Locking up rapists and 'throwing away' key won't solve underlying GBV problem - retired judge Cameron

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Retired Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron
Retired Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron
PHOTO: Elizabeth Sejake
  • Retired Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron says the length of a sentence has no effect in dealing with gender-based violence.
  • Cameron was speaking during a webinar hosted by the University of Johannesburg.
  • He says men should be taught that women are not objects to be violated in any way.


The legal process is an essential part of teaching men that women are not objects, and should not be violated, says retired Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron.

Cameron was speaking during a webinar hosted by the University of Johannesburg on Thursday afternoon, titled "Reflections of a retired judge on transformative Constitutionalism".

Cameron said his view was that taking a handful of rapists and men guilty of gender-based violence and putting them in jail, and "locking them up and throwing away the key as people like to say", would not solve the underlying problem.

"I can say this with complete assurance, the length of sentence has no impact. It's the certainty of prosecution, the certainty of arraignment and the certainty of sentencing, not how long," he said.

"We've got to set the example at community level about how women ought to be respected, honoured, valued and not trampled upon."

READ | Laws not enough to curb gender-based violence, buy-in needed from men - Justice Minister

"It is a long process in which the law has a role, but in which wrong sentences and throwing away keys has no constructive role."

The country has in recent weeks mourned the deaths of Tshegofatso Pule, Naledi Phangindawo, Nompumelelo Tshaka, Nomfazi Gabada, Nwabisa Mgwandela, Altecia Kortjie and Lindelwa Peni, along with many other women who died at the hands of men.

In September 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a five-point emergency plan to put a halt to gender-based violence in a joint sitting of Parliament, News24 reported.

They are prevention, strengthening the criminal justice system, enhancing the legal and policy framework, ensuring adequate care, support and healing for victims of violence, and strengthening the economic power of women.

During the webinar, Cameron also weighed in on the government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

When asked to give his views about the lockdown regulations – and if he had any concerns with how they were being implemented and what the courts have said so far – Cameron said: "I'm speaking as a young man and a young lawyer when Aids beset and I become infected with HIV myself, and two years into practicing as an anti-apartheid lawyer I fell ill with Aids after I was a judge and I had my life given back to me with anti-retroviral therapy nearly 23 years ago, and I think we have re-enacted many of the mistakes".

Strong-arm tactics are wrong

Without referring to the various regulations, Cameron said HIV/Aids has taught the country that those who were the most vulnerable socially and structurally were the most affected.

"The second thing that Aids has taught us is that strong-arm tactics are wrong. I don't say this to fight with General [Bheki] Cele or anyone else. I am speaking as a matter of four decades of history," he said.

"The strong tactics of busting into homes, of arresting people on large scales, that’s the wrong approach to the public health disaster.

"We have to respect people's rights, we got to lead people. We've got a respected and competent president. We didn’t have a respected and competent president for all of our history.

"I'm not going to name names. I'm talking long historical view. But President [Cyril] Ramaphosa is a competent man. I knew him in the 1980s. He is not in this for his own gain and I think we should have used more of his leadership."

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"Like I said at the time, that we could have used more of President [Nelson] Mandela's leadership in Aids," Cameron said.

"Respecting people’s rights and conserving public health and containing contagion are not opposite goals, they are goals mashed together, so from that, overall perspective, yes I think that we have made very big mistakes."

He said he had visited the Johannesburg Correctional Centre in May to check on the implementation of protective equipment to curb the spread of Covid-19.

He was briefed by correctional services officials who said that, since the lockdown regulation, the awaiting trial prisoner overload had increased by 10%, with about 70 people crammed into cells built for 22.

Cameron also added that the idea of arresting people en masse for breaking lockdown regulations was a "terrible mistake" for infection control and human dignity.


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