What happens when sins of the past come out of the closet?

Timol brother

Reaching closure: Nearly five decades after anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol plunged to his death from the tenth floor of police headquarters, an inquest has determined he was pushed by police rather than jumped. His brother Mohamed Timol (above) praised the judgment (photo: Gulshan Khan)

A LONG, dirty thread links the sadistic killers of anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Timol and South African President Jacob Zuma to sex offenders who thought they would get away with it as time passed. But people cannot control how they will be remembered in history.

In 1971, Timol died in police custody after jumping or being pushed through the tenth-floor window of John Vorster Square police station in Johannesburg. It was so long ago that many young South Africans today don’t even know his name. The policemen who tortured him have since died or are too old to recall the facts, and were never brought to book. Yet his family, believing he was pushed through the window rather than jumped, pursued the issue tirelessly, demanding a new investigation. It determined last week that Timol was pushed. His tormentors will be remembered as murderers, not policemen.

Zuma is widely considered a criminal using his position to steal from state coffers, today and in the past. He avoids prosecution by manipulating the judiciary with endless stalling tactics, hoping the incidents will fade in the public memory. But the Supreme Court of Appeal this week leapt back time-wise, declaring he should be charged on 783 fraud and corruption counts for his actions during the arms deal in 2002. Charges were dropped in 2009 during his presidential election campaign, after he asserted that the timing of the charges aimed to damage his election prospects – the so-called “spy-tapes” saga.

A similar dirty thread links him to villains of another type – sex pests. His alleged rape of a 31-year-old family friend came to court in 2005. He claimed the act was “consensual,” and rallied his supporters to back him. He thought it had faded in peoples’ memory and continued with his political ambitions, but it has been resurrected in broadcaster Redi Tlhabi’s new book ‘Khwezi’ about his rape accuser Fezekile Kuzwayo. Chances are, Zuma will go down in history not only as a corrupt thief, but also a sexual criminal.

Other villains on that sexual thread include Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, and South African billionaire Sidney Frankel. They also thought the passing of time would make the grisly events fade, and they would get away free.

Weinstein was publically accused in the last two weeks by women in the Hollywood film world of sexual molestation over many years, exploiting his powerful position. He had such sway that giving him sex could make or break an actress’s career. His accusers include famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow and others. Weinstein, who has resigned from the company he founded, is learning that despite time passing, old skeletons may come back to haunt.

SA Jewish billionaire Sidney Frankel sexually abused children at the Arcadia Jewish Children’s Home and other places in the 1970s and 1980s. In the many years afterwards, he thought life had moved on and he wouldn’t be fingered. But last year, eight accusers claiming he assaulted them as children brought a civil claim against him. He endured public disgrace, but died earlier this year before being sentenced. His name will go down as a paedophile. His case caused Johannesburg’s High Court to declare Section 18 of the Criminal Procedure Act unconstitutional, effectively removing the 20-year prescription bar on sexual offences. Other well-known sexual predators who have been exposed include tennis star Bob Hewitt, and television’s man of clean “family values”, Bill Cosby.

Politics moves on after time with new leaders. But sexual abuse is not repairable: The abuser moves on, but victims remain traumatised.

“What goes around, comes around,” says the cliché. Sometimes the wheel does turn, and old skeletons come back to haunt. Will Zuma, in time, pay for his crimes too?

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

 

 

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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:  geoffs@icon.co.za )