Damning report on handling of rape investigations

A DAMNING report on the South African criminal justice system’s handling of rape cases and investigations could be a wake-up call for government when it’s presented to multiple state departments this week.

And the authors of the report and other experts have said the announcement of a decrease in rape dockets countrywide this week at the annual SAPS Crime Statistics briefing is nothing to celebrate.

The Centre for Applied Legal Studies this week released Rape Justice in South Africa, a three-year study of 3 952 rape cases from across the country.

Its findings were yet another confirmation of the plight of rape survivors, including the secondary trauma they experience at the hands of police and the court system.

Some of the shocking findings include:

  • In 50% of cases the identity of the victim was not recorded, in 20% the phone number was not taken by police. In 63% of cases, the police did not take a secondary contact number for a relative or friend.
  • In 50% of cases, a perpetrator’s name was provided to the police but only 57% of the cases saw arrests.
  • Of the 3 952 cases examined, only 1 362 were enrolled for trial, with only 731 (18.5%) making it to trial, and 8.6% (340 cases) finalised with a guilty verdict.
  • In Gauteng, 6.5% of cases were concluded with a verdict of guilt of a sexual offence.
  • In KwaZulu-Natal, police visit the scene of the crime in a rape case just 42% of the time. And only in 6.4% of the cases was DNA evidence collected.
  • In 17% of incidents involving victims older than 12 years of age, no first report witness statement was taken. In only half the cases where another witness was present or nearby when the rape occurred, did the police take all the other witness statements.

The report has made more than 30 recommendations for numerous departments, including Social Development, Justice, Health, Police and the National Prosecuting Authority, which will be tabled with their respective representatives at a conference on Monday at Emperor’s Palace. Among them:

  • Social development has been asked to focus on developing mechanisms to identify disabled children exposed to sexual violence.
  • Campaigns should be launched to increase reporting of rape cases to the police in specific provinces, particularly KZN, considering that only one in 25 cases are usually reported countrywide.
    • Investigating officers should be appropriately resourced to investigate cases, and urgent attention paid to the availability of vehicles and other resources and management interventions to improve policing.
  • Efforts should be enhanced to improve the quality and timeousness of investigations, including stronger supervision.• Police performance targets should include the quality and completeness of rape investigations and within a stipulated time after the case is reported.
  • All detectives working on rape cases must be thoroughly trained to deal with them, including those with special needs victims, with empathy and to reduce secondary victimisation.
  • Continued training of medical examiners should be provided to ensure all examiners conduct thorough examinations, appropriately fill in the J88 forms and improve documentation of injuries, as well as the medical management of the survivor.
  • Performance targets for prosecutors should take into account the nature of rape cases and include attainable quality measures, as well as case numbers.
  • Case closure by prosecutors should be monitored to identify and reduce the impact of target-chasing on premature closure of cases.
  • Multi-sectoral audit processes should be established in courts to review decisions not to prosecute cases and focus especially on non-evidentiary aspects of such decisions.
  • Cases identified as having insufficient investigation should be sent back for this to be completed and reasons for failure to do this should be provided and monitored.


One of the authors of the report, attorney Sheena Swemmer, said this week’s crime statistics showing a 4.31% decline is far from good news. “I don’t think we should be celebrating,” she said. The numbers should be increasing, and the decline was probably due to a lack of reporting cases to the police due to a lack of trust.

In many of the intimate partner or child rapes, victims faced pressure from their families and communities to not open cases, she said, while the 8.6% conviction for rape also prompted survivors to reconsider if they are willing to go through harrowing police contact and lengthy rape trials.

Swemmer believes the court system also needs to focus on complainants being re presented in trials, as prosecutors are often more interested in a conviction against the perpetrator rather than the well-being of the victim.

For example, when a defence advocate takes into account the sexual history of the victim, more prosecutors need to object to this, which Swemmer said doesn’t happen often enough.

Magistrates and judges also need significant training to ensure they also don’t rely on gender or sexual stereotyping in their rulings.

The Institute for Security Studies’ Gareth Newham said if rape statistics increase, it’s a sign that communities are more trusting of their police force.

He said the best way for police to improve reporting would be to specifically advertise a station’s resources in dealing with rape survivors, citing that victims will be handled with empathy and privacy.

By Shain Germaner – shain.germaner@inl.co.za