The government is giving the courts the power to mete out harsher punishment to rapists, especially those who attack the elderly.
The ministers of justice and correctional services have drawn up the Introduction of the Judical Matters Amendment Bill.
The bill, to be debated in parliament this week, is intended to effect amendments to more than one piece of primary legislation, in the interest of improving the administration of, and access to, justice.
The biggest effect will be on the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1997, which provides for a minimum sentence of life imprisonment for rape.
The rapes specified in the 1997 act are those committed against children 16 years or younger, and against physically or mentally disabled people.
The new bill adds older persons to the list of victims whose rape carries a minimum sentence of life imprisonment.
Nearly 150 women report being raped daily, but fewer than 30 of these cases are prosecuted and no more than 10 result in a conviction.
In the police crime statistics for the 2015-2016 financial year, 51895 sexual offences were reported, 80% of which were rapes.
The statistics do not give the number of elderly victims.
The bill is being introduced as a 28-year-old man awaits trial for raping a 94-year-old Free State grandmother after he allegedly broke into her home in August.
A 15-year-old Limpopo boy was arrested in June for the rape of his 77-year-old grandmother.
Last month, an 18-year-old Eastern Cape man was arrested for the rape of an 86-year-old grandmother.
In November, a 19-year-old Free State man was sentenced to 10 years in jail for the rape of his 73-year-old grandmother
“[The elderly] often do not report sexual abuse or sexual assault,” the Justice Department said. “Many need the help of a care provider and, in many cases, when an older adult is sexually abused or assaulted the perpetrator is the caregiver.”
In a study by the department of older female sexual-abuse victims, the abuse was, in most cases, perpetrated by the victim’s primary caregiver.
“The physical and psychological trauma of rape of older persons is significant and thus calls for the greater protection of older persons,” said the department.
Although the bill has been generally welcomed, there has been some criticism.
Lisa Vetten, a researcher at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said she was uncomfortable with categorising victims because it could imply that there were deserving and undeserving victims.
“As we increasingly fragment categories of victims, we create a category of victim that it is less wrong to rape.
“You say that the rape of 18-year-old girls is not as much of a problem.”
Vetten said the irony was that those most at risk of rape were girls aged between 15 and 25.
She said the bill conveyed the message to rapists that it was safest to rape people who were not listed in the bill as being particularly vulnerable.
Vetten said the bill would be improved if the department incorporated into it the recommendations of a Law Commission report intended to provide guidelines as to what could be taken as aggravating and mitigating circumstances in sentencing.
She said it was bizarre that the law had created a category of “normal rape”, with a 10-year sentence, and “abnormal rape”, which carried a life sentence.
Constitutional law expert Marinus Wiechers said minimum sentences would not in themselves be a deterrent.
“It’s interesting that there is discrimination [in favour of people] not getting a minimum of life imprisonment for raping people who were not disabled, children or elderly.
“What will deter people are strong and resolute sentences in every case, taking all relevant factors into account.”
Deputy Justice Minister John Jeffery said the failure to list older persons as vulnerable was an obvious gap that should be plugged.
“Minimum sentences started because the legislature wanted to convey the seriousness of offences to the judiciary. This bill sends this message.”
Of the criticism, Jeffery said it was something to consider.
Pat Lindgren, of Action on Elder Abuse SA, said the proposed amendment was a step in the right direction.
“I believe [the proposal] is because of the increasing number of rapes being brought out into the open. Older persons are a vulnerable group, especially those who are mentally or physically frail.”
She said it would help decrease such rapes if older persons reported them.
“It’s difficult to get a case to court because older persons do not speak out and are traumatised by their treatment when they report their attack to the police.”
Criminal defence lawyer Pieter de Weerdt said the bill was long overdue because of the prevalence of this type of crime.
“It’s surprisingly prevalent and often goes with house robberies.
“Anything that deters people from raping, and getting them to only take a few household items and leave, is good.
“You don’t stop crime but you do alter behaviour.
“It won’t stop people from robbing your home, but they will be more inclined to leave your mother and grandmother alone.”