Vigilante Raises Issues of Justice and Child Rape

Support for policeman who killed an alleged child rapist shows frustration with South Africa's police and courts.

In a South Africa where many have given up on the criminal-justice system, a new breed of hero is emerging: the vigilante.

Mandisi Mpengesi is the man of the hour.

The country - where an estimated five children are raped every hour - has been gripped by the story of this man, who killed his daughter's alleged rapist rather than risk that a lax justice system would set him free.

But Mr. Mpengesi is not just any father: He is a police sergeant, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who became a child-abuse investigator in the seething black township of Khayelitsha. He claims a 100 percent conviction rate on the 20 child rape cases he has taken to court.

Last month, Mpengesi was sentenced to nine years in jail for murdering Sipiwe Nontongana in the Khayelitsha jail Jan. 9, 1997, the day after one of his twin daughters pointed out Nontongana as her rapist.

South Africans of all races are outraged over Mpengesi's sentence, which cannot be appealed. Members of the public are pressing President Nelson Mandela to grant clemency to their new hero.

"Free Sergeant Mpengesi! We need him back on the job," read one of many placards outside the Western Cape High Court last month.

Mpengesi's crime has only compounded his family's trauma, he says, and he wishes he could turn back the clock. "My daughter says to me, 'Daddy, you should have just shot that man in the leg.' "

In passing the nine-year sentence on Mpengesi May 27, Justice Sandile Ngcobo said he was well aware of public views on the case. But, said the judge, "The accused was a police sergeant whose duty it was to uphold law and order, not to subvert it."

If police become vigilantes, he said, "the public will lose faith in the criminal-justice system and take the law into their own hands."

The problem is, many South Africans already have lost faith in the criminal justice system. Of the 20 most serious categories of crime in South Africa, rape is the only one on an upward trend. In 1997, there were 120.6 rapes per 100,000 population, versus 119.5 in 1996. Reports of child rape have increased by 74 percent since the end of apartheid in 1994, according to the South African National Council for Child Welfare.

South Africa's policy of apartheid - racial separation - in the past created the perfect conditions for the country's epidemic of child rape, according to child-rights activists.

First, the apartheid regime showed that might was right and that in South Africa, there was no such thing as justice.

"As a result, there is a great deal of moral confusion in this country," says child welfare advocate Alan Jackson. "Under apartheid, people saw that violence worked, and you can't turn the clock back very easily once a broad group of people has been damaged."

Apartheid labor restrictions encouraged black poverty. The Group Areas Act forced blacks to live cheek-by-jowl in single-room shanties in overcrowded slums. Privacy was and is a luxury few can afford.

Children share beds with older siblings, parents, even their parents' lovers. Under such conditions it is all too easy for adults to cross the line.

Rape is rampant at township schools. The activist group Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN) has found schoolboys playing a game called "catch and rape." Unsupervised lavatories are stalking grounds for males searching for victims.

But most rape is committed at home by people known to the child, particularly by male family members or a mother's boyfriend. And unemployment, estimated at 30 percent for black South Africans, creates the ideal conditions. If the abuser is also the family's sole male breadwinner, both the child and its mother will often keep quiet about the abuse in order to maintain their source of support.

No excuses, child advocates say

If the household depends on the mother's income, she often has no choice but to leave children unattended or in the care of an unemployed male family member or boyfriend while she goes to work.

For whatever reason - boredom, substance abuse, or the need to exercise power over someone more powerless than himself - unemployed males will all too often avail themselves of the children left in their care.

Whatever the conditions encouraging child sexual abuse in South Africa, there's still no excuse, says Patience Tshabalala, who has founded Project Child at Risk in the black township of Soweto. "Can you really be that drunk that you can't see the child is five years old, two years old?" she asks. Ms. Tshabalala says it is time men challenge other men on child abuse.

No one knows whether the incidence of child rape is rising, or whether the growing numbers reflects the success of anti-abuse public-awareness campaigns.

"Education in schools is helping children come forward to tell about abuse," Tshabalala says.

A sex-crime awareness seminar in one Western Cape Province school elicited 69 sex-abuse complaints from children, says Mr. Jackson, director of the Cape Town Child Welfare Society.

While reporting of child rape is up, the conviction rate in such court cases hovers at 40 percent or less. According to Mpengesi, that's partly because children make poor witnesses and are easily intimidated by their rapists. Additionally, the police, prosecutors, and courts are untrained in handling sex-abuse cases and inclined to not believe children.

"Through our involvement in police training, we also know that there are still far too many police officers [trained under apartheid] who are resistant to change, hold enormously chauvinistic views, and openly speak about their abuse of their spouses," wrote Anita Marshall and Vanessa Herman in a booklet recently published by RAPCAN.

Tougher bail conditions sought

Magistrates have been far too ready to grant bail even to suspects who have threatened to kill their victims; many have made good on their threats. After the uproar over several such cases last year, Justice Minister Dullah Omar introduced tough new bail conditions.

The RAPCAN authors say Mr. Omar told them "that if we encountered a case where bail was inappropriately applied or the law ineffective, we should let the Department of Justice know about this. This led to an affidavit campaign, where RAPCAN submitted in one month a number of affidavits that required intervention."

The authors say, however, that the justice minister has not replied to any of the affidavits.

Somewhat more successful has been Justice Minister Omar's experiment in setting up a special court in the Western Cape to handle rape cases, staffed with prosecutors and magistrates trained in dealing with sex crimes. The conviction rate in that court is 75 percent.

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