'I don't know anything else, but trying to survive': Sisters ready for decades-old indecent assault case

Claudine Shiels and Lisa van der Merwe (Jenni Evans, News24)
Claudine Shiels and Lisa van der Merwe (Jenni Evans, News24)

Sisters Lisa van der Merwe and Claudine Shiels are ready for the long haul after hearing that one of the two men who face decades-old indecent assault allegations will not be ready for the start of the trial in Cape Town on Thursday.

"I don't know anything else, but trying to survive," Van der Merwe said at a press briefing ahead of the case in the Wynberg Regional Court on Wednesday.

The two men are now in their 70s.

"I'm trying very hard to try and claw back something of my inner self," she said. 

Reading from a statement she had prepared, she spoke about being considered a trouble maker by her family for years after she ran away from home to get away from the situation and spiralled into a life of drinking alcohol and loneliness. 

"I find this extremely difficult to write as I don't remember any of my childhood without abuse on some level," she said. 

READ: Sisters take 'uncles' who allegedly sexually abused them in the 70s to court

Van der Merwe said she was conditioned from a young age into believing that she was not anything more than a servant to the family and that she had no rights, voice or choices.

"I lived in a world of fear, panic and confusion and trying to survive more abuse," she said.

Van der Merwe and Shiels were estranged for 25 years and said what happened to them when they were 11 and 15 led them to fight and take their anger out on each other.

They were pleased that the National Prosecuting Authority had decided to go ahead with the case. 

This followed the historic "Frankel 8" judgment which related to allegations of abuse against billionaire broker Sydney Frankel by eight people. 

Women and Men Against Child Abuse (WMACA) founding director Miranda Jordan said that the sisters' case would be the fourth decades-old case dealing with sexual crime, but the first dealing with decades-old allegations of indecent assault after the Frankel judgment.

In the judgment, the court ruled that the Criminal Procedure Act be amended to remove the limit, or prescription, of 20 years for the prosecution of indecent assault, which is what their allegations would have been termed in the 1970s when the alleged incidents happened. 

Before the Frankel 8 judgment, rape and compelled raped (such as for pornography) were the only sexual crimes that did not have a 20-year cut-off date for prosecution or prescription.

The conviction of tennis star Bob Hewitt when he was elderly, the Frankel judgment and a case against a Catholic priest have slowly opened the door for the prosecution of decades-old sex-related allegations.

Jordan said that rape was taken so seriously at the time the women allege they were abused in the 1970s, that the death sentence was an option for punishment. But many people have not spoken out about what happened to them as children and about the lasting effect this has had on them. 

'Nobody investigated'

Shiels said the effect on her was so severe that she went from being a top achiever at school academically and in sport, and having good friendships, to failing exams and scraping through matric. 

"I got punished at school for my sudden wildly erratic behaviour and deterioration in my academic results," she said.

"And nobody investigated. Nobody asked what was happening. My whole life became consumed with dealing with what was happening to us in our bedroom and our beds at night." 

Shiels had nervous breakdowns later in life, gave up on every personal dream and hope because adults around her were telling her that she was worthless,

She said the experiences made her hyper-vigilant with her own children and she was often mocked for it.

She is also used to people asking: "Why now, when it was such a long time ago?

"My answer is always: 'It wasn't a long time ago. It's now. It's what I live with now.'" 

WMACA operations director Vincentia Dlamini, who runs children's clinics for the non-profit organisation, said the facilities in Boksburg and Alexandra see about 1 500 to 1 800 children a year to help them heal and prepare for trial. 

"We say to all victims of child abuse: 'We'll be with you. It doesn't matter how it happened, when it happened, we'll help,'" said Dlamini.

The organisation is also lobbying for courts to not give older offenders shorter sentences just because of their ages.

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