Fears that amendments to existing sex crime legislation could lead to a rise in vigilantism
Rapists, child rapists and molesters are about to lose their anonymity. They might even lose their lives too – but it won’t help turn the tide on the tsunami of sexual violence affecting South Africa’s women and children.
That’s the view of a range of local experts following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement this week of the government’s intention to amend the existing sex crime legislation in the country.
The Bill to amend the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) will create a new offence of sexual intimidation, widen the ambit for the offence of incest and increase the duty on people to report their suspicions when they suspect a child has been sexually assaulted.
Most importantly, the National Register for Sex Offenders will also be expanded to include the particulars of all sex offenders – and made public.
Until now, the Register has only applied to sex offenders convicted of sex crimes perpetrated against children or persons with mental disabilities. If the amendment is passed, an offender will have to disclose that they are on the Register whenever they apply to work with persons who are vulnerable.
Women and child rights activists applauded the President this week, but they warned making the register public would not deter sexual offenders. But it probably would encourage mob justice and vigilantism because of the systemic and ongoing failure of the justice system to quickly and efficiently prosecute, convict and jail criminals.
Luke Lamprecht, Child Protection and Development Specialist and advocacy manager at Women & Men Against Child Abuse, said making the register public would allow parents to vet the people who work with their children, an important development in a country where many sex offenders have gone on to prey on children all over again with devastating consequences.
“But the argument against it is that people could take it upon themselves to take the offender out. Historically that's how we work. When people don’t get justice, they take justice into their own hands. Our system is so deeply flawed there is certainly that risk. The thinking around this is correct. The implementation will be a totally different thing. It's a worry.”
Gender activist and researcher Lisa Vetten said making the register public would satisfy those wanting to see sex offenders publicly shamed after serving their sentences, but it was unlikely to make people feel safer knowing whose names are on that list.
“A minority of men arrested for rape - approximately 30% - have previous convictions - but only 5% of all men arrested have previous convictions for rape. We ought to be paying much more attention to those who have been convicted of murder, housebreaking and robbery - but they will never be on a sex offenders register.”
Vetten said Megan's Law, which was implemented in the mid-1990s in the US to make sex offenders' details public, was found to have had no impact whatsoever in reducing sex crimes when it was evaluated 10 years’ later.
“The researchers concluded that the cost of making names public far outweighed the negligible benefits of public notification and that the money spent on this measure would be better spent on other things. I strongly suspect we will be drawing exactly the same conclusions in South Africa in a few years’ time,” said Vetten.
Shaheda Omar, Director at the Teddy Bear Clinic, called the decision to make the register public a “Band-Aid”.
“The research shows this will not deter sex offenders from reoffending. I applaud the president for trying to do the right thing, but is this the right thing? We’re treating a symptom. This huge problem must be unpacked at its root levels.”
South Africa currently had two registers, she said: The Sex Offenders Register and the Child Protection Register, both administered by the Department of Social Development, neither of which was even functioning properly.
“We can't use Covid as an excuse for why we have been hampered in our efforts to curb sexual violence. It is a long-standing problem. We know the register is inadequate. There are convicted people we know are not even on that register.
“Then there is the Child Protection Register. There are extensive budgets and resources allocated to those registers. We need to work out why we have two registers and how they can function and be in sync,” Omar said.
Dr Joan van Niekerk, Child Rights and Protection Consultant, said the public register could be high risk because of the rate of vigilantism in South African, but in practice it would be relatively useless.
“The message needs to go out that the best way of keeping your child safe is parental vigilance. Young children should always be under a responsible adult eye – physically. Older children need to be aware of general safety messages of which sexual safety is one.”
She said the register would be “relatively useless in practice”. “Only a miniscule percentage of offenders are placed on the register – if 1 in 9 victims report and on that figure alone there is a 6% conviction rate then the percentage is substantially less than 1%.
“Furthermore, with high levels of corruption, one can possibly buy a new identity – use a pseudonym, etc when one moves. Not only are the registers poorly managed, few offenders comply with sending new addresses to the Registrar,” she said.