SA’s first sex offences court

Shahida Poole. Picture: BIéNNE HUISMAN
Shahida Poole. Picture: BIéNNE HUISMAN

At Cape Town’s Wynberg sexual offences court, more than 300 rape and sexual assault cases are ready for trial. This year alone, 557 cases were placed on the court roll.

Established as part of a pilot project in the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court, it was South Africa’s first sexual offences court.

Wynberg has three court rooms with two prosecutors each. Each court has a separate room where children can testify in camera. An adult can also testify behind closed doors if the court grants an application.

Senior state prosecutor Shahida Poole points out the private waiting area for adult complainants – with a guard on duty – and a playroom for the children. A young boy and a girl were skipping around the corridor, blowing soap bubbles.

Two court supporters from Childline, two from Safeline, and two from Rape Crisis, are on duty every day to help victims prepare their cases.

“Communication is so important,” said Poole. “The prosecutors generally are supposed to speak to the victims, to explain the process to them. I tell them this is something we must work on always.”

Postponements are a problem, but Poole says they “try to minimise that”.

“Once a matter starts we really try not to delay it, especially with children, as their attention span is short,” she says.

“But often it’s genuinely out of our hands, for example, many of the accused are represented by Legal Aid, and these lawyers are not always available.”

READ: A victim of sexual assault tells of her experience at the Wynberg sexual offences court

A major challenge in child sexual abuse cases is corroborating charges.

“It is so difficult to prove,” says Poole. “Often there is no witness and you have a young child testifying, and it is her word against that of an adult. Often there is no forensic evidence; I mean, there is only DNA if the case is reported immediately.”

Poole has headed the Wynberg sexual offences court since 2016. In her office – next to that of social worker Laetitia Philander – she keeps a bag of “anatomically correct dolls”. These are male and female dolls with genitals made of fabric, for youngsters to point out how they had been abused.

“With a lot of them the perpetrator is a family member or a relative. For example, the mother could be protecting the dad. So a lot of them are taken out of their homes and placed in children’s homes,” she says.

In her office, teddy bears, plastic cars and tubs of soap bubble mix line the shelves and sit in corners. The prosecutors collect many of the toys themselves; others are donated by charity groups and churches. Children who visit the court are allowed to each pick one toy to take home. They also give the youngsters food, and sometimes clothing.

“A lot of the children who come here are obviously from poor communities,” says Poole. “We’re looking at Gugulethu, Manenberg, Philippi, Ocean View. And you can see when they come here, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have food. We decided, as a collective, as prosecutors, that we want to create a nice environment. We want to make it child-friendly here, make them feel safe.”

Poole says working here is a calling. “The people who work here genuinely have a passion for it. Not everyone is able to prosecute sexual offences. Especially with the young children. That gets extremely difficult.”

  • This article was updated after publication to reflect the following comment from Legal Aid SA Northern Cape/Western Cape provincial executive Cordelia Robertson: “Legal Aid SA prioritises its co-operation with all stakeholders in the criminal justice system to root out any inefficiency that threatens speedy facilitation of matters. In the 2017-2018 financial year, Legal Aid SA provided legal representation and advice to 731 856 people. The vast majority of matters are criminal (87%), with 13% being civil matters. We are able to handle such numbers of criminal matters through our presence at all criminal courts throughout the country. We also have dedicated civil legal practitioners nationwide, who are committed to assisting clients with their civil legal matters.”
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