Since 2020, Police Minister Bheki Cele has paraded the establishment of gender-based violence (GBV) desks at every police station as an important lever in the police’s fight against GBV and femicide but closer scrutiny of public announcements and briefings to Parliament show the police are falling short on their promises, writes the Womxn and Democracy Initiative’s Lenina Rassool.
Establishing gender-based violence (GBV) desks at police stations was first mentioned by Police Minister Bheki Cele during a multi-stakeholder panel discussion on GBV during Women’s Month in August 2020.
The GBV desks, said Cele, would help “… because we are told by the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority] that you win or you lose your case on first contact [with the police] … so we don’t have this clash of people not knowing what to do and not taking the issue at hand in a very serious light”.
Three months later, Cele told the National Assembly, that alongside the Family Violence, Child Protection, and Sexual Offences units (FCS) and NPA, they would be “training the permanent police who will permanently occupy the GBV desk in different police stations”. The training, he said, would include the basic way of taking statements as well as “to have some empathy so that they don’t do things like chasing away the people that are there”.
Fast forward to February 2022, the minister announced there were “GBV desks at 381 police stations across the country and 91 489 police officers have been trained in victim empowerment, domestic violence, [and] sexual offences-related programmes to ensure victim-centred service is provided by officers at police stations”. There are 1 156 police stations in the country and Cele vowed to have a GBV desk at every one of them by end of March 2022.
What’s reported is not there
Yet, just more than a month later in May, national police commissioner General Fannie Masemola told MPs in Parliament’s Standing Committee on Appropriations the police still has to audit all the police stations to ensure they have GBV desks.
This audit will start soon, he told MPs.
Masemola responded after EFF MP Natasha Ntlangwini called the police out on the promised GBV desks. Given the police undertook to have a GBV desk at every police station by the end of March this year, Ntlangwini asked why Nyanga police station did not have one. Nyanga is listed as one of the 30 hot spots for GBV the police identified in 2020, which means it should have been one of the first group of stations to receive a desk.
“It is concerning that when certain things are reported to the committee, they are not there in actuality. What oversight does the SAPS have regarding the establishment of GBV desks?” Ntlangwini asked, adding the lack of actual GBV desks in police stations was alarming and disappointing.
DA MP Ashor Sarupen shared Ntlangwini’s concern and said while GBV desks have been set up in his constituency (Brakpan, Springs and Nigel), they were not functional. By June this year, at least two police stations in Cape Town – Kensington and Cravenby – did not have functional and visible GBV desks.
GBV desks: A repeat of victim-friendly rooms’ shortcomings?
Four days later, also in May, Deputy Police Minister Cassel Mathale, during the police budget vote, said the police had established GBV desks in all police stations and their focus for this financial year would be to “capacitate these GBV desks and establish victim-friendly rooms”.
Cele, during his budget speech, also announced, “these desks are staffed with members trained in gender-based violence and femicide-related courses. To date, 82 577 police officers have undergone such training”.
Yet, the victim-friendly rooms (VFR) the deputy minister alluded to, have been around since 2013 and then-minister of police Nathi Mthethwa reported 819 VFRs had already been established, and 87 more at other service points. The police have regularly come under fire for the poor functioning of some of these victim-friendly rooms.
For example, an investigation by the Western Cape Police Ombud in 2020 following a complaint by Philisa Abafazi Bethu – an organisation working to empower women and children – found various shortcomings in the functioning of the victim-friendly rooms at some police stations.
It was found at some police stations, officers often record the wrong information in registers, fail to inform victims of their rights, and these interviews are often not conducted in the victim-friendly rooms.
Victim-friendly rooms at police stations have historically relied on unpaid volunteers to provide support to victims when reporting GBV.
The lack of volunteers has repeatedly been flagged as a failure of the programme, with the reporting during the 2020 Western Cape Police Ombud investigation the “main challenge is VEP volunteers are not available at various police stations” and “this can be attributed to the fact that it is a voluntary, not compulsory service nor are they compensated”.
The director of the Callas Foundation in Bridgetown, Caroline Peters, who has facilitated training with police officers and volunteers staffing the victim-friendly rooms since it was first launched in 2013, said there did not seem to be much difference between the GBV desks and the already established victim-friendly rooms at stations.
Peters recently conducted training at two local police stations for the launch of their GBV desks but said training was primarily with volunteers staffing the victim-friendly rooms.
“There seems to be no clear mandate on the GBV desks and every police station is doing their own thing,” she added.
Speaking in an interview with SABC News in March this year, researcher Lisa Vetten questioned how GBV desks would differ from the previously established victim-friendly rooms and victim empowerment centres.
“I think what [Minister Bheki Cele] is doing is a classic problem we have in South Africa – we consistently confuse form over function.
“By that I mean we set up a structure and think that the structure is going to do the magic and it’s going to change the situation, whereas it’s actually – are the people who work in that structure adequately trained, do they know what the law is, are they empathetic, are they linked to a series of referral networks to get women to shelters or to other counselling services?
“And those questions he doesn’t ask. He just says to us, ‘we’re setting up a desk’, without telling us what are the qualifications, the skills, and capacities of the people who are going to be working at those desks.”
Not operating as effectively as it should
Back in December 2021, during a briefing to the Portfolio Committee on Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, the police told MPs the desks would ensure a specialised individual with the proper understanding, preparedness, and training on gender-based violence and femicide would focus on assisting victims when they reported at the station.
The police told MPs “once these desks started operating and were fully prepared and capacitated, this would enable better response rates to the complaints received and the provision of better care to the victims so that they would not be exposed to secondary victimisation”.
During another briefing to MPs in the Portfolio Committee on Police on the Domestic Violence Act in May this year, Masemola described the GBV desks as a frontline service.
“When members of the public approach the Community Service Centre [CSC], they should be able to identify the GBV desk and not need to stand in the normal queue for assistance,” he said. “It is intended that victims should be able to access services on enquiry at the front desk – also known as the Community Service Centre,” Masemola said.
However, when the police finally responded to our media queries in June 2022, almost three months after it had been sent and acknowledged, police spokesperson Colonel Athlenda Mathe acknowledged “it is possible that the implementation of these desks may not be operating as effectively as they should as this is a new initiative”.
Responding to whether the police had had any results regarding the effectiveness of the GBV desks, Mathe said a work-study report was completed and approved by the former national commissioner on 27 September 2021.
“The pilot was initiated with the establishment of GBV desks and it is expected that concrete results on lessons learnt and sound practices should be available after 30 June 2022. Adjustments will be done after the first evaluation depending on the findings,” Mathe added.
Figures Mathe provided on the number of GBV desks currently at police stations showed 1 094 out of 1 155 police stations have already established GBV desks around the country.
– Lenina Rassool is a correspondent for the Womxn and Democracy Initiative and is editorially independent.