The top brass of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been sitting on alarming reports of a possible serial rapist attacking women at one of its bases in the Western Cape.
The Mail & Guardian has learnt that a series of druggings and rapes of personnel at the South African Military Academy in Saldanha has occurred — and complaints have been met with inaction from officials all the way up to Defence Minister Nosviwe Mapisa-Nqakula’s office.
One of the complainants has since died, reportedly by suicide.
Instead, the chaplain at the base, Nicolene Herbst, was pressed to reveal the identity of one of the complainants last year and threatened with charges after she refused.
Herbst then filed a grievance against the commandant at the base, Brigadier General Gerald Pharo, alleging that he had intimidated and threatened her when she refused to name the victim.
An internal board of inquiry report into the fallout between Herbst and Pharo, issued last September, also recommended that the allegations be investigated, but this does not appear to have been done.
These revelations come as President Cyril Ramaphosa announced three new Bills would be introduced in Parliament to reflect the government’s tighter stance on gender-based violence. These are the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill, the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill and the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Bill.
Last year the M&G reported that as many as 41 incidents of rape and sexual assault had been reported within the defence force community in the 18 months leading up to its report. In some cases, successful prosecution yielded punishments as lenient as a R5 000 fine.
As the M&G reported last year, sexual abuse by troops on peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo occurred so often that the United Nations threatened to expel SANDF personnel.
The latest report prompted Mapisa-Nqakula to announce a three-person task team to review all cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving members of the armed forces.
But it is not clear whether the particular case of the military academy rapist has even been referred to the task team, which is being led by the former commissioner for gender equality, Thoko Mpumlwana.
Mpumlwana said her task team was not in a position to comment on cases as it had not yet submitted its review report to Mapisa-Nqakula.
Although he said the defence force viewed the allegations in a serious light, SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini did not provide reasons for the delay in investigations.
“A report of the work of the task team has since been compiled with recommendations to the minister on what to do with the present allegation and cases. The report is in the process of being completed and the minister will apply her mind on the way forward.”
In her official grievance, Herbst said on March 27 last year a student reported that another student might be drugging and raping others.
This was after she lost consciousness during drinks with other students after only two drinks and woke up in a pool of vomit in an unknown room, disorientated and with a severe headache.
“The victim presented with cuts and bruises to her body indicating that some form of violence was perpetrated against her when she was in a state of vulnerability,” Herbst said in her complaint.
After reporting the incident to Pharo and requesting permission to involve the police, he told her that military police “should be involved as well”.
Pharo then questioned the student’s “morals” and “the veracity of the student’s report”, and asked for a report from Herbst on the incident.
After receiving an incident report from Herbst that omitted the complainant’s name, Pharo instructed her to give it to him, but Herbst refused, saying the victim wanted to remain anonymous.
The refusal, she said, was based on previous experience where sexual harassment complainants had been confronted by Pharo after she revealed their identities.
The impasse between the two allegedly saw Pharo deny Herbst leave to take care of her mother, who had suffered a stroke. Pharo also sought to have Herbst removed as chaplain, prompting her to file the grievance.
She followed up with another complaint, last July, saying she was being intimidated due to her grievance.
In her submission, Herbst said: “Experience with the commandant has shown that where I do provide him with the identity of complainants and other parties involved in matters such as sexual harassment, for example, those members are called in and informed that the chaplain has said that he/she is harassing students.”
“Where victim’s names are provided, they are discredited and shamed,” she said. “As a consequence, I believe it is my duty to protect the victims and retain the integrity of my office. Where confidentiality of my office is betrayed, members will no longer be able to make use of the chaplain’s services.”
None of the allegations of sexual assaults or rapes, or the fact that there could be a serial rapist on the base, has been investigated.
Instead, last August the SANDF convened a board of inquiry to look into Herbst’s grievance, led by senior officers Brigadier General Sean Stratford and Colonel M Tanda.
The inquiry heard witness testimony from Herbst and Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Nel, a doctor at the base, who said they believed there might be a serial rapist on the loose as the incidents dated back to 2017.
Stratford’s report summarised Pharo’s point of view as being that Herbst was arrogant and questioned command’s decisions, disregarded channels of command, and withheld information. The grievance was simply an attempt to defend herself after she overplayed her hand.
In his report, Stratford found there was a breakdown in trust between the two, which made it impossible to address the matter in the interests of the victim. “Today the victim is with us no longer, and I feel it is fair to say the system failed her,” he said.
“There were far too many distractions, where the command group lost sight of the main issue [the alleged rape],” he added.
He also said it was understandable that the name was withheld from Pharo, but also said that Pharo’s feeling that he could not act without the name had merit. “This issue has the potential [to] reoccur. For this reason the commandant [is] to convene an internal investigation even if it is after the fact.”
It is not clear whether the internal investigation recommended by Stratford was done, and the SANDF said it could not comment as Herbst’s grievance against Pharo was now before the military ombud.
This office of the military ombud confirmed it was investigating Herbst’s complaint, saying it “relates to the chaplain’s alleged victimisation by General Pharo. The alleged victimisation is related to comments made by General Pharo to transfer the chaplain to Lohatla or Pretoria,” said a spokesperson.
However, neither Mapisa-Nqakula’s office nor the SANDF would comment on whether an investigation has been conducted into the claims that a serial rapist stalks the military academy in Saldanha.