'Sometimes we cry too' – sexual offences court officials

A special room from which victims of sexual offences testify at the Protea Magistrates’ Court in Soweto. Picture: Rosetta Msimango
A special room from which victims of sexual offences testify at the Protea Magistrates’ Court in Soweto. Picture: Rosetta Msimango

Dealing with rape cases, especially when it involves children, can take its toll. Court staff tell of the heartbreak, their passion for their jobs at the sexual offences court in Soweto.

It’s just before lunchtime when we arrive at the sexual offences court in Protea Glen, Soweto, and the staff are sitting down to eat.

“It’s hot; can we offer you anything to drink?” asks an administrator. In the area manager’s office, biryani is on the menu and she offers us a spoon and tells us to help ourselves.

The helpful and caring attitude of the court staff, from the magistrate to the clerks, brightens the dull, grey surrounds.

In the 35°C heat the magistrate wears a white T-shirt under his black robe.

“I volunteered to preside over the sexual offences cases after many of my colleagues had shown reluctance. Some of the colleagues were hesitant to do sexual offences cases, especially the rape of little kids. So I volunteered,” he says.

One of the problems the court experiences is a shortage of equipment, such as CCTV cameras, which allow victims to testify from an adjacent room. Shortages of intermediaries and translators mean they have to be brought to the court from Pretoria.

The magistrate, who asked not to be named, presides over three cases a day. He’s been a magistrate for more than 20 years, half of which was spent adjudicating sexual offences cases.

“I sit in the regional court – 90% of the cases I deal with are sexual offences. The majority of the cases involve the rape of small kids – small girls ranging from 16 down to seven and six,” he says.

“Like any normal trial, you evaluate the evidence. If you’re satisfied this person should be convicted then you convict the person. If facts direct they be acquitted, you acquit.

“But rape is not like any normal trial. You need to be very sensitive, especially if you deal with small children. You need to control the type of cross-examination [they receive]; you must not forget that you are dealing with children who sometimes forget depending on their age and you need to guard against secondary trauma.”

Asked if he experiences any trauma from his work, he immediately responds: “Yes. Of course, yes.

“There’s a matter I did six months ago. You know that little girl cried so much. I also started crying but I had to keep myself together so I had to adjourn and I came back here to my office and I just cried. I collected myself and I went back. It’s very traumatic,” he says.

“You know, after that experience I tried counselling but it did not work. It’s just that little girl – she broke down and I joined in unfortunately – which is something I have to try to avoid. But we are all human.”

It’s not only the magistrate at the Protea regional court that is passionate about his job. So is the clerk.

“If I make mistakes it may have years of consequences,” she said.

“Being a court clerk on a day when there is a sexual offence is difficult but I have learnt to deal with it. It’s a bit emotional but you learn to deal with things.

“Being a court clerk has changed my view in the way I live every day. I am more cautious about who I leave my kids with. I don’t leave my daughter with a male person – even someone close to me.”

In the office of the intermediary, we are greeted with a hug and her face lights up when she discusses her work.

She takes us through the children’s waiting rooms decorated in rainbow colours, stocked with books, crayons and a DVD player. There’s a fridge.

“I work with children. My duty is to convey the message from the court to the child in a language they understand,” she says.

“I also protect the child from harsh cross- examination. For example, questions like why, with what, how; they sound judgemental to the child. So I relay the question without using judgemental words.”

She adds: “We sometimes experience trauma from cases such as children raped by their biological father and murder cases. We go to workshops where they tell us not to be too emotionally involved and caution us against establishing relationships with the families of the child.

“We also do debriefing sessions once a year.”

As we leave, staff members go back to their lunch, with only a few minutes to eat before helping long lines of children and their parents, waiting patiently for justice.

See our checklist readers can use to make sure sexual offences courts meet the requirements.

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