A Critique of South African Police Training for Dealing with Rape Cases

A Critique of South African Police Training for Dealing with Rape Cases

Rauch, J. (1994). A Critique of South African Police Training for Dealing with Rape Cases. In Jagwanth, S., Schwikkard, P.J. & Grant, B. (eds), Women and the Law, HSRC Publishers, Pretoria.


Janine Rauch

In Jagwanth, S., Schwikkard, P.J. & Grant, B. (eds), Women and the Law, pp. 225-236, HSRC Publishers, Pretoria 1994.

Janine Rauch is an independent consultant.

Training provision at all levels of the South African Police (SAP) is characterised by a formal and traditional approach to learning. There is little emphasis placed on the acquisition of the skills of good policework, and the only areas in which practical training is offered relates to the use of firearms and training received by some specialised units (for example, the Internal Stability Unit or the forensics section).

The basic training1 is characterised by an emphasis on military style discipline. The highly militarised police culture creates and reinforces a gendered style of policework which supports masculine values and practice. Within this context, the potential benefits of any new forms of training have to be weighed against the effect of the police culture in negative training and reproducing the status quo. Training is seen as something which happens within the police colleges, rather than as a regular part of policework. As a result, training as an occupation has been devalued within the police culture.

Training has only recently begun to be prioritised by the SAP, as part of their new 'Strategic Plan'. (The Minister of Law and Order has appointed an "international committee of experts" to look into the reform of police training). The planning and provision of training continues to be conducted almost exclusively by police officers, with limited utilisation of outside expertise.

SAP Basic Training and Rape

The central problem with the SAP's basic training is that it is highly theoretical and not oriented towards the acquisition of skills. This is also a problem in relation to the rape training component. A further problem is that the training is fragmented, which means that legal, procedural and social aspects of rape are dealt with separately, by different instructors and at different times. Some sections of the syllabus are dealt with only superficially or left out altogether if scheduling towards the end of the training period does not permit adequate time. Such gaps are rarely, if ever, addressed by further training at station level.

The most concentrated sessions on rape in of the basic training syllabus is contained in a course entitled 'Background and Personality Development'. This course appears to be a rather ad hoc assortment of issues,2 largely added to the syllabus as a result of criticism of police practice. the course notes acknowledge that police officials are often 'untactful or inconsiderate in dealing with rape victims'.

This section begins with an exposition of six misconceptions about rape which 'unfortunately exist even among police officials'. While it may be a praiseworthy attempt to change attitudes towards, survivors, the material is presented in an extremely limiting and theoretical manner.

The rape myths offered in the text are as follows:3

  • One man on his own cannot rape a woman.
  • A woman who has, indeed, been raped must be able to show evidence of physical injuries.
  • If a woman genuinely does not wish to have sexual intercourse with a man, she will resist him physically.
  • Only women belonging to the lower classes of society are raped.
  • It can be expected that a woman who is being raped must raise the alarm by crying out or calling for help.
  • Women are raped because of their own negligence.

These myths are then rebutted with varying degrees of effectiveness. Arguments range from 'this is absolute nonsense' to a brief reference to the difference between submission and permission. The extent to which rebuttal of these myths is successful depends largely on the initiative of individual instructors. Further, some of the explanations generate more problems than they solve. For example, the reply to the myth that women are raped because of their own negligence, is that 'women may, in some cases be raped because of their own negligence'; but, 'they have nevertheless been raped and thus should be afforded the same sensitivity and respect of any rape complainant'.

The section which deals with the effect of rape on the victim succeeds in covering most of the important issues, but, again, there is no experiential discussion which would improve retention by students.

The section on dealing with a rape victim offers basic guidelines for young police officers dealing with a rape complainant who reports the offence at the charge office. There is little recognition by SAP trainers that practice is the best method of transferring skills, and that the instruction to 'treat the rape victim tactfully, courteously and respectfully' might carry more weight if there was a practical component to the session. Further, it appears that by far the majority of rape cases are not reported at a station, but at the scene of the crime, and this aspect is sketchily dealt with.

The wording of some sections of the text reinforces problems, rather than dealing with them. For example,

Make the following cursory observations immediately: In what condition is the complainant psychologically and physically? How is she reacting? Has she sustained noticeable physical injuries? Does she smell of liquor? It is important to establish the latter completely unobtrusively.

Make her feel comfortable and be careful, at this stage, not to give any indication of, or disclose any suspicions you might harbour concerning her first report. Rather be polite and understanding without being unduly sympathetic.4

The assignment for students on this section of the course is to write an essay 'with regard to a rape victim who reports the case at the charge office'. There is no practical application, role-playing training or evaluation.

