File picture: Pixabay

November 26 marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence. It is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Police officers in Cape Town did not receive this memo. 

Only two hours into this landmark day, I was out with my teammates celebrating our success in the 202km Coronation Double Century Cycle Race. An altercation inside a bar had erupted, but having seen blue lights patrolling the area, I felt certain that police would intervene in what was at that point an argument between two men. 

However, despite the best efforts of my teammates to de-escalate the situation, I had the contents of a bottle thrown in my face. “I’m not fighting with you,” I said. My hair was pulled. I ignored it. 

An officer (name withheld) shouted from a distance. I walked away. I felt a blow strike the side of my head and heard the shattered glass fall around my feet. The officer asked if I was okay as blood ran down my face. 

My teammates were understandably angry, but I reassured them that the police would intervene. However, the officer and his colleagues were unmoved. Confused by their inertia, I asked why they weren’t doing anything despite being eye-witnesses. The officer told me not to make him the guilty one. 

When I asked him to detain the woman who assaulted me and take us to the police station to open a case, a more senior woman officer (name withheld) approached me and asked, “Are you sure you want to open a case? Do you know her? Have you been drinking?” It was unclear to me how my two beers were relevant to the assault she’d witnessed. 

Despite the perpetrator proudly admitting to the assault, the police woman’s attempts to dissuade me continued at the police station. She asked me again if I had been drinking, explaining she couldn’t open a case unless I was of sound mind. She suggested I sleep on it and come back in the morning. I explained that I was travelling home to Durban in the morning and suggested she breathalyse me to determine if I was intoxicated. 

Upon hearing I wasn’t a Cape Town resident, she suggested I open a case in Durban. My voice began to shake and I felt tears of frustration sting my eyes, as the machinery of state ground me down. I dug deep and insisted. Finally she led me to her manager, a captain (name withheld) and explained the situation. He barely looked up from his cellphone, muttering that it would be hard to make a case if I’d been drinking. 

At this point, years of activism overrode my shell-shocked state as my frustration hardened to quiet rage. I clarified who I was, explained what my rights were, defined assault for them and reminded them of their duty to enforce the law. 

Why was I, the victim of an assault witnessed by two police officers, begging to have my rights upheld when the perpetrator admitted guilt? Eager to get back to his phone, the captain told the woman officer to open a case. 

I can’t help wonder how many rape survivors have been forced to beg for their rights in this police station? How many hate crimes victims were met with this same indifference? How many survivors just give up because they don’t know the relevant Acts or can’t quote the section of the Constitution that guarantees their rights? 

The response from police was brutal. It left me feeling like my assault was not worth their time. 

I work with communities. My job is to challenge injustice and promote the agency of young women and girls – and I realised just how much work still needs to be done. 

* Charlene Donald works for the AIDS Foundation of South Africa.