CGE Investigation Report into the state of shelters in South Africa

Public Works and Infrastructure

07 November 2023
Chairperson: Ms N Ntobongwana (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


In a virtual meeting, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) briefed the Portfolio Committee on the state of shelters for the victims of abuse in South Africa, highlighting the 2018/19 investigation report which had been prompted by numerous complaints from those who had suffered from gender-based violence (GBV).

The CGE drew attention to the challenges faced by both the Department of Social Development (DSD) and the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) in providing suitable locations and developing appropriate shelters. A major concern was the lack of adequate security at the shelters, which posed additional danger to the victims of abuse.

The recommendations included allocating disused or abandoned government buildings to shelters, taking care of boy children as well as girls, catering to the needs of those with disabilities, and collaboration between the DPWI, DSD, and CGE in decision-making processes. The DPWI had identified and inspected properties across various provinces, but challenges persisted in renovating and making them suitable for GBV survivors. Despite commitments and plans, the implementation of recommendations had experienced delays, and unused buildings were awaiting renovation to accommodate survivors effectively.

Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks

The Chairperson opened the meeting noting the Commission for Gender Equality was called before the Committee as a constitutional chapter nine institution to promote and protect gender equality in government, civil society and the private sector. For several years, especially 2018/19, the Commission received several complaints about gender-based violence (GBV) with victims often left without places of protection or shelter. The CGE then investigated the state of shelters in SA. The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) is the key roleplayer, as the custodian of government property, in identifying properties to be used as shelters and centres for protecting victims of GBV. This is what the Committee would be overseeing.  The Committee would hear from the Commission how DPWI is complying with the CGE recommendations on properties to be utilised as centres for protection and safe homes for GBV victims. As the custodian of government property, the Committee is really interested in the role DPWI is playing. The Committee would follow up with the Department after it heard from the CGE today.

She welcomed the CGE to the meeting.

Apologies were tabled.

CGE Investigation Report into the state of shelters in South Africa

Dr Dennis Matotoka, Acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), said the entity was mandated to promote gender equality, and had conducted a systemic investigation into the state of shelters in South Africa in the 2018/19 financial year. The investigation revealed issues of secondary victimisation at the shelters, leading to recommendations for creating a healthier environment. The CGE's 2022/23 report summarised the findings and challenges in implementing the recommendations. The Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI) had been engaged, and the recommendations had included submitting a comprehensive report, liaising with provincial heads to make properties available, and providing a list of suitable buildings for shelters.

Progress in the 2021/22 financial year included a virtual meeting to make properties available, and the identification and renovation of 54 buildings, with six in Gauteng and six in the Western Cape undergoing the finalisation of lease agreements. Properties in Mpumalanga, the Northern Cape and the Free State awaited recommendations from the Department of Social Development (DSD). Due to financial constraints, the Minister had proposed identifying and renovating two properties per province in the 2020/21 financial year, involving the provincial social development departments in the implementation process.

The Commission notes that there is progress in terms of the DPWI on its implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. However, the DPWI must continue actively engaging with other role players to ensure full compliance with the Commission’s recommendations.

See attached for the full presentation.


Mr I Seitlholo (DA) had conducted oversight at a shelter in Vryburg in the North West, and confirmed that Dr Matotoka had highlighted the challenges within the shelters comprehensively. Drawing from his personal experience as a spouse to a  family violence, child protection and sexual offences (FCS) unit detective, he expressed an understanding of the urgent need for improvement in the shelter chain. He had found the conditions of some visited shelters disheartening, noting issues such as non-functional doors, messy kitchens, and the unsatisfactory attitude of those responsible for providing a haven.

Mr Seitlholo acknowledged the DPWI  as a coordinating department, and emphasised the Committee's previous discussions on taking control of abandoned DPWI buildings. He said the unacceptability of a situation with inadequate shelters across the country, forced people to travel long distances, often with financial constraints.

He asked about the comprehensive report the Commission was supposed to have received from the DPWI in March 2020, and whether it had been submitted. He said he intended to conduct oversight on the report and involve colleagues at the provincial and local levels in the oversight process.

He also questioned the Commission about the location of Fochville. Referring to slide 11, he pointed out the mention of Fochville as being in the North West, and asked if it fell within that province or if it had been part of Gauteng in the past.

