Violence against women - Part I: Case studies and legal mechanisms

This 2-part brief series considers whether the law and society are working effectually to protect women from violence.

Recent months have shown an increase in sexually violent crimes against women. This 2-part brief series considers whether the law and society are working effectually to protect women from violence. Part I focuses on alarming recent case studies and the existing legal mechanisms to address this crisis and challenge.


South Africa has a high prevalence of violent offences against women[1] and recently there has been a spate of women killed by their partners. Part 1 of this brief considers a number of these reported incidents and considers the redress and protection available. Part 2 will provide an evaluation of the legal mechanisms. This assessment reveals the need to focus on gender education and the breaking-down of harmful social norms and stereotypes. It is recommended that a systemic shift in processes and social norms needs to take place in order to protect our women.

Alarming recent case studies

Karabo Mokoene, age 22, was gruesomely murdered by her partner Sandile Mantsoe who after murdering her, burnt her body beyond recognition. Whilst the 32-year prison sentence handed-down will not bring Karabo back to her loved ones, it is a step in the right direction in allowing her family time to heal and gain closure. Throughout his trial, Mantsoe denied having killed Karabo and claimed she had committed suicide. With no remorse shown or responsibility taken for his actions, Acting Judge Peet Johnson called Mantsoe the “devil in disguise”.[2]

Zolile Khumalo, a first-year student was shot dead in the presence of her roommate at the Mangosuthu University of Technology - allegedly by her ex-boyfriend. Zolile had been avoiding Thabani Mzolo after breaking up with him two weeks prior. He is believed to have shot her in the face and the arm.

Lindiwe Sibiya, a 31-year-old mother of two was allegedly killed by her husband Prince Khumalo. He is said to have stabbed her 17 times while the couple was away “celebrating” their anniversary. This fatal stabbing has been described as “murder most foul”. Khumalo has been released on R5000 bail.[3]

Nompumelelo Mthembu, mother of three, died in hospital from burn wounds. A tyre was forced around her neck, she was doused with petrol and then set alight by the father of her children. Her ex-lover was out on bail after being charged with rape after he allegedly shoved a knobkerrie into her vagina in March.[4]

These are just some cases in point plucked from a spate of femicide incidents.[5] While femicide refers to the killing of a woman by her intimate partner, other acts of sexual and domestic violence and offences against women in South Africa must also be brought to light.

The Victims of Crime Survey for 2016/17 (VOCS)[6] shows a rise in sexual offences (an increase of individuals who experienced sexual offence rose from 0.08% in 2015/2016 to 0.19% in 2016/17). In terms of murder VOCS reveals that female-headed households were victims of murder representing 0,16 per cent of all female-headed households. This percentage of victimised households is more than twice the corresponding percentage in the case of male-headed households. Sexual Offences are defined as to include sexual assault, rape and domestic sexual abuse as well as grabbing, touching someone's private parts or sexually assaulting someone. The survey reveals that about 37,2% of individuals who experienced assault were victimised by a known community member. VOCS shows that an estimated 70 813 or 1 in 500 individuals, mostly women, experienced a sexual offence in 2016/17.[7] Sexual victimization for women was more than twice the rate for men. While these statistics are undoubtedly high, in reality, they are probably even higher. As a caveat, the survey records that “specific categories of crime, such as sexual offences (including rape), were generally under-reported in this survey and it should not be regarded as an accurate source of sexual offences data. This is primarily due to the sensitive nature of these offences as well as in some cases the possible presence of the perpetrator in the household being interviewed.” It is interesting to note that the South African Police Service (SAPS) Crime Statistics record a decrease in sexual offences crime from 59815 in 2015/2016 to 49660 in 2016/2017, a decrease of 4,3%.[8] To this end, the statistics seem redundant: just one of these horrific incidents is one too many.

As Bongani Bingwa, 702’s Breakfast Show host pleads, “Is the law listening? Is the legal system? The courts, government, parliament? Are we?”

