The #LionMama Case

In September 2017, an Eastern Cape woman, who has become known as “Lion Mama” *, was charged with fatally stabbing a man and wounding two others after finding them raping her daughter.

Recently, after widespread public support and outcry, “Lion Mama” was set free as the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) Shaun Abrahams withdrew all charges against her, a decision that was welcomed by South Africans.

“The state has withdrawn the charges. This means that she is free, and the state will not be pursuing criminal charges against her. The decision was taken by the NDPP – he looked at the docket, and based on the evidence, a decision was taken not to proceed with the case,” said Luxolo Tyali, spokesperson for the National Prosecution Authority (NPA) in the Eastern Cape.

However, whether or not the case was dismissed based of self-defence is still unclear. The NPA, which is mandated to prosecute crimes in South Africa, has merely perused the docket, considered the evidence of the case and, as a result, withdrew the charges.

When deciding to prosecute, the NPA looks at a myriad of factors:  first and most importantly, they consider whether taking legal action will result in a successful prosecution. If they think, after looking at the facts objectively, that it would not, they may withdraw the charges so not to waste state resources.

Although, according to the Prosecuting Policy, they may consider other factors, including the interest of the community, the broader community, the victim and the circumstances of the offender.

“Lion Mama” was initially charged with murder and two attempts of murder. On the night of the incident, she was alerted of the rape by one of her daughter’s friends, and immediately phoned the police, which failed to respond. Desperate to save her daughter, she took a knife from her home and, along with members of her immediate community, went over to the unoccupied house where her daughter was being violated. She decided to enter the house alone and tried to rescue her daughter.  In the process, she stabbed all three rapists, killing one of them.

Self-Defence Laws in South Africa

When looking at the very brief facts that are in the public domain, one easily judges it as self-defence.

“In South Africa, self-defence rests on the common law principle that you may protect your right to life and dignity. The requirement for self-defence is merely that the attack was unlawful and violent and you tried to thwart the attack. It is important to note that you may not use excessive force, the defence must correspond to the attack. In other words, you cannot shoot someone if they only slap you. You must be in imminent danger, and your reaction must be reasonable given the attack,” states Jackie Nagtegaal, Managing Director of LAW FOR ALL.

From a legal perspective, this causes a grey area when it comes to cases of rape. Rape is considered an act of extreme violence. It is also an epidemic in South Africa with over 30 000 reported cases and an estimated 480 000 cases of sexual assault (it is widely known that not all cases are reported). But, the question remains: is killing your rapist, during the attack, constitute an act of self-defence?

While circumstances differ from case to case, the Constitution states that no one may take the law into their own hands.  However, should rape victims fear for their lives, they may protect themselves. It is justified if it is reasonably necessary to repel the attacker. The defender would have to prove that they were, in fact, in real danger, which becomes complicated as rape is a notoriously difficult crime to prove and often one’s word against another’s.

Standing Together Against Rape Culture

Of course, this is incredibly problematic as the law suggests that there are instances where rape victims don’t fear for their lives or can reasonably perceive when it is justifiable to repel their attacker. Simply put, we need to do more for the women of South Africa and take more action against the pervasive rape culture in our country- there can’t be grey areas when it comes to rape.

For now, we have to do what we can for women who need it the most since the law has become incredibly inaccessible for the underprivileged. Cape Town resident Natalie Kendrick started a fundraising campaign for “Lion Mama” and LAW FOR ALL also stepped in to help.  LAW FOR ALL covered all of the expert reports that were needed for the case.

The woman and her daughter will now be receiving counselling and protection in Queenstown, Eastern Cape.

* The woman cannot be named to protect her and her daughter’s identities.