A new study shows the dreadful reality of how the criminal justice system is failing victims of this ‘priority crime’ in SA.
A rape survivor in South Africa who summons up the courage to report the crime to the police has less than a one in 10 chance of seeing the perpetrator convicted. To be precise: in only 8.6% of such cases will there be a guilty verdict.
About half the time, a constable, the most junior rank in the police, who might not even have completed high school, will handle the case–without proper supervision. Although the investigating officer is required to visit the crime scene, because the evidence gathered there would significantly increase the odds of a conviction, he or she will do so in a mere 53.5% of cases.
In a third of alleged rape cases, the officer won’t take any witness statements.
And the more mentally stressed the officer is, the more likely he or she is to display attitudes that men and women aren’t equal, and that men are entitled to sex on demand.
There’s little evidence that circumstances have changed since then.
First nationally representative study
The study analysed about 4 000 rape cases opened at almost 200 police stations across the country and followed their progress (or lack thereof) through the criminal justice system. The research, which warns that the system is “highly inefficient” and requires” a major overhaul”, is the first nationally representative study in this regard from which generalisations can be drawn.
Last week, Police Minister Fikile Mbalula launched a six-point plan against gender-based violence that requires victims to be treated with “respect and dignity” and to “proactively [be] provided with feedback on the progress of their cases on a continuous basis”.
But the medical research council study found that, in 93% of cases, there was no indication on the police docket that the investigating officer had given the victim their contact details.
Bhekisisa contacted the minister, as well as the head of the South African Police Service’s family violence, child protection and sexual offence unit, Major General Tebello Mosikili, several times for comment this week. Neither of them responded.
South Africa doesn’t have national rape statistics, but studies in parts of the country show that between 28% and 37% of men admit to having raped a woman.
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The latest study revealed that 94.1% of victims in rape cases reported to the police in 2012 were female and 5% male. “About half of men who have raped do so more than once, so there’s an important preventative element in prosecuting men who have raped. But it clearly comes at a great cost to victims,” explains Rachel Jewkes, one of the study’s eight researchers.
Some of the cases reported to the police took two years to get to court and often the officers sent dockets to court without a suspect having been arrested or even identified, which ensured that it was impossible for cases to go to trial.
Jewkes says: “Rape is supposed to be a priority crime but when you look at the way in which it’s being investigated and the resources allocated, it’s really hard to see what the priority part of this is.
“Obviously, the lowest-ranked officers, who handle half of the cases, have the poorest access to resources. They’re the least able to command the power to go off and to do a witness statement or to get a car to visit a crime scene.”
On average, investigating officers in the study had to share a car with at least three other police members, despite the prescribed ratio of two detectives a vehicle. In some cases, between 20 and 28 officers were using the same car.
Researchers used statistical techniques to show that there is a direct link between vehicle access, work stress and officers “holding less equitable and sympathetic attitudes to rape victims”. Jewkes explains: “Stress [which increased significantly when there was low access to cars] makes officers feel they’re doing a bad job, that they’re not doing the right thing.
“That drives a self-developed narrative of misogynistic attitudes to try to make sense out of their situations against the background of not being given enough resources and the ability to set off and do a good job. It’s then easier to say: ‘It’s not worth being diligent and hardworking because women will only withdraw the charges, or women lie, or women deserve to be raped.’”
The medical research council study is not the first to come to such a conclusion. In 2015, a United Kingdom study, published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, found that stressed out police officers display more notions of sexual entitlement and are more likely to justify men’s use of violence against women as being “caused by the victim”.
Prosecutors choose targets over justice
When the medical research council’s results are compared with research on rape cases in Gauteng in 2003, it’s clear that, at least in this province, there has been no improvement between 2003 and 2012 in the proportion of cases in which there was an arrest.
In 2003, the arrest rate was 50.5% and in 2012, it was 50%.
“This failure to improve is not due to the system being flooded with cases, as it has been seen against a backdrop of a modest overall national decline in the numbers of matters reported to the police,” the researchers warn.
What has improved slightly is the conviction rate for rape. But the researchers caution that this was not “due to greater skill of prosecutors or better training of magistrates” but rather “to a more rigorous selection of cases to take to trial”.
Prosecutors admitted to the research council’s investigators that monthly targets for conviction rates, against which their performance is measured, make them less likely to take on complex cases, particularly rape cases of children and disabled people, which take longer to prosecute and are less likely to result in a conviction.
In 2012, prosecutors signed performance contracts in which they committed to achieving a 69% conviction rate in sexual offence cases and also to finalising 15 cases a month.
The targeted conviction rate for 2017-2018 is 67%, according to the justice department’s annual performance plan. One prosecutor with more than 15 years of experience said: “It’s not worth it; I won’t do rape cases anymore.”
Researchers maintain that this prosecutor’s attitude sums up a “pervasive sense among the specialist prosecutors that something fundamental about their work and its quality was being lost”.
Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery responded: “This is concerning and if it’s linked to the issue of targets being met, we need to consider that targets should not be the only measure used to evaluate a prosecutor’s performance. It’s something I’m taking up with the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority].”
The department will hold a national dialogue in October, during which the findings of the research council’s study will be discussed.
Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.