Existing legal mechanisms

The Domestic Violence Act[9] seeks to protect women from domestic violence by creating obligations on law enforcement bodies to protect victims as far as possible. This Act recognises that domestic violence is a serious crime against our society and extends the definition of domestic violence to include not only married women and their children, but also unmarried women who are involved in relationships or living with their partners, people in same-sex relationships, mothers and their sons, and other people who share a living space. The legislation seems progressive in its drafting. However the implementation of acquiring State assistance whether in the form of a protection order or finding alternative accommodation or medical assistance is disappointing.[10] Lack of training and knowledge on the part of the SAPS in terms of fulfilling its duties to victims[11] and resource constraints[12] have been cited as reasons for the ineffectiveness of this Act.

Similarly, the Criminal Law (Sexual offences and related Matters) Amendment Act (SORMA)[13] broadly characterises sexual offences and extends the narrowly constructed pre-1997 common law definition and lists offences including rape, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment, child pornography, incest, bestiality, and necrophilia. Further included are instances of compelled sexual acts, where either a third person is coerced to perform a sexual act, or an individual is coerced to perform a sexual act on themselves. The definition of “sexual acts” includes penetrative and non-penetrative sexual contact. This means any form of penetration of a person’s body by another person, object, or animal; or any physical contact or directed sexual behaviour towards an individual, by another person or persons: verbally, physically, or by means of an intermediary, or any other means. Again, this statutory protection is worthless if redress for the victim is unattainable.

Last year the Constitutional Court heard a confirmation case[14] of the High Court ruling that required that the Criminal Procedure Act (CPA)[15] be amended to abolish the prescription period of 20 years for sexual offences and other forms of gender-based violence. Subsequent to the hearing of this Levenstein case, Michael Masutha, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services delivered his 2018/2019 budget speech[16] citing that the CPA would need to be reviewed for, amongst other things, the prescribed period within which the State can prosecute persons for allegations of particular categories of crime. The South Gauteng High Court in South Africa declared this 20-year prescription period inconsistent with the Constitution and invalid[17] to the extent that it bars the right to institute a prosecution for all sexual offences, other than those listed[18] (most notably, rape and compelled rape) after the lapse of a period of twenty years from the time when the offence was committed. It was argued that the level of trauma experienced by victims of sexual abuse is not determined by whether the abuse involved penetration but depends on a multitude of other factors. The complainants maintain that perception of the seriousness of crime is subjective and determining one sexual crime to be more “serious” than another is dependent upon preconceived patriarchal notions about sexual offences which are flawed.[19]Communications Minister Nomvula Mokonyane said at a post-Cabinet media briefing on Thursday 24 May 2018, that the amendments to the CPA to allow for charges related to sex crimes to be instituted after a lapse of 20 years have been approved by cabinet.[20] The Constitutional Court handed down judgment in the Levenstein case on 14 June 2018.[21] In a unanimous judgment penned by Zondi, J the Court held that the effect of section 18 is two-fold: (i) it over-emphasises the significance of the nature of the offence, at the expense of the harm it causes to survivors thereof, and therefore fails to serve as a tool to protect and advance their interests;[22] and (ii) it penalises even a complainant whose delay was caused by or due to his or her inability to act by preventing him or her from pursuing a charge even if he or she may have a reasonable explanation for the delay. The Court further held that section 18 undermines the state’s efforts to comply with international obligations, which impose a duty on the state to prohibit all gender-based discrimination.[23] The Court confirmed the High Court’s order that section 18 is irrational and arbitrary, and therefore unconstitutional, insofar as it does not afford the survivors of sexual assault other than rape or compelled rape the right to pursue a charge, after the lapse of 20 years from the time the offence was committed. Importantly, the declaration of invalidity is retrospective to 27 April 1994.

In Minister Masutha’s budget speech, it was pronounced that there are currently 75 Sexual Offences Courts. He undertook to rollout an additional 14 of these courts in deserving areas to extend their reach and has further vowed to put interventions in place to ensure their optimal functioning.

