The numbers of change: If you don’t like numbers, then this blog is for you

The Indian writer and mathematical genius, Shakuntala Devi, once said “Numbers have life, they’re not just symbols on paper”.

I realise that some of you reading this, might not care about numbers at all. Unless you are an accountant. Or a maths teacher. Or someone that is into Soduku. But, to be honest, I do like numbers. And I like the stories that they tell. And such a story I found in an unlikely place last week…

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I attended the meeting of the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services where the Department of Justice presented their Annual Report for the year of 2016/2017. This is an opportunity for the Department to tell the Committee if their targets have been achieved and to present proof in numbers.

Side note: A large part of the parliamentary Portfolio Committees’ role is to oversee the work of the National Executive (i.e. various government departments) and you will know that I am always interested in how parliament does this.

It is easy to attend a meeting like the one last week and not even see the specifics when the numbers flash by (at record speed, mind you). Overwhelming numbers. But, interested as I am, I look for the stories behind the numbers so that I can share them with you, obviously. One such story, was the story about sexual offences courts. The Department told the Committee that 11 courtrooms across provinces were upgraded to sexual offences courtrooms during the past year, completing the first phase of the rollout.

This number tells the story of the rural community of Tsolo, Eastern Cape, where survivors now have access to specialised services to help them get through the difficult process of giving their testimony in court. The magistrate and prosecutors at this court have been specially trained to deal with sexual offences and the court room is designed in such a way that rape survivors will not have to wait in the same waiting room as the accused or his supporters, child witnesses will be able to give their testimony in a separate room using Closed Circuit Television and support services will have their own offices to offer confidential support to rape survivors and other witnesses for the state. Cases will be processed and finalised more quickly because only sexual offences cases will be heard in this court room.

Added to this, 106 more courtrooms will be upgraded in the second phase of the rollout, bringing the total sexual offences courtrooms to 163 at the end of phase two. This is huge, because it means that more than half of the total number of regional courts across the country will have sexual offences courtrooms. More than half of the survivors of sexual violence in South Africa will receive support in the criminal justice system.

By looking for the stories that these numbers tell, the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign can continue to ask the right questions of the relevant people at the right time. We will continue to hold government accountable for the rollout of sexual offences courts, so that rape survivors can tell their stories in supportive courtrooms and in the presence of supportive people. And we will continue to ask for more numbers until the story they tell is that our government has honoured its promise. You can follow us on Facebook to read more of our stories of change and to share this with your friends.

 

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Jeanne Bodenstein

Jeanne is the Advocacy Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and heads the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign. She likes wine, pizza and recently rediscovered her love for mystery novels.

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Small Victories, Big Change

Yesterday marked one week since our “small” victory in a relatively small committee room on the fifth floor of one of the buildings of Parliament. I use quotes because actually it was no small victory and here is why:

The Parliament of South Africa has two main functions. The one is to make and pass laws (legislate) and the other is to oversee the actions of government departments (provide oversight). However, most of these functions are not performed in the National Assembly or the National Council of Provinces and broadcasted over national television with larger-than-life politicians waving their arms and making elaborate arguments. No, most of Parliament’s work happens when Parliamentary Oversight or Portfolio Committees, consisting of members of parliament, meet in much smaller committee rooms to discuss issues relating to the specific portfolio. This can include pieces of legislation, reports or actions taken by the relevant government department.

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It was in such a committee room that we found ourselves one week ago. We, together with the Women’s Legal Centre, received a very last minute invitation to speak to the committee on Justice and Correctional Services about the legislation providing for the establishment of sexual offences courts. This was after we handed in written comments to the committee about this legislation in March. The invitation provided us with the opportunity to explain to members on the committee and to the Deputy Minister of Justice why exclusive sexual offences courts are the only way to ensure higher conviction rates in sexual offences cases while providing the much need support to survivors of this type of crime.

During a long discussion, members raised concerns about an alleged lack of resources of establishing exclusive sexual offences courts. The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ) confirmed the apparent unwillingness of magistrates to hear cases in exclusive sexual offences courts. We reminded the committee of the promise that the government has already made to roll out these courts and we responded to the concerns raised.

As a result of this heated argument, the Deputy Minister of Justice, Min. John Jeffrey, offered to arrange a meeting where we will be able to discuss this with the Regional Court Presidents, representing the magistrates that have to hear these cases, as well as the Department of Justice. This meeting will provide a great opportunity for the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign to continue to lobby and advocate for the rollout of sexual offences courts to make sure that all survivors of sexual offences have access to survivor-centred justice. We were very encouraged by the commitment of the majority of community members to addressing the high rates of rape in South Africa.

Bringing about change in the criminal justice system by ensuring that all survivors have access to a sexual offences court, is a big task and such change is often difficult to measure. However, big change occurs as a result of seemingly small victories in unimpressive rooms on Thursday afternoons. When you follow us on Facebook, you help amplify our small victories in order to achieve big change.

 

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Jeanne Bodenstein

Jeanne is the Advocacy Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and heads the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign. She likes wine, pizza and recently rediscovered her love for mystery novels.

SONA Schmona and Other Things in February

Nearing the end of February, we have a lot to reflect on, chew on and (eventually) spit out.  Both the State of the Nation Address (SONA) by our President, Jacob Zuma, as well as the Budget Speech by Pravin Gordhan, our Minister of Finance, left a bitter taste in my mouth.

