THIS week’s welcome ruling by Johannesburg high court judge Claire Hartford in the sexual abuse case against Sidney Frankel, in which she removed the “expiration date” of 20 years for laying criminal charges for sexual offences, is a step forward in dealing with the scourge of children and women abuse. Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Frankel was accused by eight alleged victims of abusing them as children at a Jewish orphanage. He died in March this year, but the case continues against his estate.
People working in the field are delighted at the judge’s ruling. The director of the organisation Women and Men against Abuse, Miranda Jordan-Friedmann‚ thanked the eight people who had lodged the case against Frankel for their courage and for exposing their most “intimate secrets” publicly.
It begs the question of how many other “Sidney Frankels” are at large. Sadly, this case hasn’t provoked the vigorous community-wide response and outrage it ought to have done. And regularly, there are rumours about similar kinds of incidents which get summarily quashed in a culture of silence and complicity.
South Africa is a sick society, known as the world’s rape capital. Researchers estimate that a woman born in this country has a greater chance of being raped than learning how to read. A 1996 survey of reported rape cases in 120 Interpol-member countries ranked South Africa as the worst, with 119,5 cases per 100 000 population, compared to the United States’ 36,1 and England’s 8,8. Other sources showed 40 per cent of reported rapes were children under age 18. Current surveys show similar stats.
The trauma of rape goes further, into what happens afterwards. When they report a rape, women victims are often told that they provoked the man by dressing “provocatively” or are to blame because they “led him on”. At South African police stations they often have difficulty even laying charges or opening a docket.
Policemen are generally not properly trained to deal with rape victims, or are sometimes outright hostile towards a woman who has been raped, subjecting her to mocking and intimate questions. Organisations like the Union of Jewish Women have attempted to help victims in their moment of such immense distress by installing “rape kits” in police stations, containing medical and other items.
Abuse of women and children exists in communities everywhere in the world – Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and others. There is a tendency among close-knit communities to hush up such crimes for their good name. Brave “whistle-blowers” have often been the ones to expose the events – usually adults who were abused when young.
In 2013 the Jewish paper The Forward in New York, investigated reports of sexual abuse against young boys by two respected rabbis in the 1970s at Yeshiva University’s (YU) High School for Boys in Manhattan, a prestigious Orthodox Jewish establishment. The notion that this had happened at so venerable an institution was breathtaking; the instinct was to say “Keep it quiet. It can’t be true!” The paper was pressurised to keep it quiet.
It raised memories of scandals about sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, when Catholic papers were similarly pressurised.
When word got out about The Forward’s investigation, numerous men in their 50s and 60s called to report abuse they had suffered as students at YU, eventually filing a $380 million lawsuit against it for covering up the saga. The university has since instituted policies with multiple avenues for reporting and acting on abuse and equipping teachers and parents to immediately recognise any signs.
Exposing abusers is the best deterrent, but it has to be done properly or it can cause more harm than good. Last year, Rhodes University female students in Grahamstown, frustrated with feeble university policies that allowed men accused of rape to remain on campus, compiled and distributed a list of alleged rapists called the #RUReferenceList. They marched on the campus and went to the residences of alleged rapists to demand accountability, and delivered a memorandum to the university demanding changes in policy.
But was this action done in an irresponsible way? The obvious danger is that false accusations may be made against a man for nefarious or spiteful reasons, which could cause irreparable damage to someone who is accused but may be innocent. The process of identifying abusers must be more rigorous if it is to avoid the danger of becoming a witch-hunt.
After a pregnant woman was gang-raped a few weeks ago by eleven men elsewhere in South Africa, a new campaign took off country-wide to protest women and child abuse under the hashtag #MenAreTrash.
Does the law apply equally to all? In 2011, former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual assault and sentenced to seven years in jail.
But in South Africa, in an unforgettable incident in August last year, four brave young women rose to stand silently with handwritten posters decrying rape in front of President Jacob Zuma as he addressed a gathering of dignitaries in Pretoria. Zuma had been accused of the rape in 2005 of a woman called Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo known as “Khwezi”. He was found not guilty, but the case remains shrouded in suspicion and many people question his innocence.
Will the Frankel case inspire communities to institute strong mechanisms for detecting sexual abuse and acting on it? What has happened in previous years and how it was dealt with under prevailing attitudes at the time – such as keeping it quiet and moving the perpetrator to another job or institution rather than exposing and punishing him – cannot be undone. But too often people who report abuse in South Africa even today are told they are making trouble, or that their claims cannot be taken seriously.
Public exposure of perpetrators is painful but imperative. The Frankel judgement this week makes that more possible in Johannesburg.