Ms A Siwisa (EFF) raised questions about the security at shelters, highlighting cases where perpetrators could still access victims in shelters, and emphasising the vulnerability of those seeking refuge.

Her issues extended to the staff at the shelters, questioning if they truly understood the experiences of victims, encompassing not only women but also children and others who faced secondary victimisation. She urged the DSD to provide answers, as these issues fell under their purview.

Drawing attention to teenage matters, she brought up cases of abuse by parents, both emotionally and physically. She shared a personal experience of dealing with a case where a pregnant teenager had run away due to mistreatment. She sought guidance from the CGE on how to address the plight of abused teenagers who had nowhere to turn and no protective entities in their families.

Ms Siwisa asked about potential action or guidance from the CGE to support teenage mothers who faced challenges due to early pregnancies. Specifically, she asked if there could be measures in place such as shelters or reporting desks, to assist teenage mothers in completing their education and living in a supportive environment.

She questioned whether shelters were designed to be family-based, allowing mothers to stay with their children comfortably. She raised the potential issue of mothers feeling forced to leave their children behind or being threatened if they attempted to leave with their children.

She expressed a desire for assistance to be provided, and indicated that she would appreciate the CGE's involvement, especially considering that these shelters fell under the DPWI. She provided insight into the challenges faced by shelters, noting that while there was cooperation in some instances, there were others where assistance was lacking from the DSD.

Ms Siwisa mentioned the impracticality of having a shelter in town while victims resided in rural areas. The geographical barrier became a significant obstacle, as victims may struggle to access the shelter due to the need for transportation. In rural areas, family pressure could further complicate matters, with victims being coerced by their families to endure difficult situations rather than seeking refuge. She called for the availability of shelters in rural locations, addressing the specific needs and challenges faced by victims in those areas.

Ms L Mjobo (ANC) said the report indicated that the information was obtained from social media, rather than directly from the DSD, and asked why the Commission had not gone directly to the DSD to acquire the report.

The Chairperson noted that the DPWI still fell short of complying with certain recommendations from the investigation. She emphasised the need for increased collaboration, particularly between the DPWI and the DSD. Highlighting the importance of identifying safe homes and ensuring their effectiveness, she recognised the existing challenges.

Referring to the persistent issue of abandoned properties in various towns, she said these properties, often used by criminals, had previously been recommended for donation to municipalities or other departments. She suggested that it would be more fitting for these properties to be donated to the DSD for the establishment of safe homes.

She shared her insights into the state of safe homes in various areas, particularly mentioning a safe home in Manfred (sp) village that served the victims of gender-based violence (GBV) in the Alfred Nzo region. This safe home, situated in Lallini (sp), was built by the community. While acknowledging some support from the DSD in the form of fencing, the Chairperson noted that the building faced challenges such as unsafe doors and furniture in a deteriorated state, as it relied on community donations.

The Chairperson emphasised the need for more efforts in collaboration and ensuring that departments comply with recommendations. She drew attention to unused properties owned by the DPWI in Manfred, Mount Ayliff, Matatiele, Mbizana and Ntabankulu, suggesting that these properties could potentially be utilised for safe homes.

CGE's response

Dr Matotoka responded to the question raised about the submission of the report by the DPWI, and confirmed that the report had indeed been submitted and was available. It was part of the progress report provided by the Department.

Addressing the location of Fochville, he clarified that it fell under Gauteng, not the North West province.

Regarding the security at shelters, Dr Matotoka expressed deep concern about the language and behaviour of security personnel. Sharing insights from an inspection, he said the DSD did not properly vet the security personnel. The language used by the security guards at the entrance was discouraging, demeaning and upsetting, especially towards women admitted to the shelters. He stressed the need for proper vetting to prevent potential risks, including the security guards themselves committing acts of sexual harassment or assault. The lack of gender-sensitive language, and understanding of the trauma that survivors faced, further complicated the situation, potentially leading to secondary victimisation.

He referred to significant issues involving the security measures at some shelters. Noting that some security personnel lacked protective equipment and relied on pepper sprays, he emphasised the potential risks, especially in the face of armed perpetrators. The lack of electric fences and other safety measures further compounded the security issues, with some shelters having inadequate protective structures.