During SONA, our country’s President aims to convey to everyone in South Africa what the state of this nation actually is. This event also marks the opening of Parliament for the year and, say what you want, it is exciting to see Parliament in full cry. For some general reasons to care about the SONA address, please have a look at the Activate! Change Driver’s Network page.  The issues that the President mentions and highlights during this address, will be the issues that get special attention from government in the coming year. As coordinator of the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign, I was particularly interested to hear the President’s expressed views on gender based violence, services for survivors of sexual offences and, of course, the importance of the rollout of sexual offences courts. It is for this very reason that I noted the President’s very loud silence on all of the aforementioned.

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The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign protested outside the Athlone and Khayelitsha Magistrate’s Courts during 16 Days of Activism to demand that all rape survivors have access to  Sexual Offences Courts. (Pic: Alexa Sedgwick)

With great hope I looked forward to the Budget Speech presented by Minister Gordhan a couple of days ago. His speech is important for two reasons. Firstly, he tells the country where government will get its money from and secondly, he tells us what the government’s spending priorities will be for the coming year. In order to fund the rollout of sexual offences courts, government would have to allocate a significant budget to the relevant departments to make courts with specialised services, personnel and infrastructure a reality for all survivors of sexual offences. Again there was no mention at all of the importance of support to survivors or the rollout of specialised courts to deal with sexual offences. This tells me that the chances are very slim that there will be an increased budget allocated to the rollout of sexual offences courts or the provision of psycho-social support to survivors.

Although the Department of Justice has, in 2013 already, promised to roll out sexual offences courts, we must not get disheartened when we realise that these issues are still very low on government’s current list of priorities. This situation provides a great opportunity for the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign, together with our partners and communities, to continue to lobby and advocate for the rollout of sexual offences courts to make sure that all survivors of sexual offences have access to survivor-centred justice.

SONA and the Budget Speech have again shown us that government is so preoccupied with other pressing concerns that it is a massive endeavour to shift their attention to sexual offences. However, when you follow us on Facebook, you help us sweeten the bitter taste that these two speeches have left in all our mouths. If we lobby and advocate strategically over the course of this year, who knows what will happen in #SONA2018…?

 

 

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Jeanne Bodenstein

Jeanne is the Advocacy Coordinator at the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and heads the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign. She likes wine, pizza and recently started growing herbs.

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament. After all, the very foundation of its colonial decorum is being questioned by many, and it has recently done little to indicate the integrity, efficacy and ethics that one would expect from the arm of government tasked with oversight.

Our President, it seems, can be both lawless and celebrated by ‘honourable’ members in the plenary, and we the public are supposed to sit back whilst our tax and VAT are spent on refurbishments rather than services. When things get too sensitive, Parliament is simply put on hold, while the party asking the real and only question the nation wants the President to answer is thrown out.

But there is more to the working of Parliament than just the plenary. The plenary is, around the world, an opportunity for grandstanding and heckling. The work of Parliament happens in Parliamentary Committee meetings. It is here that legislation is debated, that oversight is proposed and undertaken, that opportunities for public participation are facilitated, and that ‘cooperative governance’ (as yet unsuccessful) is considered. So what does it mean when the number of committees is cut, whilst the number of Departments they are required to oversee grows? This question is particularly pertinent for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where the number of Committees stands at a paltry eleven.

Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what the focus of the NCOP should be. As the Council of Provinces, the focus is essentially provincial. Yes, national budgets and legislation are (or should be) considered there, but when it comes to oversight and public participation, the focus is clearly on the nine individual provinces. This is important because much of South Africa’s spending happens at this level, and even more so at the municipal level.

Consider the budget of the Department for Social Development, for example. This money is dispersed to provincial Departments, who can pick and choose the areas they spend on defined, purportedly, by provincial interests. Social Development is responsible for a number of things via their funding of NGOs – shelters, drug and alcohol abuse programs, social workers in the province, Thuthuzela Care Centres, children’s rights, the rights of people with disability, and support for the many abused women in South Africa. But what happens when these critical areas do not receive sufficient funding? What happens when Parliament doesn’t notice? What happens when it has been redesigned not to notice?

Perhaps that sounds very conspiratorial – a grand government scheme to get away with things. But when you consider that the Portfolio Committee on Social Development only considers social development issues, and the Select Committee on Social Services considers issues of social development, health, human settlements, home affairs, and water and sanitation, then you have to ask, how is the Committee supposed to adequately or regularly check whether the DSD is adequately funding NGOs? The truthful answer is it can’t. And if the Portfolio Committee doesn’t get around to it, then NGO funding doesn’t get checked at all.

The same could be said for women’s issues. At a Portfolio Committee level there is the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency. This committee is tasked with oversight over the Department of Women in the Presidency, which to date has not clarified what it is that they will actually be doing. Their website still speaks to issues of children and disability, hangovers from the previous department. They don’t know what their budgetary allocation will be for this year. Even when they are called before the Committee, they can’t answer. So the work of that Committee is focussed on clarifying the role and responsibilities of the Department of Women in the Presidency, and on hearing from the Commission for Gender Equality. What happens then when women on the ground, the 27 plus million women in South Africa, are not receiving services appropriate to their needs?

The task of looking at what is happening at the provincial level would fall to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yes, you read that right. This Committee, like the previous one mentioned, is tasked with being an oversight giant. Issues that fall under the mandate of this committee include cooperative governance, traditional affairs, public services and administration, youth, women, and intergovernmental relations. You’ll notice that local government falls in there – which means that every time there is a municipality in crisis it is this committee that must respond. What does that mean for the rights of women? When will those be considered to be in crisis?

The new configuration of committees in the National Council of Provinces has severely hindered the ability of Parliament to support and further women’s rights, or to consider the needs of the numerous NGOs that fund them. The revised structure makes it impossible to adequately fulfil its task as the institution guarding democracy. We should all be very concerned.

Helen Johnston