I have watched child pornography.
I was a 21-year-old court reporter covering the trial of a man who recorded his sexual violation of children on camera. I thought I could look at the images of wide-eyed and naked children being raped without being tainted, that my psyche was impenetrable.
My arrogance was astounding. I was horribly wrong.
When the now-infamous video of a 17-year-old Soweto teenager being gang-raped flooded the nation’s Twitter timelines and Facebook statuses last week, I chose not to watch it.
But, like those images of little children being raped, I also know that the video, for all its gut-wrenching horror, is now something that its creator would never have predicted: evidence.
And, in a case where the victim of the alleged gang rape is mentally disabled, that video – intended as a trophy – may become the perfect witness to what could ordinarily have been a perfect crime.
The rape of mentally disabled or disturbed adults and children is alarmingly prevalent, say mental health organisations. Just days after the gang rape video was released, Soweto police confirmed that two young women had been arrested for the alleged rape and indecent assault of two mentally disabled teenage boys.
In this case, there was no video.
One of the boys had told his grandmother, haltingly, what had happened to him. Police spokesman Kay Makhubele admitted that gathering the evidence needed to ensure convictions in the case would be a major challenge.
“It’s very difficult. More especially because he is a man who cannot talk for himself and explain what actually happened, but we will try our best to make sure that we utilise the resources we have – forensic social workers, etc – who can assist us in terms of getting more information about the incident.”
The teenage boy’s grandmother is determined that the young woman suspected of raping him will be convicted. She says he was a virgin at the time of the alleged rape and had been specifically put on psychiatric medicine to prevent him “from having those desires”.
She clearly remembers the night he told her he’d been raped.
“It was around nine o’clock at night when he told me that he wants to tell me something. I had just given him some juice. When we went to the bedroom he told me that the sister of the suspect had made his friend show her his penis after giving both the boys wine.
“He was trying to leave when the suspect stopped him and took him back to the house, where she put him in the bedroom, stripped his clothes off and then climbed on top of him.”
After the teenager’s grandmother confronted the woman identified by him as his rapist, she allegedly shouted that she knew nothing about the incident and hadn’t done anything wrong.
But, according to the grandmother, “the suspect, her aunt and her mother later came to my house and told my granddaughter that they planned to open a case against the boy because the suspect hadn’t bathed yet.”
Makhubele says the case was never opened. After learning that a rape case had been opened against her and her sister, the young woman went on the run. She and her sister were arrested on Saturday.
The alleged rape victim is now on ARVs and is receiving counselling.
“He is not feeling okay because he’s taking the tablets and he’s traumatised,” his grandmother says, “At the moment I don’t even wish to talk to the suspect… I can’t, really I can’t. Because with my knowledge I wasn’t expecting my grandson to have sex because he’s taking tablets from the psychiatrist that he mustn’t have feelings… I’m so disappointed.”
The woman admits that she is concerned that her grandson will now be targeted for sexual attack again. The once outgoing teenager who dreamed of being a bus driver has become increasingly aggressive and withdrawn.
“I don’t know what I will do but I’m looking for help,” she says.
Her concern is not unjustified. The Soweto gang rape victim had been sexually violated at least two times before the latest attack on her was caught on camera. And the fact that her alleged rapists thought nothing of recording their attack on a cellphone camera is a clear and disturbing demonstration of their own powerful sense of impunity.
The National Prosecuting Authority has been at pains to warn the public that anyone who posted the video link was, effectively, distributing child pornography. But the state also knows that the video ensures that its prosecution is not dependent on the evidence of a traumatised and mentally disabled teenager.
If it were, it would probably never have made it to court.
The video is also evidence of what experts say is the widespread sexual abuse of the mentally disabled. They appear to be the perfect victims: often unable to comprehend their own right to say no and usually incapable of testifying.
According to Bharti Patel of the South African Federation for Mental Health, the rape of the mentally disabled is a stark demonstration of just how little their humanity is recognised, appreciated or understood.
“Society at large doesn’t value persons with mental illness… There’s an underlying assumption that people with mental illness do not have feelings and cannot lead meaningful lives and, because of this, they are taken advantage of.”
Patel says increasing numbers of so-called “disabled rape” cases are being reported, something she regards as a positive.
“I think it’s through education and awareness that people understand that there is something wrong happening in communities and more cases are being brought forward.”
Tragically, it has taken a recorded gang rape for South Africa to be confronted with something that Patel and her fellow mental health workers have been fighting against for years: the belief that those outside so-called “normal” mental parameters are less than human, and that they can be violated, again and again.
Until, that is, a rapist – puffed up by his own arrogance – decided to film what had become the routine abuse of a teenage girl. Until the sounds of her begging for mercy and the jeers of her rapists offering her R2 made her victimisation unavoidable. And until that video, once a trophy, spread like a virus and became something else entirely: an indictment.
Now we can’t look away.