The SAPS and rape

By Cathleen O’Grady

Shukumisa (the campaign of the National Working Group on sexual offences) posted an excellent article recently asking whether we can realistically expect the police to have any influence in reducing the number of rapes.  The answer given in the article is a resounding “no”: in order to do this, the argument goes, the police would have to essentially fix all the societal problems at the root of rape, including the patriarchy, poverty, and poor standards of education.  A bit of a tall order.  Moreover, because so few rapes are even reported to the police, the SAPS can only be held responsible for the few which are reported, and what we should be hoping for is a higher arrest rate and better evidence to allow for prosecution.

Makes sense, at least on the surface.  The police obviously can’t subvert the patriarchy or investigate rapes which aren’t reported to them.

Except – no.  This is backwards, and we can see why if we look at two of the most powerful anti-rape campaigns in SA: 1 in 9, and Slutwalk, targeting rates of reported rape and rape myths, respectively.  We can’t expect the police to upend patriarchal thinking, (partly because the police themselves are highly representative of the patriarchy) but we can expect them to improve rates of reported rape, and shut down on rape myths.

The role the SAPS has to play in reported rape statistics shows in the way in which reported rapes are handled.  When someone goes to report a rape, they often don’t get a sympathetic officer prepared to take a statement and ensure the survivor makes it to a hospital; they get this.  So the police can  be held responsible for low rates of reported rapes, at the very least: if police officers were more sensitive and well-trained, it is highly likely that the number of reported rapes would increase.  The police are not only responsible for properly investigating the rapes which are reported to them; they are also responsible for improving on the 1 in 9 statistic.

Beyond this, there is a level of responsibility across all of law enforcement which simply cannot be abdicated.  Yes, the police can only go so far in terms of investigating reported rapes; no, they cannot use precogs to determine who will rape when, and cannot rush out and stop potential rapists.  But a big part of the horrific rape rate in our country is the simple fact that there’s very little incentive not to rape.  Part of that is the lack of social pressure: rapists are not the pariahs they should be.  However, part of it is the legal problem:  not only is the conviction rate for rapists ridiculously low, but the penalties are appalling.  And then, on top of the paltry penalties dished out, we have people like Mogoeng propagating rape myths and reducing penalties even further.  The message being sent out is that it’s easy to get away with rape.  Chances are good that you won’t be reported, and even if you are, chances are you won’t make it to prosecution.  If you’re unlucky enough to be convicted, your penalty won’t be particularly bad; and even then there’s a good chance of having it reduced.

It’s a simple case of incentive.   If the number of reported and prosecuted rapes increased, the penalties were raised, and those in law enforcement were held accountable for their ignorant ideas regarding rape, rape rates would drop.  All of these changes are within the power of law enforcement, and none of them involve dismantling the patriarchy or ending poverty overnight.  Because they are possible and practically achievable, we can certainly and realistically expect law enforcement – including the SAPS – to reduce rape rates.

We need outspoken feminists to keep putting pressure on law enforcement, reminding them of these shortcomings and holding them accountable, in order to remind them that it is their responsibility to reduce rape rates, and they cannot pass the buck to greater societal issues.


For more about your rights as a survivor of a sexual offence, visit


4 thoughts on “The SAPS and rape”

  1. Firstly, insensitive treatment from the police is only part, and depending on context it may not even be a large part, of why rape is an under-reported crime. There’s social standing, context of the crime, embarrassment, various power relations between rapist and raped, and on and on and on. Yes, the police CAN do more. But no, it’s silly to say that they “can be held responsible for low rates of reported rapes”, as if they’re the primary obstacle. If you have any empirical research that would back up your claim, let’s see it. Otherwise, your first point doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Secondly, the conviction rate is about the judiciary, not the police. The police get the criminal, and after that the courts take over (police are involved, e.g. in the form of dockets & testimony, but have nothing to do with sentencing, prosecution, etc). So your second point doesn’t work, either. You should be aiming your actions towards the legislature or the judiciary here, not law enforcement.

    Lastly, if crime was a “simple case of incentive”, we wouldn’t have any. Just apply the death penalty to every major crime, and the deterrence would be so great that nobody would do anything illegal! If that sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. It’s an oversimplification of a complex situation, just as “It’s a simple case of incentive” is a gross oversimplification. That’s not to say that the situation can’t be made better, but pieces like this that advocate “reminding [law enforcement] of these shortcomings and holding them accountable” for things beyond their control do absolutely nothing to help.


    1. Hi Mona,

      I think what is interesting though is that if the police were better trained to take statements and to inform survivors of their rights, the chances that survivors would stay in the criminal justice system would vastly increase. If a survivor has a terrible experience at the police it is likely that she/he will drop out of the system later on. The police are the entry point into the justice system and so we must ensure that they provide sensitive treatment (according to the victims charter) so that survivors are supported and informed. So the conviction rate does have something to do with the police.


      1. I think what I’m objecting to is the strength of the links that have been drawn in this piece, as though reforming a criminal justice system is a matter of simple cause and effect. I agree with the strength of your response: you say “the chances that…” and “it is likely…”. And as I’ve said, the police CAN do more. Hold them responsible for the treatment of people who report rape, sure. That’s within their power. Holding them responsible for REDUCING rape is a different issue, and the relationship between the “entry point” and a conviction is far too complex to account for by blaming one of the institutions that handles part of the complaint.


    2. You’re right, Mona, this is an oversimplification; unfortunately, in anything less than a thesis, oversimplification of these issues is necessary. My issue was with the sweeping claim that the police can do nothing more about rape until the patriarchy is fixed, and this article is attempting to point out that there are things the police can do to help. Not fix, help. I’m obviously not under the illusion that better trained police and higher penalties will end rape overnight; I am under the impression that they could go some way towards fixing the epidemic.

      Clearly, the police are not the only obstacle to reporting rapes; however, they are one obstacle, and if they are an obstacle which could be removed, then this needs to happen. The article to which I’m responding says there is nothing they can do until a rape is reported.

      My second argument (about conviction rates) was aimed at the judiciary, which I mistakenly included under the umbrella of ‘law enforcement’. Should have made that clearer – thanks for pointing it out.

      And finally, your argument about the death penalty is a slippery slope argument and one I’m not sure I agree with; raising penalties does not entail applying the death penalty to every major crime. Simply a higher penalty would work. When people are getting away with just a fine for a crime as brutal as rape, that’s clearly not high enough; penalties wouldn’t need to be raised to anywhere near the death penalty in order to be a more effective deterrent.

      As I said, I took issue with the idea that the police force (and, extrapolating, the judiciary system) can do nothing to improve on rape rates. They can’t be held responsible for the myriad problems involved in the rape rate in SA, but taking responsibility away from them entirely is pure nonsense.


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