Two sisters who barricaded furniture against their bedroom door as children, and urinated on a folded towel to avoid leaving their room, will finally face the men they are accusing of indecent assault in the 1970s in a historic court case in Cape Town later this month.
“I had tried a number of times to bring it up with my dad,” Lisa van der Merwe told News24 ahead of the case set down for August 15.
The case is to be heard in the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court.
But whenever she told her father and stepmother what the men were doing to her and her sister Claudine Shiels in their room in Zeekoevlei, Cape Town, they were brushed aside.
It was only when her father caught one of the men allegedly in the act, that they believed her.
“My father was so angry that he knocked his teeth right out of his mouth,” said Van der Merwe. “But I was told to go back to my room as though I had caused all the trouble.”
Now 56, Van der Merwe said that in the 1970s, those sorts of accusations were not really spoken about or taken further. She described their childhood home as a “party house”. Her late father and her stepmother’s friends came over and drank and danced, and passed out on the couches.
While this was happening in the rest of the house, the girls were allegedly being abused in their bedroom by the two men. Van der Merwe was 11 and Shiels was 15 at the time. She said at the time, she and her sister did not talk about it.
However, they would lock the door and then push the furniture against the door, relieving themselves on the folded towel so that they did not have to leave the room and encounter one of the men on the way to the bathroom.
However, the key to their room door disappeared.
“We didn’t even discuss the door. All she [Claudine] said to me was ‘help me’. But they pushed the furniture and broke through.” Van der Merwe said the experiences led to the sisters becoming angry towards each other, then distant and eventually estranged.
She buried the trauma and went on to marry her husband, with hardly any ties left to her birth family. Years later they took in the son of a relative battling drug addiction, but he swopped addictions and went off the drugs but on to alcohol. One day he hit her in a fit of rage.
Van der Merwe’s husband and son stood up for her by chasing the man out of the house and telling him never to come back. “It was a defining moment,” she said.
It cut the last remaining link she had with her family and the alleged perpetrators. “I spoke to my husband, I said ‘now I can speak’.”
Her husband, who has always known about her experiences, said to her: “Do you know that you can actually do something about it?”
He had read an article about a court judgment relating to allegations of indecent assault made by eight people against the late Sydney Frankel. The case turned on the constitutionality of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977 — and an order to amend a section which set a 20-year prescribed period on prosecuting sex-related cases, other than rape or compelled rape.
The Frankel judgment had the effect of setting in motion an amendment to the Act so that other decades-old sex-related crimes beyond those two categories could also be prosecuted. Van der Merwe said her and sister had been slowly re-establishing contact, and so she asked her sister if she wanted to join her in opening a complaint against the two men.
At first her sister was hesitant, but she phoned back and said, “I’m in”. “We’re 100% on the same page,” Shiels told News24.
Van der Merwe said she was thrilled that the police and National Prosecuting Authority had decided to go ahead with a prosecution and said they had been extremely supportive towards them. She hoped that their action would spur on other people who had similar stories to tell.
She explained that the charges against the men were originally rape, but the lawyers for the two successfully argued that it be amended to indecent assault, hence the importance of the Frankel judgment.
She said she had phoned one of the men to confront him over what he had done and he had allegedly responded: “I was just having a bit of fun” and ended the call.
She said they were later offered an apology and R10 000 to put it behind them, but turned it down. “They must go to jail,” she said.