It was my observation in the basic training colleges, that the subject of rape was emphasised for female trainees and taken less seriously by male trainees. This is because the SAP has a policy whereby policewomen deal with rape complainants if possible. However, there are far fewer policewomen than reported rape cases. Relatively few policewomen work in charge offices or flying squads and these are often the first contacts the complainant has with the police. It is therefore seldom possible for a rape complainant to deal with a policewoman.

Despite the impression created in the basic training classrooms that rape cases are 'women's work', the official discourse around rape is still highly masculine. This is well illustrated by the following extract from the 'Background and Personality Development' course notes:

The police official must treat the victim exactly as he would have wished his own mother or wife, or sister, or girlfriend, to have been treated in the same circumstances.5

The training context, method and style are critical to establishing police attitudes and practice in relation to women and rape. For this reason, reform of police training around rape needs to be part of a greater reform exercise, and will not be achieved by selective reformulation of rape training texts within the current curriculum.

Specialised Training for Rape Cases: The Johannesburg Programme

The Johannesburg rape training programme was an ad hoc project initiated by the SAP's public relations department in response to press and public panic about the violent serial 'Yeoville rapist'. The programme was run over three days (in December 1992), with inputs from Lifeline, NICRO, the Project for the Study of Violence, UNISA, the SAP and Rape Crisis.

The participants in the programme were approximately 25 female members of the SAP from stations in the greater Johannesburg area (excluding Soweto). It appears that a request was made by the regional public relations office for stations to send women members and that this was done without careful selection. The majority of the policewomen had never attended to a rape case, and many of them work in roles which make it unlikely that they will ever do so. The majority of the participants were young and relatively recent graduates of the police colleges, having completed less than two years service.

The programme consisted of inputs from the various organisations mentioned above. There was inadequate co-ordination between the presenters and much of the content overlapped, consequently, trainees were subjected to repeated coverage of the same issues. The programme was planned to focus on suspects (types of rapists) and victims (The experience and effects of rape). One of the sessions developed into a lengthy discussion about the policewomen's need for support, especially when dealing repeatedly with rape cases. This was not a planned component of the programme, but was seized upon enthusiastically by the policewomen, demonstrating an area of need. The practical aspects of the course were dealt with by senior police officers who covered interviewing techniques and the taking of statements.

The regional public relations office issued a press release about this programme, advertising the fact that the police were receiving specialised training for rape cases. This initiative was aimed at countering negative publicity with the SAP had received for their handling of two cases of serial rapists in the white suburbs. However, it was later acknowledged that the press coverage of the training exercises had raised public expectations and that the police would not be able to meet these.

And evaluation of the specialised rape training programme raised the following issues:

Trainees' Expectations:

The majority of policewomen who attended the programme had not been briefed about what it would cover or how they would be expected to perform. Many of them did not know why they had been sent to attend the course. They expected to learn 'everything from A to Z about rape', or at least to receive a more thorough practical training in police procedures regarding rape.

Trainers' Expectations:

The civilian trainers all felt that their role was to concentrate on the rape survivor and to get the trainees to understand the effects of rape, and thus deal more sensitively and effectively with complainants. They also expected the policewomen to be more experienced and for all to be dealing with rape cases.

Trainees' Evaluation:

Although all the trainees felt that they had learned and gained by the experience, they expressed some frustration at the lack of practical application of what they had learned. Some felt that more time should have been spent on investigation procedures, and that the use of case studies would have been helpful. The desire for more experienced police officers to be involved as trainers was probably also related to an unease with the methodology used by civilian trainers. There was an emphasis on the fact that the role of the police in a rape case was investigation to achieve prosecution, not to provide counselling to the victim. However, they were extremely appreciative of the time spent discussing their own reactions and need for emotional support.

Trainers' Evaluation:

The trainers felt that more time was needed to cover all aspects properly. They had not been prepared to deal with the tension which arose between the investigation and counselling roles demanded of the police officer. They recognised the need to learn more about the mechanics of police procedures concerning rape cases. They expressed a need for such programmes to be more carefully targeted at policewomen who were dealing with rape cases, especially black policewomen (who were severely under-represented in this programme). They also felt that more preparation and time should have been devoted to the discussion on policewomen's emotions and needs. It was agreed that the trainees should in future be informed and prepared for the course in advance.

