Catching rapists can also prevent other offences
Usually, we are more focused on criticising police officers for disbelieving women and teenage girls who allege rape by men known to them. But the police's sceptical, foot-dragging attitude towards this particular category of rape complaints does not imply a get up and go, go, go approach to stranger rape either.
Two studies make this painfully clear. One study tracked a random, representative sample of 2068 rapes reported at 70 Gauteng police stations in 2003, and the other followed all 252 rapes reported and closed between 2005 and 2007 at a rural police station in Mpumalanga that we will call Lefaufaung.
Although the first study is generalised the second is not, being a case study of one station.
Nevertheless, the usefulness of case studies lies in the fine print they reveal.
Strangers were responsible for 39% of the rapes reported in Gauteng and 52% of those reported in Lefaufaung. These proportions were even higher in relation to adults specifically, with 48% and 59% of women in the studies attacked by strangers in Gauteng and Lefaufaung respectively.
But with only one-third of stranger rapists arrested in Lefaufaung and just less than half in Gauteng, most of these rapes never got beyond being reported.
Rapes by known assailants do come with two obvious time- and labour-saving advantages: a name and, almost as often, an address.
Finding strangers, on the other hand, requires considerably more investigative effort on detectives' part, such as compiling identikits and descriptions (assuming the victims got a good look at the assailants' faces), circulating these to informants, community members and the media, organising raids, going to the scene of the crime and collecting fingerprints and other evidence, running fingerprint checks and tracing the geographic location of cellphone calls, among other things. This is effort that the time- and resource-poor police members cannot afford and the lazy cannot imagine, let alone implement.
Detectives also have their investigations hampered from the outset by the abysmal statement-taking skills of their colleagues in the client service centres. One in four Gauteng victims' statements included a description of the perpetrators, whereas only one in 10 Lefaufaung statements contained descriptions. Lefaufaung detectives visited only about one in 10 crime scenes and took fingerprints in just two cases.
But inattention to stranger rape is a self-defeating strategy on the police's part.
First, a number of rapes in both areas were accompanied by robbery, housebreaking and the use of illegal firearms, which, with hijacking, is at the apex of South Africa's crime hierarchy. In both studies robbery, rape, hijacking and assault also featured prominently in the criminal resumés of men with previous convictions.
Guns were used in 27% of rapes in Lefaufaung, but only in 15% of rapes in Gauteng, the ostensible gangster's paradise. This seeming paradox is perhaps explained by the fact that Lefaufaung is on one of the main routes used to smuggle firearms between Mozambique and South Africa, which then flow from Mpumalanga into Gauteng.
But that is not all, as Lefaufaung illustrates.
Between 2005 and 2007 at least 13 men in the area were arrested for 37 of the rapes reported during that period. Seven men committed at least two rapes and an eighth as many as six. One individual may have been responsible for at least 11. In addition to being arrested for five separate rapes committed during the study period, court records linked him to six others reported between 2001 and 2004.
Astonishingly, these men were almost always granted bail after each arrest. Even worse, not one stood trial. Indeed, the repeated appearance of these men on separate, unrelated rape charges resulted in nothing more than the withdrawal of these charges.
Thus there is a distinct subset of stranger rapists for whom rape is but one part of a more extensive repertoire of criminal behaviours. Another rapes on a serial basis and sometimes these two groups overlap.
All rapes must be investigated effectively. In the case of stranger rape, this means taking a metaphorical whip to the sluggish and providing additional human and material support to the overworked. This will do far more to prevent rape and the other serious, violent crimes to which it is sometimes linked than any number of fine speeches and grand events.
Lisa Vetten is an independent researcher specialising in violence against women. She was the principal investigator in both the studies referenced, which were undertaken while working for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre