A case against a suspected serial rapist exposes multiple system failures, including alleged police corruption.
More than five years after her alleged rape, Sandi Sithole accuses South Africa’s criminal justice system of failing her — and allowing her assailant to commit three other rapes.
Speaking calmly, Sithole (not her real name) claims she was raped in February 1999 by Christopher Hlengwa, whom she met while studying at Technikon Natal. She denies any previous sexual relationship.
Her account strongly resembles those of two other women interviewed by the Mail & Guardian who have laid rape charges against Hlengwa since 1999. A fourth alleged victim has also laid charges.
Five years later, Sithole is still waiting to give evidence, and says she has endured repeated contact from the suspect pressing her to withdraw the complaint.
The case exposes multiple system failures, including alleged police corruption. It also raises questions about laws allowing serious crime suspects to keep licensed weapons.
Sithole said that soon after she moved into a block of flats where Hlengwa also lived, a flatmate complained that an armed Hlengwa had tried to rape her. Sithole confronted Hlengwa, who denied this.
Persuaded to go to his flat, supposedly to meet Hlengwa’s sister who wanted to clear his name, she was allegedly locked in, held for about six hours, threatened with a gun, and raped. She jumped out of a window when Hlengwa fell asleep but was too terrified to leave her flat until the next morning, when a friend accompanied her to the police station.
“The policewoman was not really interested in what I had to say,” recalls Sithole, who said her statement was taken in a very rudimentary fashion. At about 4pm she was finally taken to the district surgeon.
Two days later, she was called back to the station with her parents to find that police had apparently facilitated a meeting with Hlengwa, who had been arrested. “He was crying and telling my father he loved me, did not mean to hurt me and he wanted to marry me.”
The investigating officer at Durban’s Central police station, Inspector Musa Msomi, gave her no warning when Hlengwa was released on bail and returned to her block of flats. “When he moved in I was forced to move out, as I couldn’t guarantee my safety and was terrified of bumping into him in the hallway or lift.”
A year passed, while she repeatedly phoned Msomi to ask about the investigation. Finally she confronted him and his superior, who claimed the docket had been misplaced.
Hlengwa was due to appear in court in June 2000, but he was apparently sick and the matter was postponed. A year later, the same thing happened. He appeared again in September 2002, but claimed he needed to brief a new attorney and again obtained a postponement.
Only after allegedly committing three more rapes was he re-arrested in 2003 by another officer.
Sithole claims she received a call from Hlengwa admitting he paid Inspector Msomi to delay the case. Another senior officer, who asked to remain nameless, told the M&G Hlengwa repeated this claim to her. As Hlengwa refused to make a statement, the matter could not be taken further.
Msomi denied the bribery allegation to the M&G, claiming Hlengwa absconded while out on bail in the first case and could not be traced.
In October last year Hlengwa was again called to court to answer charges arising from the consolidation of three rape cases. He was again granted a long postponement due to alleged ill-health and the matter was referred for trial on November 1 this year. Hlengwa was again granted bail, despite state opposition.
Police spokesperson Vishnu Naidoo told the M&G the four cases had now been consolidated and the bundled dockets had been sent to the current investigating officer.
On the allegations against the police, Naidoo said it was very difficult to investigate such claims unless the police received a formal complaint, which had not occurred in this case. He said police were committed to stamping out any abuse and to this end had established area anti-corruption units.
He said he was submitting a report to the provincial head of detective services, with a recommendation to review the dockets.
The repeated granting of bail to this accused — who had been arrested on four separate occasions and made bail each time — was frustrating and inexplicable, Naidoo said. He said that, in at least one case, the investigating officer had given evidence to the effect that the accused had been found hiding on an outside window ledge when police came looking for him and had provided false addresses. Nevertheless he had been granted bail.
A magistrate familiar with the case said guidelines on the refusal of bail were stringent and based on the presumption of innocence. Hlengwa had produced medical evidence to explain his previous failure to appear and had plausible explanations for frequent changes of address.
“I broke down when the case was postponed again; I’ve lost hope in the system,” Sithole said. “He’s arrested for a second time and then just let out again. There’s no guarantee we or other women are safe.”
Judi Mandla (not her real name) alleges Hlengwa raped her in 2002, after they met at the technikon gym. She says she reported the rape after being rescued by police while trying to escape from his flat.
After arranging to go clubbing, the two spent the afternoon together and finished up alone in his flat. “I told him I wanted to sleep and didn’t want sex, but he said he owned me and I am his girlfriend.” Hlengwa fell asleep after the rape, she said. “I am still angry with myself that I did not scream and fight.”
Two years later she is still waiting to appear in court. “I was questioned by an investigating officer [at Durban’s South Beach police station] who implied I was lying because I went to the flat. I felt he was on Chris’s side.”
She heard nothing from the investigating officer until she was summonsed to appear in court this year. “I went to court but nothing happened.”
Mandla said Hlengwa was suspended from the technikon for sexual harassment. However, she heard he had allegedly raped another student in April the same year. “I don’t think the police are doing their job — my case was still on when the other girl was raped.”
Patience Dlamini (also a pseudonym) claimed Hlengwa entered her room in the technikon residence and raped her, also after befriending her at the gym. “He told me he loves me and if I scream he will beat me.”
She reported the incident at the Berea police station and police arrested him at work, she said. “Chris kept calling me, begging me to drop the charges,” said Dlamini.
Then she was called by a sergeant who said Hlengwa was out on bail. “I asked him why, when they knew he raped me, but he said he didn’t know.”
For two years Dlamini had no contact with the investigating officers. “I think he bribed the police. The police betrayed me; they tell Chris what I’m saying.”
Dlamini said she was told Hlengwa would appear in court this year, but had heard nothing from investigating officers.
Police inefficiency or case overload?
The huge number of dockets with a police officer at any particular time and the pressure to dose dockets often result in what gets termed police inefficiency, say researchers Gareth Newham and Ted Leggett. Because detectives each have up to 17 cases at a time, they decide which have a greater chance of success and pursue those, says Newham, who is attached to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).
Leggett, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says while cases of laziness or incompetence cannot be discounted, the facts of each case should be looked into before jumping to conclusions about inefficiency. “There are not enough trained detectives, and they are not evenly distributed, so in some places case loads are staggering,” says Leggett.
But Lisa Vetten, gender coordinator at the CSVR, says the case overload theory “is at best part of the story”. She says what complicates things for rape complainants is that male and female police have developed a “prioritizing and filtering system”, such as looking into how a woman was dressed at the time of the alleged rape and her acquaintance with the perpetrator, to determine whether a complainant is lying.
The Independent Complaints Directorate says incidents of neglect of duty and failure to perform duties range from “pure ineptitude … to disregard of police procedures”. – Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya