working in my office, and doing a few errands before fetching the boys from school. The afternoons are taken up with their sport engagements and homework. We spend the evenings together making supper, playing games or watching TV. When I have a speaking engagement, my life is very different. I will often spend quite a lot of time travelling to the place where I will be speaking. I usually have to overnight at different places and I try to enjoy the experience of a hotel or guesthouse, which is always a treat even though I don’t like being away from home. The days where I am doing a presentation have a special kind of energy about them – I spend my time preparing and my nervousness usually starts way before I actually go up on stage. I always feel the nerves and the appreciative expectation of an audience – it never fails to touch me. I absolutely LOVE the feeling of holding an audience’s attention and sharing with them things that might potentially change some of their lives and the way they view things. Afterwards, there is usually quite a lot of time spent on questions and answers, selling and signing books, and taking loads of photographs – a sign of the times with everyone owning cellphones with cameras. By the time I leave a function, I feel physically drained but emotionally full.
Q: What is next for you?
Alison: I hope that I continue to get invitations to do my talks – they truly feed my soul and they are my primary source of income. I would love them to be more evenly spread throughout the year so that I can always be available for those who want to host me. I am also believing that the movie will get international release, now that it has proven to be so successful here in South Africa. I am a firm believer in being open to opportunities that you couldn’t have even imagined – so I don’t really want to try to imagine what is next for me until it presents itself.
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