|*Leigh-Anne the mother of a seven-year old boy, who was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a family friend, over a period of two years, confirmed the urgent need to make the National Register for Sex Offenders (NRSO) accessible to the public. “As a parent you should have the right to know who your neighbour, your child’s teacher or his friend’s parents are. After the trauma my son and our family has experienced, we no longer befriend anyone who is not willing to undergo a criminal check – we learnt in the hardest way possible that paedophiles are master manipulators and unfortunately you can’t trust anybody,” she says.
The purpose of any type of any form of sexual offenders’ register is described as being ‘a form of public protection and not part of the punishment’ of being found guilty of the offence. It is important that a sexual offences register should succeed in its primary aim of protection.
Furthermore, the question remains whether existing laws and policies such as the amendments proposed are inadequate or rather if it is the systemic failures of the South African criminal justice system to hold perpetrators accountable that remains the biggest challenge. As the situation stands now, one should have very limited expectations of the reach of the criminal justice system. The relevance of law reform in such a context is therefore called into question. If the legislature needs to fulfil a role, then it should rather focus on ensuring accountability of the main criminal justice system.
That being said, Action Society welcomes the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act before the National Assembly. The expansion of the National Register of Sex Offenders (NRSO) to include all sex offenders (and not only sex offenders against children and mentally disabled persons) and addition of sexual intimidation and incest as a violation, is a step in the right direction. The Amendment Act now also includes protection for persons over 60 and persons with sensory and intellectual disabilities and requires that perpetrators details be kept on the NRSO for a longer period.
We are however still not satisfied with the current functionality and accessibility of the NRSO and will keep advocating for the public to have easier access to the NRSO. In too many cases of rape and sexual abuse the perpetrators are known to the victims – a family friend, a boyfriend, a stepfather ̶ we need to enable the public to make informed decisions about people they allow around their children. Though greater access to the NRSO as currently envisaged is a significant positive development, if the NRSO is made more readily available to the public, we would have had a better idea of perpetrators and it could also help reduce child rape, abuse, and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV).
The harsh reality is that you can’t wait for a red flag before taking action and investigating the people who interact with your child on a regular basis. We need to be proactive in protecting the young lives entrusted to us, as sexual offenders have no fear of the law or justice system in South Africa.
The NRSO in its current form is non-functional.
Ivory Park, Thohoyandou, Bramfischerville and Sunnyside. These are just examples of areas where recent cases were reported of teachers allegedly sexually harassing and raping learners. This begs the question: Are teachers being vetted for sexual offences before employment and do schools and other public institutions have the necessary access to the NRSO to complete this crucial background check? Unfortunately, even if these institutions follow the right procedures, the NRSO has been non-functional.
Answering our questions about the NRSO in August 2020, the registrar Ntombizodwa Matjila, confirmed that the NRSO was not used for vetting purposes before 2019. The development and update of the database started in 2009 and was only finalised in 2019 – it took 10 years! Although numerous requests for NRSO clearance certificates have been logged, the register was not able to aid employers with accurate information. Consequently, there is no control over whether teachers or caretakers in our children’s classrooms are convicted sex offenders or not. Not to mention the status of adoptive or foster parents. The Registrar seemingly does not have the capacity to successfully manage the NRSO ̶ current applications and feedback are only being done manually ̶ and there is no electronic procedure or system in place. It is therefore clear that many of the weaknesses of the current system lie less with the legislative framework and more with weak implementation. The current functionality of the NRSO can’t be determined and we are not sure if any certificates have been issued since.
As per Section 50 of the Amendment Act – the Registrar will now be required to update the NRSO with details of all perpetrators who have been convicted of sexual offenses 5 years preceding 2007 (from 2002) − including the new scope of victims referred to as vulnerable persons − and to include incest and sexual intimidation as offenses. How long will it take for this information to be updated to the NRSO in order for it to be accessible for vetting purposes? Another 10 years? The SAPS criminal record system needs to be linked to the NRSO in order for automated updates that will provide a comprehensive picture of the individuals full criminal record.
Action Society has on previous occasions proposed public-private partnerships for the management of the NRSO. There are numerous South African companies who employ highly skilled individuals and whose core competency is data base management systems. We believe that the multi-sectoral approach adopted in the Bills should be supported and complemented through strategic public-private partnerships. Providing a role for additional stakeholders, particularly those in the private sector, besides the South African Police Service will also go a long way in improving service delivery.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel, government must just tap into existing resources to assist them in making the NRSO a functional tool which will serve and protect the vulnerable citizens of South Africa.
Creating new legislation through the passing of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, which still needs to be finally approved by the president, does not solve the problem of a non-functional NRSO. Great laws don’t mean anything if they are not enforced. Government ought to apply the additional funding that was made available by the Treasury, to pro-actively and urgently get the NRSO working, for the sake of all the vulnerable persons it is supposed to protect.
The public has until 9 July to comment on the GBV Bills before they are sent for final approval by the president.
Action Society will be hosting a press conference next week to discuss the proposed amendments to the three gender-based violence (GBV) bills: Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill and the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill.
For more information on our press conference please send an e-mail to: email@example.com.