Dr Matotoka pointed out the precarious situation in the Free State, where shelters lacked even basic safety measures, relying solely on fences. He acknowledged the ongoing efforts in the Free State to address these issues, with processes initiated by the provincial office to enhance security.

The importance of heightened security was underscored by the fact that the individuals admitted to these shelters were potential witnesses to heinous offences. He stressed the need for collaboration between the DSD, the South African Police Service (SAPS) and other stakeholders to address security issues and ensure the safety of survivors. The sensitivity of the situation also led to the precaution of not sharing exact shelter locations, to protect the safety of those within.

Dr Matotoka addressed the question about teenage mothers facing abuse from their parents. Acknowledging the urgency of the issue, he said collective efforts were needed to address the challenges faced by teenage mothers. From a procedural perspective, he agreed that a dedicated desk or shelter for teenage mothers was a crucial and urgent matter. Sharing insights from recent visits to hospitals in the Eastern Cape, he revealed distressing information about pregnancies in very young girls, including 10-year-olds and 11-year-olds. Teenage mothers were found to be sharing maternity beds, and some were reluctant to return home due to the risk of abuse by their parents. He stressed that the CGE was aware of the extent of challenges faced by teenage mothers, including the risk of suicide.

He said shelters did accommodate teenagers and had support programmes. However, there were issues about discriminatory clauses in some shelters that restricted the age of boy children allowed, creating an unjustified distinction. The CGE recommended the removal of such clauses to ensure that children, regardless of gender, could be admitted without prejudice.

The importance of understanding the trauma and challenges faced by women, especially those with children, was emphasised. There was a need for a shared understanding, and he recommended the removal of discriminatory clauses to provide comprehensive support for women and their children in shelters.

Dr Matotoka commented on the positive aspect of the investigation, and said that the information gathered was not based on third-party sources, but on direct inspections of shelters. The ability to physically inspect these facilities provided a comprehensive understanding of their condition, including playgrounds and toys that contributed to a family-oriented environment. He expressed satisfaction with the current state of state shelters, noting that they created a reassuring atmosphere, making residents feel at home rather than being in isolation. However, he acknowledged that there was still room for improvement, particularly in state shelters.

The investigation had also extended to private shelters, where individuals, sometimes using their own funds, provided accommodation for survivors of gender-based violence. These private initiatives faced challenges of sustainability and capacity. While they may provide shelter, there was a need for more comprehensive support, including capacity-building, preparation, and counselling for survivors.

Dr Matotoka emphasised the importance of a concerted effort from various institutions, especially the DPWI, to prioritise shelters. Recognising the existing gap between the DSD and the DPWI, he stressed the need for a deliberate and collaborative approach from all stakeholders to address the challenges and ensure the effective provision of shelters for survivors of gender-based violence.

Addressing the question about why the Commission had relied on a media article instead of going directly to the DSD for information, he clarified that as a constitutional body, the CGE had the duty to receive reports from state institutions, not the other way around. While acknowledging challenges in receiving adequate reports, he said it was the responsibility of state institutions to report progress to the Commission. He acknowledged that, towards the end, a comprehensive report had been obtained from the DSD, providing assurance of movement in cooperation and the provision of necessary shelters. However, he was concerned about the slow pace in providing unused buildings for shelters. Given the urgency of addressing GBV in the country, he called for expeditious action on the part of the Department.

Highlighting the need for a concerted effort, Dr Matotoka requested the Portfolio Committee's support in expediting the process, and cooperating with the departments. The achievement of having reliable shelters in the country, crucial for those experiencing violence, required collaboration among the CGE, Portfolio Committees, and the DSD. He stressed the importance of working together to address the pressing issue of GBV.

Adv Nthabiseng Sepanya-Mogale, Chairperson of the Commission, repeated the challenge of family-based shelters, particularly for teenage boys. The issue arose as these boys, who may face rejection due to their age, found limited options for shelter, even though they were considered adults at certain facilities. She pointed out that when these teenage boys reached the age of 18, they were often removed from children's homes, creating a gap for those aged 16 or 17. The rejection they faced from shelters and children's homes due to their age and gender posed a significant societal challenge.