Sexual Offences Courts were established to provide survivor-centred justice with specialised services, specialised infrastructure and specialised personnel. In 2013 Department of Justice and Constitutional Development’s Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offences Matters (MATTSO) recommended the re-establishment of Sexual Offences Courts which were scrapped in or around 2008.[24] MATTSO made an unequivocal finding that South Africa still needs Sexual Offences Courts, as a matter of urgency, to improve the performance of our courts in managing cases of sexual offences. The truth is victims of sexual offences have special needs that often require specialized skills that can only be developed from dedicated court personnel operating at a specialized court fitted with specialized equipment that responds to such special needs.

FCS units are Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offence units stationed at various SAPS that are specialised to deal with the reporting of a sexual offence as well as in offering assistance and providing information to the victim. A recent report from the Commission for Gender Equality[25] has alarmingly revealed that only 1 in 6.5 SAPS stations have such FCS units and that these units are severely under-resourced. A reply[26]to a Democratic Alliance parliamentary question has exposed chronic shortages of rape kits and DNA collection kits in FSC units across the country.[27] These deficiencies have been dubbed as a serious nationwide police mismanagement crisis in the fight against gender violence. Cases cannot be adequately reported and victims cannot be given adequate services with such inefficiencies.

The above specific examples are just some of the below-par initiatives undertaken by government. A consideration of the work undertaken by non-profit organisations such as Sonke Gender Justice[28] and Lawyers Against Abuse[29] and others must also be taken into account in considering whether South Africa is doing enough to protect our women. Paul Kariuki, the Programmes Manager for the Democracy Development Program, considers the role of civil society in ending violence against women, girls and children. For Kariuki, the role of these civil society organisations can be summarised as multi-fold.

  • First, these organisations are holding the government to account in enforcing its laws, policies and interventions in prohibiting all forms of violence.
  • Second, civil society should ensure that national legislation meets the requirements of international agreements that aim to put an end to violence against women, girls and children, such as the agreements drafted by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
  • Third, these organisations should be at the forefront of educating women, girls, and children about their rights. These capacity building initiatives must include boys and men to ensure that cultural norms that perpetuate and engender discrimination are addressed. Awareness raising campaigns and institutional and legal reforms by governments around the world can also promote a culture of equality.
  • Fourth, ensure that accurate, reliable and meaningful data on violence against women, girls and children is collected. This data must be collected timeously and promptly. There is an urgent need for civil society organisations to enhance their own data collection, analysis, dissemination and utilisation of synthesised data to inform decision making.
  • Fifth, by partnering with other local, national and international agencies it is possible to build a critical mass of knowledge to interpret trends across global regions. Thus, global strategies would be informed by experiences and actions across the world.[30]

The critical role civil society organisations play can fundamentally impact the performance of government as well as the mores of local and global society.


These recent accounts of gross violence and abuse against women in South Africa is chilling. “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…. 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.”[31] We see that spheres of government have undertaken legislative, judicial and procedural reforms to address the need to make prosecution easier for the State and the laying of charges easier for the victim. This brief highlights that beyond developing the law, sensitising law enforcement officials and making sexual violence a policy and legislative priority, deep-rooted perceptions and norms need to be re-taught and re-learnt. Part II of this brief series will discuss and recommend possible transformative redress.

Jade Tess Weiner

[1] See Rape Crisis “Prevalence” available at accessed on 4/06/18.

[2]Arielle Schwartz “Mantsoe 'a devil in disguise', sentenced to 32 years” available at accessed on 04/06/18.

[3] Tebogo Monama “Murder most foul: Husband claims wife killed herself after heated argument” available at accessed on 04/06/18.
[4] Bongani Mthehwa “Woman necklaced – alleged killer was out on bail for rape” available at accessed on 04/06/18.

[5] In 1974, writer Carol Orlock coined the term “femicide” in opposition to the more generalised “homicide”. It was South African-born activist and feminist, Professor Dianna Russell who defined it as “hate killing of females perpetrated by males”. This she did while addressing the first International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium in 1976. See Diana E H Russel “The Origin and Importance of the Term Femicide” accessed on 01/06/18.

