Insult is often added to injury in rape and domestic violence cases, says Carmel Rickard.
We’re about to start the month in which South Africa observes a public holiday to honour women. But a crop of recent judgments illustrates how “honour” is often far from women’s experience.
The reality reflected in these judgments ranges from patronising to chillingly dangerous – with the position of girls worse than you might expect.
At one end of the scale is a judgment in which an attorney cross-examined a female police constable about why she had arrested his client.
Judge Judith Roberson noted, at the end of her decision, that the attorney had several times addressed the police officer as “My dear”, and added, “In my view this was an inappropriate and disrespectful way to address her, especially in the context of court proceedings, and should not have been allowed”.
Language can be far more dangerous than merely disrespectful, however.
The high court in Pretoria has been hearing an appeal in a case involving an 11-year-old girl.
Charges against the accused included two counts of rape, but though the court concluded she had been sexually abused over a period of time, the two counts involved in the trial were not conclusively proved.
The judge, who urged that further investigations be carried out to establish the perpetrator, said he was disturbed at how society had failed the child.
Not only were her family – including her mother – and her neighbours uncaring about her safety, but the courts also let her down. The magistrate who heard the trial had browbeaten her, and spoken in a rough and threatening way.
For example, in the course of an inquiry to establish if the child understood what was meant by taking an “oath” to tell the truth, the magistrate told her that if she told lies he would be “forced to punish her”.
So crude and insensitive was the magistrate that the judge commented on his “complete lack of appreciation” for the constitution under which a child’s best interests are paramount.
His abrasive words and behaviour could have contributed to the “incoherence” of the child’s evidence, said the judge.
The crop of judgments also produced several in which domestic violence was a problem.
In one, a woman gave evidence in favour of her boyfriend, accused of murdering a man who entered the property, apparently to steal scrap metal.
The accused, who allegedly beat the would-be thief to death, said a mob had fatally assaulted the thief as he was known to have carried out other robberies.
The girlfriend gave evidence favouring the accused, but the court rejected her version since she was so obviously tailoring her testimony to help him.
The appeal judge agreed with the magistrate in this, and pointed out that the accused had no fewer than five convictions for violence against the girlfriend, her mother and her sister.
Of the domestic violence cases, however, the most alarming was that involving an attorney, Solomon Langa.
He brought a claim against the Minister of Police for his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence and his subsequent detention of a couple of hours.
He was then released after his wife withdrew her complaint.
What’s specially galling is that, instead of thanking his good fortune that he was not prosecuted and changing his ways, Langa claimed virtually R2.5 million in compensation for his arrest and detention.
In her initial statement to the police his wife said they had separated but that he visited her demanding money.
She said he told her if she didn’t give him half of her assets he would hire people “from outside the country” to kill her.
Langa conceded in his evidence that the allegations were serious and that if there was a threat against her life she was entitled to call in the police.
However, he said her allegations were unfounded.
But the woman, who said she wasn’t staying at home out of fear he would kill her, had kept the crude and threatening SMS messages he had sent her, and these were reproduced by the court during the judgment.
The police in turn said such threats were often carried out and that if you didn’t act you could regret it later if the woman was killed.
So, in this case at least, the police behaved well and the court didn’t buy Langa’s version, dismissing his claim and ordering him to pay costs.
That’s about the extent of what women have to be grateful for this month, however.
Roll on August…