Technically I had been awake for two hours by the time Sarah dropped me off at Rape Crisis in Athlone but I was still groggy and half asleep. I’m not a morning person. Then I walked through the door and saw Shaamiela and Rifqah’s smiling faces and a large plate of chocolate muffins. I’m a sucker for anything chocolate, even at 8:30 in the morning, and those smiles really perked me up.
Shaamiela welcomed the group and kicked off with a question to break the ice. The responses went something like this:
“Hi my name is ___. I’m transgender and I’m a sex worker. I think I’d like to be a cat.”
“Hi my name is ___. I am Muslim and an imam at my local mosque. I would also like to be a cat.”
“Hi my name is ___. I’m with a Christian-based nonprofit. I love cats, I’d definitely want to be a cat.”
I was not surprised because most people wanted to be a cat (well, that’s not true; as a dog person I can’t imagine why you would want to be a cat) but because of the diversity in the room. Where I come from in the US xenophobia is so rampant that if groups like these were in the same room, any discussion would devolve into a screaming match. That is exactly what I expected of this dialogue. But as the day went on the Rainbow Nation really lived up to its name and amazed this sceptical American.
Rifqah gave a presentation entitled “The Road to Justice.” She summarised five gaps within the criminal justice system that Rape Crisis identified:
- Most people don’t know how the criminal justice system works or understand the role required of the victim of crime.
- Victims of crime are not informed of the progress of their case by police, health facilities or courts.
- There isn’t enough psychological and social support for victims who are often suffering the effects of severe trauma.
- There is no central mechanism that holds officials and service providers accountable.
- Government departments don’t collaborate enough and this results in poor service coordination.
Everyone was invited to discuss these findings.
As I moved around the groups, I found that no matter how different the backgrounds of people contributing, they all had common concerns and ideas for potential solutions.
Police corruption was a theme that surfaced and resurfaced. It seems that police are the main cause of South Africans’ loss of faith in the justice system. Participants said that police are under-qualified, inexperienced, uncommitted and susceptible to bribery. They lose documents, fail to follow proper investigation procedures and show disrespect to rape survivors. No one in the chain of command seems willing to hold corrupt officers accountable.
Another theme was the lack of education of people about their rights within the criminal justice system. Groups recommended that the government implement programmes in schools to teach learners how the system works. If South Africans were more informed about their rights, they would feel more empowered to press charges or to hold officials accountable when they fail to do their duty.
Being new to Rape Crisis, and new to South Africa, I was completely blown away by this Community Dialogue. I had never experienced anything like it. It was truly inspiring to witness people with vastly different backgrounds unite to address the issues surrounding rape and find solutions to problems. The powerful alliances that transcend cultural and racial divides are the key to ending sexual violence not only in South Africa but also around the world.