[6] The Victims of Crime Survey is an annual nation-wide survey conducted by Statistics South Africa to capture the perceptions and attitudes of South Africans about crime. VOCS also tracks crime trends of reported and unreported crimes, as well as the circumstances of these crimes from the victims’ point of view.

[7] See VOCS available at accessed on 25/08/18.

[8] See the SAPS Crime Statistics available at accessed on 04/06/18.

[9] 116 of 1998.

[10]Heidi Mogstad, Dominique Dryding and Olivia Fiorotto “Policing the private: Social barriers to the effective policing of domestic violence” available at accessed on 05/06/18.

[11] “Parliament, the Independent Complaints Directorate and the Auditor-General have all noted that none of these obligations is well adhered to by the police, with many stations failing to meet the standards set by the Domestic Violence Act and National Instructions.” Lisa Vetten “Domestic violence in South Africa” available at accessed on 04/06/18.

[12] “While one cannot doubt the intentions of its drafters or those of the legislature, it is impossible to give complete effect to these noble intentions in a tardy system that is poorly resourced, overburdened and desperately in need of training.” K Naidoo “Justice at a Snail’s Pace”: The Implementation of The Domestic Violence Act (Act 116 Of 1998) At The Johannesburg Family Court available at accessed on 04/06/18.

[13] 32 of 2007.

[14]Levenstein and Others v Estate Late Frankel and Others CCT170/17.

[15] 51 of 1977.

[16] Budget Vote Speech by the Adv Michael Masutha, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, May 9, 2018, Parliament, Cape Town available at accessed on 18/05/18.

[17] The order was made by Hartford AJ in the South Gauteng High Court on 19 June 2017, Vol 7, pp 634- 635.

[18] Sections 18(f), (h) and (i) contemplate:

• section 18(f): “rape or compelled rape as contemplated in section 3 of SORMA respectively”;

• section 18(h) “trafficking in persons for sexual purposes by a person as contemplated in section71(1) and (2) of the SOMRA”; and

• section 18(i) “using a child or person who is mentally disabled for pornographic purposes as contemplated in sections 20(1) and 26(1) of SORMA.”

[19] Jesslin Wooliver “Levenstein: A Case to End Prescription of All Sexual Offences in South Africa” Oxford Human Rights Hub available at accessed on 18/05/18.

[20]Linda Ensor “Cabinet approves amendment to charges relating to sex crimes” available at accessed on 29/05/18.

[21] See Levenstein and Others v Estate of the Late Sidney Lewis Frankel and Others CCT170/17 available at accessed on 14/06/18.

[22]Levenstein and Others v Estate of the Late Sidney Lewis Frankel and Others at para 52.

[23]Levenstein and Others v Estate of the Late Sidney Lewis Frankel and Others at para 60.

[24] Report on the Re-Establishment of Sexual Offences Courts Ministerial Advisory Task Team on the Adjudication of Sexual Offence Matters available at accessed on 04/006/18.

[25] The Commission for Gender Equality Struggling to Meet the Ends of Justice: Assessing Departmental Responses to CGE findings on the Victims Charter (Department of Justice, NPA & SAPS) 2016 available at accessed on 18/05/18.

[26] See National Assembly reply available at accessed on 18/05/18.

[27] Zakhele Mbhele “FCS units facing chronic shortages of rape kits” available at accessed on 18/05/18.
[28] Sonke is a South African-based non-profit organisation working throughout Africa. They believe women and men, girls and boys can work together to resist patriarchy, advocate for gender justice and achieve gender transformation.Website available at accessed on 22/05/18.
[29]Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) is a non-profit organisation that provides free legal and psychosocial support services to victims of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, domestic violence, and child abuse. LvA also works to facilitate structural change through strategic engagement with state actors and the communities in which they serve. Website available at accessed on 22/05/18.
[30]Paul Kariuki “Ending Violence against Women, Girls and Children: The Role of Civil Society” available at accessed on 22/05/18.

[31]Levenstein and Others v Estate of the Late Sidney Lewis Frankel and Others at para 56.