4 May 2001

South Africa: No Justice for Rape Survivors

Johannesburg — Without a spotlight on sexual violence the treatment of victims of these crimes has slid into an abysmal state.

In March 17-year-old Lydia Michaels gave evidence in the case of the Bonteheuwel gang that raped her. The next day she was shot dead. This week, two days before 14-year-old Nozipho* was due to give evidence in the trial of the 53-year-old Munsieville man accused of raping her, she took an overdose of pills for epilepsy.

The rape trial of 19-year-old Samantha*, set down for Monday in Randburg, is slap bang in the middle of her university exams. The A-grade student who obtained eight distinctions in matric was told by the male dean of her faculty "the exams take place over a week, you'll only testify for two days, there is plenty of time for you to study and write".

Two years ago South Africa was awash with campaigns about rape, radio talk shows were jammed, television specials were aired, politicians made promises " two years later the hype has died and rape statistics are up, according to police sources.

Thoko Majokweni, head of the unit that investigates sexual offences in the National Directorate of Public Prosecutions, says sexual violence forms more than half the court roll in all courts, and up to 60% of all cases in places like Mdantsane and Durban. Without a spotlight on rape, the treatment of rape survivors has slid into an abysmal state " there is talk of closing down the specialised police sexual offences units; district surgeons' offices are already closing, making specialised forensic exams more difficult to get, and in many cases ensuring the rapists walk free.

The shooting of Michaels, clearly designed to stop women testifying in rape cases, barely made it to the media. Her impoverished parents have not been kept informed about investigations.

However, the Heideveld Rape Crisis office is organising a march though Bonteheuwel, one of the country's worst gangland areas, on May 20 to honour the life of Michaels and protest against the lack of protection offered to rape survivors who testify, as less than one in 30 will, according to police statistics.

Nozipho was supposed to give evidence on Wednesday in the Krugersdorp Magistrate's Court against the neighbour who allegedly raped her over a period of four months last year.

However, not only had the prosecutor failed to prepare her for court or go over her statement, but no provision had been made for her to testify in a special room with a camera specifically for children. On a previous occasion Nozipho had been forced to stand in the same court as the perpetrator " something that according to law should never happen, but which frequently does.

She too has been offered no protection from the perpetrator who is out on bail and lives next door. Bail in rape cases is supposed to be withheld " but it is frequently given.

Nozipho, who began experiencing epilepsy after the sexual abuse began, swallowed her epilepsy pills on Monday. She picks the stitching on a white hospital blanket: "I wanted to die. I am too frightened of him, he told me he would kill me if I told anyone. That man, I took him like a parent, but he did these things to me. He used to come Monday to Thursday at 5am after my mother went to work and take me to his bedroom, and lift up my skirt and put his penis in my vagina."

The abuse did not stop with the rapist. When Nozipho told her aunt she was taken by the police to Leratong hospital. The aunt says: "All they did was examine her and take her blood for HIV. They said we must speak to the social worker about the HIV, but every time we went back the social worker was never there, we still don't know what the test said. She was given no other medicine."

And so while Nozipho is in hospital recovering from her suicide attempt, medical staff are also treating her for a sexually transmitted disease that is her rape inheritance, and still no one knows what her HIV status is.

Samantha was at a Randburg club more than a year ago when two well-dressed young men offered to assist her when she had car problems. She alleges they brutally raped her.

In common with all rape survivors, she is terrified of her court appearance.

She has not heard from the female prosecutor in three months. She has received no court preparation and has been told, incorrectly, by the prosecutor that her psychologist cannot give evidence.

Majokweni says it is important that victim-impact statements be given by experts. "It is often only then that a judge or magistrate really understands the impact of the crime on the person raped."

Samantha alerted her faculty head about her trial at the beginning of the academic year. A few weeks ago she asked if her exams could be moved to another time because the trial fell in the middle of them. When the faculty head, a woman, was not sympathetic, she went to the dean who told her she would cope.

She says he ignored her protest that she was battling to concentrate or cope psychologically. After the Mail & Guardian spoke with Rand Afrikaans University vice-chancellor TR Botha, he said he had spoken to the dean who denied he had said the exams could not be moved. "He says he merely wanted proof from the student that she would be testifying.

"This university views these situations with optimal empathy," Botha said.

"We will do everything we can to assist this student, or any others in similar predicaments." The dean concerned failed to respond to calls.

Rape clinics are reporting a dramatic rise in cases " including gang rapes, the use of foreign objects like bottles or jars and an increase in the rape of small children by those who apparently believe they can cleanse themselves of HIV by raping virgins.

Majokweni says: "We are overwhelmed, there is not enough staff, not enough budgets. We are simply overwhelmed."

* Not their real names

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