Sex abuse – no expiry date for the monsters


Rhodes U protest RU Reference list

Is your body yours or mine? Sexual abuse of women and children in South Africa is among the highest in the world.  In the picture, women students at Rhodes University in Grahamstown protest against what they call the culture of silence by university authorities towards rapists who remain on campus

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.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )



Silent cheers as four young women upstage a powerful president

rape protestors Zuma

Does Jacob Zuma care about rape?  Anti-rape protestors rose suddenly from the audience to stand with placards in front of SA’s president as he addressed the nation about election results. Zuma was accused of rape before becoming president.

TWO radically different responses have been witnessed recently in South Africa from citizens determined to denounce corrupt politicians abusing their power or filling their pockets with taxpayers’ money: Violence on the one hand, non-violent and silent protest on the other. On Monday we saw an unforgettable example of the latter, when 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 at the announcement of last week’s local election results. The nation owes these women a resounding “thank you”.

Their action took place just two days prior to the country’s official Women’s Day, which commemorates the 20 000 women who marched peacefully to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on August 9, 1956, objecting to the pass-laws for blacks which required them to always carry a pass-book when in white areas, showing that they were legally entitled to be there. It was part of the apartheid regime’s grand plan to separate the races.

The two events are in the same spirit. Monday’s four women protestors were highlighting South Africa’s rape culture – a pandemic ranked as one of the highest in the world. One of the placards suggested that one in three women will be victims of sexual violence. Their action took the gathering so totally by surprise that no-one stopped them – even Zuma’s bodyguards – until his speech was over. The senior official of the electoral commission who apologised to the audience after Zuma had finished talking and security personnel had hustled the women away sounded extremely embarrassed.

But their protest had already had its effect, and it was profound. In a different political reality some people from the audience might have actually stood up and applauded them for truth-telling. But Zuma’s tentacles of power run too deep in South African politics for that to happen spontaneously.

Their action took place ten years after Zuma’s own rape trial, in which he was ultimately found not guilty, but which left very negative feelings about his approach to women’s rights and his problematic sexual attitudes. The protestors were not only drawing attention to his own case, but the prevalence of gender-based violence in this country.

Their action was similar in impact to the white women of the non-violent Black Sash organisation, who for many years during apartheid stood silently with placards at the sides of the roads and in other public places, protesting apartheid laws and embarrassing the government at every opportunity. The striking black sashes they wore were a mark of mourning and signalled their protest against unjust racist legislation the government continued to enact.

They broke no laws by their demonstration, and their “privileged” status as whites protected them. The government fumed but could do little to stop them. White women from a diverse range of ethnic and faith groups participated.

Internationally, one of the most famous historical examples of such “passive” action in the face of immoral laws is Rosa Parks, the black woman in the United States who in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, defied a bus driver’s order to give up her seat in the coloured section to a white passenger, after the white section of the bus was filled. Her non-violent resistance and the bus boycott which followed became symbols of the Civil Rights Movement.

We have seen many abhorrent examples recently of South Africans resorting to violence to make their voices heard about government corruption and ineptitude – burning buildings, buses and schools, and killing people who objected or happened to be in the way.

The action of the four women who stood silently in front of Zuma with their placards fits into the grand tradition worldwide of non-violent civil action. This president’s legacy will forever be symbolised by Monday’s dramatic visual image of a disgraced male politician mouthing tiresome platitudes, framed by four bright young women standing still and silent with their placards, giving a very different message. He was oblivious to the potent words on their posters.

The Black Sash’s role as a resistance movement ended in 1994 at the end of apartheid and the dawn of democracy. It was reformed in 1995 as a non-racial humanitarian organisation. Perhaps the Black Sash needs to be revived now in a new, post-apartheid form: A non-racial, non-violent people’s movement which will say “no” to the shenanigans of this country’s current leaders.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: