The Act prescribes life imprisonment for gang rape, rape of a child under the age of 16 or rape of a physically disabled or mentally ill person.
The expanded the definition of rape, previously limited to vaginal sex, includes all non-consensual penetration in any orifice and equalised the age of consent for heterosexual and homosexual sex at 16. It also created a National Register for sex offenders, which records the detail of convicted sexual offenders against children and the mentally disabled.
A series of recent judgments have however moved away from life imprisonment, especially in incest cases involving family members where the victims did not suffer serious injuries.
Prominent criminal law expert Dr Llewellyn Curlewis said most sexual offence cases were not reported in the law reports because they were heard in the magistrate’s courts and often took place behind closed doors.
Because children were involved, such cases were often also kept away from the media, and the offenders couldn’t be identified to protect their identities.
It was often only when an offender had enough money to take the case on appeal that it was eventually reported.
He said sexual offences were regarded in a very serious light and the Sexual Offences Act contained very specific descriptions of crime and prescribed specific sentences for those crimes.
One couldn’t compare offen-ces such as possession of child pornography with, for example, child rape.
“Typically offenders are imprisoned, but one can’t follow a blanket approach.
“A person who indecently assaulted a child can’t be punished as harshly as someone who raped (and seriously injured) a child,” Curlewis said.
Another prominent criminal advocate, Johan Engelbrecht SC, said if one looked at recently reported cases, courts seemed to move away from a blanket approach and place a greater emphasis on the specific circumstances of each case.