Like most girls, Micheline Abrahams* goes to school every day. Unlike most girls, Micheline attends school with three of the boys accused of raping her younger brother.
In November last year, Angelo* was one of four boys aged 10 to 12 at a Western Cape farm school who were raped by four teenagers aged 14 to 16. Three of the alleged perpetrators attend the same high school as Micheline.
Micheline’s mother, Dawn*, says her daughter is threatened almost daily, in particular by one of the accused.
“Hy dreig nou my meisiekind [He is now threatening my daughter],” she says. “Hy sal vir haar sê, ‘Ek gaan jou drol terug naai, net soos ek met jou broertjie gemaak het’. Al sulke goed sê hy. Nou hoe moet jy staande bly? Hoe moet jy kop bo water hou? Wat doen ek in so ’n geval? [He’ll say to her, ‘I’m going to fuck the shit back up your ass like I did with your brother.’ Such things he would say to her. Now, how am I supposed to remain standing? How am I supposed to keep head above water? What do I do?]”
Naomi Betana is a paralegal at the Witzenberg Rural Development Centre (WRDC), which has been assisting the families of the four rape survivors. Betana says, not only are the alleged perpetrators still attending the same schools as some of the victims, but that victims and their families have also received little in the way of counselling.
But a statement issued by the Western Cape MEC for education’s spokesperson, Jessica Shelver stated that victims were visited bi-weekly by a provincial education department social worker and that the alleged perpetrators had been suspended.
Frustrated with what they saw as the department’s lack of honesty in its response, Betana, Dawn and her husband Pieter*, farmworkers from the area and WRDC representatives “gatecrashed” the department’s Cape Town offices on February 19.
“We wanted to find out from them where this counselling is they are talking about. Waar is dit? We also wanted to tell them that those boys [the alleged perpetrators] are still attending schools in the area,” says Betana, adding that community members were frustrated initially by the department being “too slow to respond” after being informed about the group rape.
Shelver says the department has provided “biweekly services … since the incident”.
But Betana says these services were only provided after the group visited the department’s offices.
“If we didn’t put pressure on them, then everything would have died a slow death. We went to those offices that day to ask why is it that nobody from the department has come to the farm or to the school. Nobody has come to speak to the children to see what is really happening. There was no response from the department.”
According to Betana, a department representative assured the group that the four perpetrators had been suspended. But “the issue cannot be suspension. Because waarentoe gaan daardie seuns? Daardie seuns kry ook nie eens hulp nie [Because where do those boys go? Those boys are not receiving any help either].
“The department should have an integrated plan for rehabilitation, for support, for counselling.”
Betana says that “nobody is coming here to Witzenberg to talk with parents. Four children have been raped. It’s not a child that has stolen a pen. Or a child that doesn’t do his homework. They have been raped.”
Shelver says that, because the matter is a criminal case, “in terms of protocol, the department of social development social workers are the ones to provide support to the learners and the families outside of school”.
On Monday, a press briefing was held in Johannesburg by Women and Men Against Child Abuse to highlight “the multiple systemic flaws in reporting child abuse in schools”.
According to the organisation’s Luke Lamprecht, central to the systemic flaws in reporting child abuse in schools is that the department of education does not have “a coherent child protection policy”.
“We have approached the department over many years [about this]. But I can’t get a coherent child protection policy out of them,” he says.
The department’s inaction is “like Rome is burning and you’ve got someone fiddling on the roof making press statements. No follow-up afterward, etcetera, etcetera.
“So, because we know that child abuse [by] people outside the schools, educators and learners is of epidemic proportions, how has there not been a coherent, consolidated response to this?”
Betana says that, after the four boys were raped, she approached the department.
“What we wanted to know was what happens when a child comes to the teacher and says, ‘I am being molested’. It doesn’t matter by who. Just tell us what the process is. Maar dis asof dis iets wat hulle nie weet nie [But it’s as though this is something they do not know].”
The department’s spokesperson, Elijah Mhlanga, says that child protection is “not a function of a single department. The bulk of the work rests with the department of social development.
“It is actually a fallacy that children protection should focus on abuse only. As a government we cast the net much wider when we consider the job we need to do to protect children.”
For now, the parents of the four boys have to contend with the alleged perpetrators attending the same schools as their children — a concern that weighs heavily on them.
Says Dawn: “Ek, as ouer, se hande is afgekap. Maak net dinge ’n bietjie makliker. Doen dan net iets om die lewe van almal ’n bietjie makliker te maak. Want hoe gaan ek aan elke dag terwyl ek weet my kind word gedreig waar sy is? Hoe kyk ek elke dag die lewe in die oë? [As a parent, my hands are tied. Make things a bit easier. Do something to make life a little easier for everyone. Because how do I carry on every day knowing my daughter is being threatened where she is? How do I look life in the eye every day?]”
*Names have been changed to protect their identity.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian