CONFIRMATION this week that 75 year old former South African tennis star Bob Hewitt must serve time in prison for rape and sexual assault was hailed as a victory for the women involved. Their courage in speaking about events of many years ago, when they were young girls being coached by their hero, helped ensure his conviction and sentence.
But the Hewitt case also helps highlight South Africa’s continuing shame: the almost unbelievable number of rape cases heard by our courts, most of them never mentioned in the media. And if you think about it, all those trials must inevitably point to an equally unbelievable number of cases never reported or brought to court.
By way of illustration take one ordinary week in an ordinary provincial division of the high court of South Africa.
In just the first week of this month the high court in Grahamstown delivered sentence in a rape case where a 50 year old man attacked and raped his own 62 year old mother. Given the age at which she bore her son, she must have been raped as a child as well. In an appeal heard that same week in Grahamstown three judges dealt with a case in which a young man raped his 10 year old half-sister on her birthday, and then murdered their mother. And in another appeal two judges of the same bench considered the correct sentence for a man with a long list of convictions including prior rape, who raped his cousin more than once, causing her to try to kill herself afterwards.
You could take your pick across all the provincial high courts in that same period and come up with an equally horrifying list of rape cases. For example, a provincial appeal court in Mafikeng dealt with a case involving a girl, 10 years old at the time she was raped by her stepfather in 2007 and sexually assaulted in 2009, who only reported these attacks in 2010. She said the first attack came on a night when it was storming and, a 10 year old, afraid of the thunder and lightning, she went through to the bedroom where her mother and step-father slept. Her mother made a little bed on the floor next to her so she could sleep near her parents but after the mother went back to sleep the step-father raped the child.
It always takes courage to report rape but when a father-figure is involved as here, it may take many years before the survivor has the strength to speak out. The Hewitt case, as it turns out, is not an isolated matter when it comes to delayed action against an alleged rapist who is a father figure.
Free State judges finalised at least five rape trials or appeals in May, including one in which an 11 year old was raped by her 58 year old grandfather, another involving the rape of a 12 year old and a third in which a young man raped his own mentally disabled sister, later pleading not guilty on the grounds that she had consented. In the fourth case the rapist violently assaulted the woman, kicking her face with his booted foot, before raping her. Not only that. He had three relevant previous convictions for rape or attempted rape. And in the fifth case the rapist impersonated a police officer to rape a woman collecting firewood in the veld along the banks of the Orange River.
Terrible though all these cases are, few can be more poignant than the case of the child attacked on her tenth birthday. All the way home from school she would have been looking forward to a special party. She and her younger sister and her mother and father ate cake and watched television together, and at some stage her half-brother arrived to wish her happy birthday and join in the celebrations.
During the night when she went to the toilet she saw her half-brother, who did not live with the rest of the family, in the sitting room with a bottle and a knife. But not understanding that this could mean anything sinister, she went back to sleep in her bedroom. Next thing she woke up on the floor with him on top, raping her, causing injuries that the doctor would later tell the court were “of a very serious nature” and would have caused “extreme pain”. Afterwards the girl woke her younger sister and tried to go to her mother, but her brother stopped them and sent them back to their bedroom. He taped their mouths closed and tied their hands behind them with school uniform belts before locking the door and leaving the house.
Eventually the children managed to open the bedroom door and, with their hands still tied and their mouths taped, they got to their mother’s room where they found her lying on a bed full of blood. Getting no response from their mother they eventually opened the front door and ran to their neighbour who later told the court they were crying and in shock.
Of course it’s not just South Africa suffering the torment of rape. Finalisation of Hewitt’s case by the Supreme Court of Appeal was one of several rape cases making international headlines in the last week alone. In India five of the nine men who gang-raped a lost Danish tourist were sentenced to life imprisonment. In the United States a student at Stanford University who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman was found guilty by a jury of offences that could have led to six years in jail. Instead he was given just six months of which he will probably serve three, sparking an outcry over alleged special treatment because of his status as a swimming star.
But these are far from the usual horrors that daily fill the South African courts. The woman raped by the Stanford student wrote a long letter she read out to him in court: “You took away my worth,” she said. But she has a supportive family and access to professional help as she struggles to regain a sense of worth. Not many in South Africa could say the same.
As a journalist I am troubled over how to deal with the issue of rape in South Africa, given the limited tolerance of readers for terrible stories. This week, as I read the judgments in all these cases, I was struck by how many convicted rapists, just like the Stanford swimming star, are unable to take responsibility for what they have done. And I just can’t shake off a picture of that destitute and solitary woman, collecting firewood in the deep platteland along the banks of the Orange River, raped by a man in a police uniform. Is there anyone, anywhere, who cares about her sense of worth?
This was first published in Legalbriefs, 15 June 2016