Victims raped by the system

Being raped is just the beginning of the ordeal for thousands of South African women, writes Angella Johnson

IT was a bitterly cold evening when Gladys Masai wrapped up in her winter coat and set off to visit her aunt in Brits. The journey from Pretoria should have taken about an hour and she was armed with a portion of fried chicken and chips to make the journey more palatable. She never reached her destination.

Instead the 50-year-old domestic worker was abducted at knife-point from her taxi and subjected to a brutal gang rape in a remote spot outside Pretoria.

According to People Against Women Abuse (Powa) a woman is raped every 35 seconds in South Africa — a recent Nedcor report claims the figure is every 18 seconds. Recent unsolved cases of serial femicide in Cape Town and Nasrec in Johannesburg are perhaps symbols of a society where crimes against women (particularly black women) are given less weight than other escalating violent crimes.

Many rapes go unreported (police believe fewer than one in 35 is reported) because of fear of secondary victimisation from insensitive responses from the police, medical officials and the judiciary.

Although the Ministry of Safety and Security has made provisions for more gender-sensitive training for police officers, there is a huge chasm between what is suppose to be done and what happens when someone like Masai reports a rape.

Her ordeal began in the last weekend of June when the mother of four adult children was abducted by five young black men after boarding the mini van from the taxi rank at Marabastad in downtown Pretoria at about 5pm.

“This man came up to me and said he knew a kombi which was going straight to where I asked for. There were two other male passengers inside, but I didn’t feel scared,” she said.

Masai was told that her fare would be R30 and she sat waiting with the two passengers and the driver. Soon two other men arrived with bags of shopping and the driver declared that he would wait no longer as he had other people to pick up on the way.

The group set off with her sitting at the back of the van. Within minutes the men opened up their shopping bags to reveal bottles and cans of alcohol. Masai grew concerned as they became increasingly coarse and rowdy. “They grabbed a box of fried chicken and chips that I had with me and ate it,” she said.

The taxi drove around for about two hours with an agitated Masai begging to be let out, before the vehicle stopped at a secluded spot and she was dragged out.

“Two of them held on to me — one with a knife — – and said they were going to have some fun. The driver said he would meet them later and drove off with the other two passengers, who had stolen R600 from my purse.”

A sobbing Masai was pushed into a veld near a river and raped repeatedly by the men, believed to be in their late 20s. Her ordeal lasted several hours.

“They told me not to move or scream or they would come back with others to rape me again and then kill me,” she said. “It was a freezing night but I was scared and didn’t move all night.”

It was only at about 8am that she felt courageous enough to drag herself to a nearby roadside service station and beg someone to call her employer.

But Masai’s ordeal was not yet over. Hereafter she was to experience the kind of apathy, lack of sympathy and generally tardy treatment meted out annually to thousands of women who are victims of rape.

First it was the manager of the petrol station who refused to make a call to either the police or her employer. Thankfully a customer offered to do so on his cellphone.

Her employer arrived soon afterward and when the police failed to materialise a couple of hours later, decided to take her to the HF Verwoerd hospital in Pretoria.

“Still the police did not come for a long time and I was not even examined by a doctor. It was as if no one but my boss cared,” complained Masai.

After several more calls two officers finally arrived at the hospital. Despite having been told it was a rape complaint they were men. So a female officer had to be found. Several hours later she arrived, but only spoke Afrikaans.There was a further delay for a female officer to be found who could speak Masai’s language. During the long wait Masai was was not examined by a doctor and therefore unable to wash.

All this took place despite the urging of her employer, a senior civil servant who kept pushing for better treatment. As Masai said: “Imagine what would have happened if I had been on my own.” They got home at 2am the following morning.

Sally Shackleton at Powa says this kind of treatment is sadly commonplace. “The system stinks to high heaven. Too often women are treated as if they had done something wrong.”

The situation is quite different in Port Elizabeth where the police have set up a special support centre with the help of local people to deal with rape victims. Its success can be measured by the fact that the number of reported cases rose from 28 in February to 103 in June.

Inspector Juanita Blom, one of the volunteers, said this did not necessarily mean that incidents of rape had increased in the area, but that women now feel confident that they will be dealt with efficiently and sympathetically.

The way the system works is that once a sexual offence has been reported at a police station in the Port Elizabeth area, the centre is notified and the complainant is taken there to make a statement. The information is fed into a computer which sends it back to the original station where an officer will begin investigating the case.

For the victim the centre offers a haven of support.

She is examined there by a district surgeon in a fully equipped medical room. Thereafter she is able to shower, her clothes taken as evidence and fresh clothing provided. An appointment is then made for her to have counselling with a social worker from the police service.

Plans are afoot to establish centres like this in major cities across the country. thanks to funding from the RDP and as part of the government’s Crime Prevention Strategy.

It will come too late to Masai, who believes she was raped twice — the second time by the system which was supposed to assist her.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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