Dear Fellow South African,
Late last year, I received a letter from a group of concerned citizens calling on the government to protect the women and children of this country from violence.
Pointing to an increase in rape and sexual assault, they wrote that as women they continue to live in fear; they are losing their faith in the law. I was deeply moved and touched by their account of the fear that the women of our country are subjected to on a daily basis.
In response to the suffering that women and children are subjected to we have passed laws designed to protect them. But despite penalties to remove perpetrators from society, women and children continue to suffer and die.
I called an emergency Joint Sitting of Parliament in September 2019, where I called on lawmakers to prioritise tightening existing laws and policies around gender-based violence.
I am pleased that despite the significant disruptions caused to the Parliamentary programme by the COVID-19 pandemic, our parliamentarians have passed laws that will strengthen existing provisions around gender-based violence.
Last week, I signed into law three pieces of legislation that honour our promises to strengthen the criminal justice system, promote accountability across the state and put support for survivors at the centre of all our efforts.
The new Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Act protects the vulnerable from secondary victimisation by allowing courts to appoint intermediaries through which a minor, a disabled person or an elderly person can be examined in proceedings.
It also allows for the extended use of evidence by means of an audio-visual link. This helps to shield a witness against harm, prevent unreasonable delays and save costs in proceedings.
At the Joint Sitting of Parliament, I said that the state should oppose bail for suspects charged with the rape and murder of women and children.
The new law significantly tightens up our bail regime.
A prosecutor who does not oppose bail in designated cases must have their reasons placed on record. The court must consider any threats of violence made against the complainant and the complainant’s view of their own safety.
Unless the court is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist that warrant release on bail, bail must be denied.
In the Joint Sitting of Parliament, I also said that we need to give greater protection to those who are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, particularly those living with disabilities.
The new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act outlaws sexual exploitation and grooming of persons with mental disabilities, and provides that sexual offences against persons who are mentally disabled must be recorded in the National Register of Sex Offenders (NRSO).
We have responded to calls to tighten up the management of the National Register of Sex Offenders.
Those who have been convicted of sex crimes against children or mentally disabled persons, have previous convictions in this respect, and have been sentenced to terms longer than 18 months can only apply to have their names removed from the register after 20 years.
The Act further regulates the reporting duty of people who are aware that sexual offences have been committed against vulnerable persons.
The new Domestic Violence Amendment Act takes account of some of the complexities in violent domestic relationships.
We have tightened up the process of obtaining protection orders, and broadened the circumstances under which they can be applied for. We have addressed the issue of women and children being victimised despite having, or being in process of applying for, a protection order.
If a court believes a complainant is in imminent danger it can issue a protection order immediately without needing to give a respondent notice of the proceedings.
Significantly, if the court releases someone charged with domestic violence on bail who does not have a protection order granted against them, the court must issue one after holding an enquiry. When the court issues a protection order it must at the same time authorise the issuing of an arrest warrant, suspended, that must be provided to the South African Police Service (SAPS).
If a SAPS member suspects a complainant is in danger due to breach of the order, they must arrest the respondent immediately.
The Act now expressly protects the elderly from all forms of domestic violence, and also permits complainants to apply for protection orders online, saving them time and travel costs. To protect complainants against further abuse, the court may an issue a Safety Monitoring Notice that will require a member of SAPS to be in constant contact with the complainant without the knowledge of the abuser.
I have repeatedly said that we should not allow survivors of gender-based violence to be further traumatised by the legal system.
Survivors of gender-based violence often complain of ill-treatment or disregard for their concerns when they lay complaints at police stations. SAPS members who fail to comply with their obligations under the new law will be guilty of misconduct.
All adult persons who have knowledge or suspicion that domestic violence is being perpetrated against a child, a person with a mental disability or an elderly person are obliged to report such acts to a social worker or to the police. Failure to do so is a criminal offence.
This puts into law the principle that violence against women and children is everyone’s responsibility.
When a woman or child is beaten, hurt, raped, assaulted or killed, it is a shame on us all. It is even worse if we knew it was taking place and could have prevented it.
We must educate those suffering in silence about their rights and how to exercise them. Let us use these law laws to empower and protect women and children and ensure that those responsible are held accountable.
Three years ago, in March 2019, I officially opened the new Sexual Offences Court in Booysens, Johannesburg.
I remember sitting in the court benches I was opening, thinking just how intimidating and traumatic it must be for a survivor of rape, sexual assault or domestic violence to navigate the court system. I thought about how much worse this must be if the complainant is a child, has a disability or has endured abuse over a prolonged period, and if the perpetrator is someone close to them.
Leaving an abusive relationship is never easy. But as the government, we have promised to provide the legal protection and support an abused person needs for themselves, their children and those close to them.
The passage of these new laws is a step in this direction. But it is not the solution. We must prevent violence and abuse from happening in the first place.
Working together as a society, we must use our voice, our agency and our reserves of courage to forever end the violence perpetrated by men against women and children.
With best regards