COMMENTARY | The system failed a 16-year-old sexual assault victim
“He came to my home around six in the morning and asked that I accompany him to his business. I had no idea what kind of business he was talking about‚ but assumed it was a shop of some kind.”
This is how the story of innocence lost and betrayal by systems designed for the protection of 16-year-old Bongiwe Mdlalose*‚ a pupil at Siphesihle Secondary School in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Verulam‚ unfolds. The principal of her school‚ Sifiso Jele‚ is currently on trial for allegedly sexually assaulting Bongiwe – a grade 10 pupil – during the Easter break earlier this year. She is part of the growing statistic of minors who head up households‚ the eldest of four siblings‚ who have depended on a neighbour for guidance.
“We left my home and went to his house. We sat down for a while. He asked me to wash the dishes in the kitchen‚ and I did.
“Then he went to his bedroom. Once there‚ he called me to join him‚ so he could show me around the house‚ he said. He first showed me the one bedroom‚ said “this is where you and your siblings will sleep when you come over to visit.
“We then went on to another room‚ where he asked me to take off my shoes‚ and I did. He then asked me to take off my pants‚ and I asked why‚ he said: ‘where you’re going‚ you’re going to be working‚ you will only have your underwear on’.”
When she refused‚ Jele then casually asked her to get dressed and he would take her home‚ Bongiwe told Corruption Watch. He left her alone in the bedroom and waited in his car‚ which was parked outside. Once she joined him in the car‚ the principal gave her a R100 note‚ explaining that he would drive her to a nearby supermarket to get a few groceries for her family‚ before driving her back home.
Despite what had just happened at the house a few minutes before‚ Bongiwe remained trusting of Jele‚ to whom she refers by surname. It was only when she had picked up a few essentials in the shop‚ and realised that she must have lost the R100 he had just given her‚ that she truly got a sense of what was happening to her on the day.
“I went in‚ picked up a few things‚ and just as I was to about to pay‚ I realised that I did not have the money on me. I left my groceries there and went back outside to tell him that I’d lost the money‚ and he instructed me to get back in the car. I did‚ and we drove back to his house.
“When we arrived there‚ he took off all my clothes. He kissed me‚ while fondling my breasts. I started crying and asked to leave‚ and he took me home.”
No help from those in authority
It did not take her long to open a case with the police in her area. Lillian Buthelezi*‚ the neighbour of the Mdlalose siblings‚ who has acted as their unofficial guardian over some years‚ went with her. According to Bongiwe‚ they were first rejected by the police official on duty on the day‚ told to go back home and come back another day. This they did‚ but were consistent in the detail they gave on their second visit to the station.
The nightmare was only beginning though. When Bongiwe went back to school after the break‚ she confided in a social support worker placed at the school as part of a collaborative programme between the provincial departments of education and social development. It seemed an enquiry would be launched‚ but nothing happened for some time. For weeks she had to present herself at school‚ while Jele was there‚ and on some days the tension between them would be so bad that she would not return until she felt strong enough emotionally.
Unwilling to assist our investigation
During a visit to the school by Corruption Watch’s investigative team in July – prompted by the receipt of a report by a community member close to the school – glaring signs of inadequacies in the social support programme‚ meant to protect minors like Bongiwe‚ started appearing.
Corruption Watch’s head of legal services‚ Leanne Govindsamy‚ spoke to two educators at Siphesihle who both knew of the incident‚ but had no knowledge of whether any steps had been taken against Jele by either the department of education or the police.
“The two were willing to co-operate with us‚ until Jele [who had not been at school at the time] caught wind of Corruption Watch’s presence at the school. He phoned one of them while we were there‚ and from that point on they changed their tune and did not want to speak to us any more.”
According to Govindsamy‚ it is at this instance that they learned that there had not been any plans communicated with regard to the replacement of the school social worker‚ who had resigned in the time between the incident and Corruption Watch’s visit. On her departure‚ the case was handed to an educator‚ who is male‚ to handle. The educator had interviewed Bongiwe prior to the Corruption Watch visit‚ and both verified this to Govindsamy.
Of concern to Govindsamy was the inappropriateness of such a case being handled by an educator‚ particularly a male. No explanation was given for the sudden departure of the social worker‚ nor was there any communication to staff regarding plans to replace her. Bongiwe’s only hope‚ it seemed‚ was the police‚ even though they too were not forthcoming with information. She had expected some action to be taken during the mid-year school break.
“The last I heard was that when I get back to school in July‚ Jele would no longer be around. I don’t know what happened‚” explained Bongiwe.
The situation at school gradually became unbearable for Bongiwe. It dawned on her that neither the police‚ nor the provincial department of education‚ were coming to her rescue against Jele.
“This minor was now expected to continue going to school while the principal who had violated her remained there‚” said Govindsamy.
On the prompting of Corruption Watch‚ the Department of Social Development in the province dispatched a social worker to the case‚ and Bongiwe and her siblings were eventually removed from their community and put in a place of safety‚ while the police investigated.
In August the education department suspended Jele‚ months after the criminal case had been opened‚ pending an internal investigation into his conduct‚ while he was officially charged thereafter by the national prosecuting authority. Senior prosecutor in the Verulam office‚ Logan Reddy‚ confirmed to Corruption Watch that Jele had been summonsed to appear in the Verulam Regional Court.
Justice system not friendly to victims
His first court appearance was on 18 October‚ months after Bongiwe first laid charges against him‚ due to yet another let-down in the system. A prosecutor assigned to the case had seemingly marked the file as having been withdrawn‚ despite there being no evidence of Bongiwe doing so. It was again at the prompting of Corruption Watch – which enquired on the causes for the delay in the case – that the false withdrawal was first noticed. The withdrawal notice was then removed and Reddy has since confirmed to Corruption Watch that an internal process is underway “to determine why the matter was withdrawn.”
Neither the education department nor the SAPS responded to questions sent twice by Corruption Watch‚ first in September and more recently in October‚ in which the organisation raised points relating to due processes not followed.
The Department of Social Development had asked for some time to investigate the matter before responding‚ but it too failed to do so by the time set by its own officials‚ of the end of October.
In the meantime‚ Bongiwe is likely to spend Christmas away from her siblings‚ as they were separated because of their age differences and placed in separate facilities. The return to life as she knew it before will not happen for her any time soon.
* Names have been changed