She said there was a need for a comprehensive approach involving various institutions, including the departments of basic and higher education, and the DSD, to create a supportive environment for these young boys. This approach would involve providing catchment areas for them, ensuring they could stay at shelters or children's homes until they completed their education and were prioritised for assistance afterwards.

Adv Mogale highlighted the broader impact of this rejection, pointing out the anger and challenges faced by young men who felt marginalised due to their gender and age. The call for a comprehensive approach sought to address not only immediate shelter needs, but also to assist these young men in breaking away from poverty and ultimately contributing to the well-being of their families.

Further discussion

Ms Siwisa raised a crucial issue about the security at shelters, specifically focusing on the presence of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras for continuous monitoring. She emphasised the importance of such surveillance to prevent perpetrators from gaining access to shelter premises. She was worried that if shelters lacked adequate security measures, perpetrators could easily locate and access these spaces, posing a significant threat to the safety of victims.

She highlighted the apparent contradiction where Members of Parliament might have limited knowledge of shelter locations, while perpetrators seemed to be aware of them. This raised suspicion about potential security breaches, suggesting that information about shelter residents might be leaked. Ms Siwisa said there needed to be thorough vetting of individuals involved in the security of victims, including the possibility of taking oaths to ensure a genuine commitment to the safety and confidentiality of those seeking refuge.

Ms Siwisa expanded the discussion to include other environments, such as hospitals, where thorough vetting was essential due to the responsibility of guarding lives. She urged for a more nuanced approach than simply outsourcing security through tenders, emphasising the need for a deeper understanding of the critical role played by security personnel in creating a safe and discrimination-free environment for survivors of gender-based violence.

CGE's response

Adv Mogale provided additional insights and suggestions, saying there was a need for specialised contracts for security companies at DPWI buildings. Generic security companies, often of unknown origin, might lack the understanding needed for overseeing key points, such as shelters. She urged the DPW to consider specific requirements for different buildings, ensuring that security personnel had the necessary sensitivity, especially in places like hospitals.

She said it was important for shelters to establish relationships with local police officers to ensure a quick response in emergencies. She noted that many shelters lacked such connections, potentially causing delays in addressing urgent situations.

Another issue raised by Adv Mogale was the relatively small size of both privately run and DSD-funded shelters, typically accommodating 20 people or fewer. There was a need for a reassessment of using government buildings to maximise impact. She specifically highlighted the tragic example of the building at 80 Alberts Street, where 77 people had died in a fire. This building, which used to be a pass office in the apartheid era, was mentioned as a case where optimal utilisation for shelters could have had a significant impact. She urged the Committee to guide the Department in revisiting the utilisation of government buildings, citing instances where hijacked government buildings could have been repurposed to alleviate the pressure on shelters.

Dr Matotoka addressed the issue of CCTV footage in shelters, noting that there was a variation among shelters, with some having CCTV systems and others lacking them. He said the Commission had recommended the development of an inter-sectional shelter policy for victims of crime and violence. The goal was to establish a uniform policy that ensured consistent security standards across all shelters. However, progress on this front had been limited, and there was a need for clear guidelines and criteria for vetting security personnel. He emphasised the importance of having a uniform standard across institutions to address security issues consistently. Currently, not all shelters have CCTV footage in place.

Closing remarks

The Chairperson expressed gratitude for the detailed report presented by the Commission, acknowledging its importance in guiding the Committee's approach when dealing with the Department's report. The Committee stressed the need for the Department to fulfil its commitments. It advocated the inclusion of shelters or safe homes that accommodated children of all genders, addressing the issues raised about excluding the boy child.

Security issues were highlighted, with the Committee stressing the necessity of implementing proper security features, including security guards and surveillance cameras, to ensure the safety of individuals in safe homes. The Committee was committed to addressing the raised issues with the Department, especially on underutilised properties that could serve as shelters. Issues had been raised about the condition and location of existing shelters, emphasising the need for improvements to create a safe and healing environment for survivors of gender-based violence.

The Committee also emphasised the importance of trained and sensitive security personnel who understood the unique challenges faced by individuals in GBV shelters. Overall, the Committee pledged to advocate for the necessary changes and improvements in collaboration with the relevant departments.

Adoption of minutes

The Committee adopted the minutes from the previous meeting.

The Chairperson adjourned the meeting.

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