South Africa’s criminal justice system is confusing. Not because it is littered jargon about clauses and by-laws (any self-respecting Suits and The Good Wife fan can figure that out) but rather because of its vacillating treatment of those in pursuit of justice.
Roughly between 4% and 8% of reported sexual violence cases ends in conviction. This is not because perpetrators have Harvey Spectre-esque defence teams that ruthlessly and lawlessly fight for their client’s innocence. Instead, the system itself is letting survivors down.
However, with the case of the ‘Rhodes Memorial Rapist’, it seems that the Criminal Justice System seems to have undergone some kind of reincarnation. Mthunzi Hlomane was sentenced to 9 life sentences which effectively means he will be behind bars for a total of 108 years. It seems that in this life, the Criminal Justice System is capable of successfully delivering justice to survivors of sexual violence. The whole case was resolved before the end of the year, the punishment fits the crime, a bad man will be behind bars for the rest of his life and—as Judge Mushtak Parker said—this process will help the survivors find closure “sooner rather than later”. The National Prosecuting Authority was also available for comment saying that this sentence “confirms our resolve to prioritise crimes against women and children and sexual violence”. It all sounds great and doable and faith in our justice system can be restored. Long live the Criminal Justice System (for this life, anyway)!
But the truth is, our Criminal Justice System remains a cat-astrophe at the moment, especially in handling sexual violence cases. Prosecutors, court staff and magistrates are not sensitive to the realities of survivors. This means that the physical court itself and the system as a whole acts as a site of secondary trauma. And while many survivors decide to tackle a court case in a bid to find healing, these conditions are not conducive to recovery. Instead, survivors often find themselves in close physical proximity to their perpetrators, are aggressively accused of lying by the defence team and are subject to victim-blaming biases asserted by insensitive court staff.
With this in mind, in 2013 the South African government developed a model to roll out special Sexual Offences Courts that are specifically designed to be safe spaces for survivors and mediate any secondary traumatisation in the aftermath of rape. These courts are designed to mitigate and manage case delays, better skill court personnel so that better judgments can be made and sensitive treatment of survivors can be guaranteed. The infrastructure of the sexual offences court is designed so that the survivor does not have to come into contact with the perpetrator as the court includes separate waiting areas and a separate testifying room.
Rolling out more sexual offences courts will ensure that survivors have a more paw-sitive experience when going through the criminal justice system and will hopefully mean higher conviction rates, less secondary trauma and a social culture that makes the criminal justice system accessible to those it purports to support.
The recent conviction of the Rhodes Memorial Serial Rapist has illustrated that the potential is there to successfully prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence. The National Prosecuting Authority said that they hope “that this sentence will send a message to victims that the NPA is committed in the fight against sexual violence and will further participate in the coming 16 days of activism in an attempt to raise awareness against this cruelty”. But girls as young as 6 years old know more about their potential to be raped than their potential to succeed. So consider us aware, Mr NPA. Now is the time for action and change. Hopefully in this lifetime survivors of sexual violence can get justice.
The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign is a Rape Crisis Advocacy project started to hold government accountable to its promise of more sexual offences courts. Show your support by signing up HERE and liking the RSJC page on Facebook.
Ronel is a volunteer counsellor at Rape Crisis and is studying History at UCT. In her spare time she likes to read, knit and visit the love of her life, Yoshi the sea turtle, at the Two Oceans Aquarium.