Comments on Training Methodology:

The need for co-ordination and streamlining of the programme was acknowledged by the trainers. The trainees had found the repetition of certain aspects boring and demotivating. However, the trainees' major complaint concerned the role-play methods used by trainers. Two groups of trainers had asked the students to do 'ice-breaking' and role-play exercises, which students had found uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but they also questioned whether civilian trainers would actually be able to assess whether or not the trainees were conforming to police procedures during the role plays. It was clear that simulation exercises were foreign methods of training within the police force, and that unless trainers actively attempted to reduce discomfort, the trainees would learn nothing from them. For some of the trainees, who work in unrelated fields, it was as difficult to role-play an investigating officer as to role-play a rape complainant. The trainees also requested that they be given 'something to keep' from the training, for example, a manual, as well as contact numbers for the civilian trainers so that they could contact them again for advice or support.


This preliminary evaluation suggests that the following areas need to be addressed:

Selection of candidates:

Obviously it is desirable that any member of the police force who is going to come into contact with complainants should be well trained to deal with rape cases. This should be regarded as part of the SAP's general strategy to improve police-community relations. However, there is a need to distinguish between education for all force members regarding rape, and a particular skills-oriented training programme for those who actually deal with rape cases.


Not only does the preparation by the outside trainers need to be more rigorous, but it is also vital to ensure that the trainees know what to expect. This places an obligation on trainers to explain and describe the activities they are going to undertake, and to give reasons as to why these 'activities' are necessary.

Police education about rape:

The large number of rape cases that are unreported, together with women's concerns about police attitude to rape, suggest that urgent attention must be paid to a rape education programme for the entire police force. This would best be achieved as part of a general reformulation of police training, rather than as a 'band-aid' approach. Such an education programme would have to be based on an appreciation of, and a challenge to, the power of the police culture in shaping attitudes towards women and towards violence. Unless this culture is addressed by a range of strategies (and training is but one), the impact of isolated attempts at re-education will be severely limited.

Skills training for handling rape cases:

The low rate of successful prosecutions and the dissatisfaction of complainants at the way rape cases are dealt with suggest a need for an improvement in practical policing skills in relation to rape. (Such training should not be limited to policewomen.) These would range from skills in dealing with complainants, taking of statements, handling of evidence and investigation. This requires more technical expertise than is likely to be easily available in South Africa at present and thus it may be useful to import foreign expertise in this area. However, it is also important to begin to build local capacity in the area of police skills training.

Trainers and their methods:

The Johannesburg experience suggests that training methods are critical to the success or new ventures in this area. It requires that trainers are familiar with the style of police training, the characteristics of police culture, and with techniques of reducing discomfort at unfamiliar methods. The trainers themselves will need to be capable of dealing with the difficulties inherent in working with the police. Although it is desirable that many aspects of police training should be conducted by civilians, it is equally important to develop a capacity for 'new-style' training within the police institutions themselves.

Support for police officers who deal with rape:

What has become clear in the Johannesburg programme is that police officers who deal with rape do not receive adequate support from within the SAP. This creates an opportunity for other groups to develop programmes, in conjunction with the SAP, to relieve occupational stress and increase police officers' capacity to deal with rape cases. It is clear that there is a particular need for support among policewomen who are located in an overwhelmingly macho environment.

Evaluation of new programmes:

It is essential that any new programme should be subject to regular evaluation and reformulation. Ideally, evaluations should be conducted by groups consisting of both police and involved civilian groups. Such evaluations can feed into curriculum development, as well as into processes of redrafting police standing orders and procedures. Without a systematic evaluation component, training gains may be lost within the larger system, and lessons learned in one experience may not be appropriately transmitted to others.


The problems surrounding police handling of rape cases are not simply training problems. This article only deals with the limited aspect of training. Broader problems of police attitudes to women in general, and to violence against women in particular, require further attention.

Despite the educative work feminists in many countries are attempting with the police, there is a general lack of awareness of the power dynamics behind woman's need for assistance. The police continue to bring to their work common-sense assumptions about the types of women likely to call them out … beliefs about the essential natures of women and men.6

The crisis in police-community relations threatens South Africa's future. Women are a part of both the community and the police agencies. They have an interest in restoring that relationship, and a right to the particular rewards it could bring them.

Feminist expectations of the policing task are not centred on procedural issues around arrest or non-arrest, but on securing the present and future safety of women.7


1 For a more detailed critique of SAP basic training see J. Rauch (1991) Rauch, J. (1992). South African Police Basic Training: A preliminary assessment. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Seminar No. 3, April.

2 It includes inter alia, sections on police-community relations, crime prevention, drunkenness and racist remarks.

3 SAP 'Background and Personality Development' (1991) 35-6.

4 Ibid. 38.

5 Ibid. 39.

6 Hanmer, Radford & Stanko (eds) Women, Policing and male Violence (1989).

7 Ibid. 196.

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