Cape Town — Specialised sexual offences courts could make a dent in South Africa's staggeringly high rape rate by speeding up the turnover of rape cases and thereby convicting more rapists and encouraging more survivors to report the crime. However, unless the South African government puts its money where its mouth is, the so-called "rape courts" will amount to nothing more than a "nice idea".
This is according to several experts in the field who say that major funding shortfalls are the single-biggest barrier to the government's plan to roll out 79 specialised courts within three years.
"These courts have been a 'nice idea' since 1993, when the first sexual offences court was successfully piloted in Cape Town. But unless the government puts some serious budget into it, they will remain nothing but a 'nice idea' for the next 20 years," Lisa Vetten, a research associate at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, told IPS.
As South Africa joins the international community in celebrating 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence from Nov. 25 to Dec. 19, the country still has one of the world's highest incidents of rape. The most recent South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics suggest that a person is raped every 11 minutes. However, the number is likely to be far greater as South Africa's Medical Research Council estimates that only one in 25 rapes is reported, while other human rights groups claim that the number is one in nine.
"Barriers to reporting the crime are a lack of faith in the criminal justice system and the medical services, and the secondary trauma sometimes suffered by survivors at the hands of the SAPS and health services," Dr. Kantharuben Naidoo, head of the Family Medicine Department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, wrote recently in the South African Medical Journal.
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe hopes that the sexual offences courts will break down these barriers by speeding up the turnover time of cases, securing more convictions and helping to create a survivor-centred criminal justice system, which in turn should reduce secondary trauma.
To achieve this, each sexual offences court will be assigned dedicated personnel, including specially-trained prosecutors, a designated social worker and a rape survivor support officer. Each court will also provide facilities such as private waiting rooms for witnesses and rape survivors, and technology to allow them to testify without having to come face-to-face with the accused.
In August, Radebe announced that there was funding for 22 sexual offences courts to be up and running within the 2013/2014 financial year, with the remainder of the 57 courts to be opened over the next two years.
But according to rape survivor and activist Michelle Solomon, only one is currently operational -- the Butterworth Court in Transkei. The court was re-launched as a sexual offences court in August.
"As it stands right now, the sexual offences court is a myth," she told IPS, pointing to the National Prosecuting Authority's (NPA) budgetary shortfall -- more than 20 million dollars for this year alone -- as a key reason. Among other functions, the NPA is responsible for day-to-day criminal prosecutions in South Africa.
"These courts are incredibly expensive to set up and maintain, which is one of the main reasons they were put on hold back in 1996," said Solomon.
South Africa's first sexual offences court was introduced in 1993. The pilot proved to be a success, maintaining a conviction rate of up to 80 percent a year and speeding up the turnaround time between the reporting and finalisation of cases. This led to 74 specialised courts being approved before a moratorium was placed on them in 1996.
"There were a number of challenges that led to their demise," Radebe has said previously. He cited a lack of a "dedicated budget, training of court personnel and a monitoring and evaluation mechanism for these courts."
Kathleen Dey, executive director of the non-profit counselling organisation Rape Crisis, is optimistic about the special courts' potential to succeed the second time round. "If set up properly, they will get more rapists in jail and more survivors to report."
However, she conceded that the NPA "currently does not have the budget" to set up the courts, adding that government was looking for foreign donors to assist.
"Foreign investment may be helpful, but I'm sure the South African government could fund this adequately if, for example, we spent less on the president's house," Vetten told IPS, referring to the 24 million dollars that has been spent on "security upgrades" for President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.
Department of Justice spokesperson Advocate Mthunzi Mahaga failed to respond to IPS' repeated requests for comment on the budget for the sexual offences courts.
Vetten pointed out that the lack of budget is not the only stumbling block to the roll out of the special courts.
"To secure rape convictions, you need experienced prosecutors. With the NPA grappling with a vacancy rate of around 25 percent, there are simply not enough of them," she said.
Solomon emphasised that the training of all personnel -- from prosecutors through to frontline police officers -- is crucial to the success of the sexual offences courts.
"One of the biggest flaws with the criminal justice system is the poor training of the officer behind the charge desk. Often they refuse to take rape charges and when they do they take appallingly bad statements. This undermines any good work by detectives and prosecutors," added Vetten.
Breaking the silence
Despite the many hurdles to implementing the special courts, Dey is confident a survivor-centred approach will make a long-term impact.
"The testimony of the survivor is crucial in most rape cases. Specialised courts with trained personnel, who will guide and support survivors through the process and help them to understand how the criminal justice system works, will go a long way in helping to secure more convictions," she said.
Charlene Lau, who was raped by her father as a child, and gang raped at 14 and then again at 26, agreed a justice system that is "sensitive to survivors" could make all the difference.
Lau experienced first-hand how "anti-survivor" the system is and has now become an activist for change with her Joy Campaign that encourages others to speak out about rape.
"If executed in a manner that addresses more than just the backlog of cases, these courts may encourage rape survivors to break their silence, helping to put more perpetrators behind bars," she told IPS.