The Archbishop of Cape Town has welcomed a decision by South Africa’s Constitutional Court which will make it easier for victims of sexual violence to seek justice. A statute of limitation in South Africa prevented prosecutions for sexual offences other than rape, if the alleged offence occurred more than 20 years earlier. Today, the Constitutional Court struck down that law, saying it was inconsistent with the country’s constitution.
Giving judgment, the lead judge, Zondi AJ, said: “of pivotal importance to the case before us is this: that the systemic sexual exploitation of woman and children depends on secrecy, fear and shame. Too often, survivors are stifled by fear of their abusers and the possible responses from their communities if they disclose that they had been sexually assaulted. This is exacerbated by the fact that the sexual perpetrator . . . is in a position of authority and power over them. They are threatened and shamed into silence.
“These characteristics of sexual violence often make it feel and seem impossible for victims to report what happened to friends and loved ones – let alone state officials. Combined with this is the frequent impact of deeply-located self-blame, which . . . disables the victim from appreciating that a crime has been committed against her for which the perpetrator, and not she, is responsible.
“All these features of survival of sexual trauma make it rational to be reluctant to report and to avoid reporting. And this is before even considering the effect of rape trauma syndrome, the now recognised patterns of emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioural disturbances that approximately one in three survivors of sexual assault develop.
“Even if a survivor is fully aware that she was abused, she naturally weighs up the possibility of reprisals from the perpetrator together with the possible lack of support from the police and statistically small eventuality that reporting will actually, eventually, result in a conviction in a criminal court.”
The Constitutional Court gave Parliament 24 months to amend the relevant sections of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 2007.
The Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, welcomed the ruling and urged Parliament to act quickly to “remedy the injustice which has prevented survivors of abuse from pressing charges.”
He said: “I welcome in particular the Court’s recognition that survivors of sexual assault have often not reported offences at the time they were committed for fear of their abusers or concern over the possible responses from their communities.
“This new development in criminal law comes as our Church also takes action to make it easier for survivors of abuse to bring charges under church law.
“Church lawyers have recommended to me that we need to make it easier for complainants to access the process laid down under Canon Law and that we need to provide more support for them during the process.
“They are also reviewing how the Church can prevent sexual abuse and harassment and how it can initiate early intervention in such cases, including providing support services, a helpline and crisis and survivor support.”