Amy*, 30, exudes warmth and positivity from the moment our call begins. It’s hard not to like her instantly, her energy is contagious and approachable. We begin the conversation casually, speaking about how she grew up in a small town but has become somewhat of a global citizen. I share that I’m much of the opposite, well-travelled but a Jo’burg city girl through and through.
I forget for a moment that we are having this call to discuss serious, concerning matters; that the whole point of it is for Amy to share her story of how a medical professional, who would have taken a compulsory sacred oath to protect the safety and welfare of any person in his care, was found guilty of sexual misconduct of herself and three other women in 2021. That’s the thing about so many survivors – they remain warm and kind, despite having so much of their light robbed from them. If I didn’t know Amy’s story, I never would have guessed what a gigantic mountain she’s been forced to overcome.
The said medical professional is an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) from Gqeberha. He was found guilty of five counts of misconduct, including sexual assault, by the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) in 2021, four years after Amy lodged her first complaint against him.
It was hard to listen to Amy retell the story of what happened the day she went to visit this doctor, who is currently still practicing. She told it with remarkable detail as if it happened yesterday, not six years ago.
“It was my third visit and it was the second time the nurse wasn’t present in the room with me and the doctor. I had bumped into him while swimming at Virgin Active about a month prior to that appointment, greeted him with a wave and continued swimming. As soon as I arrived at the appointment, he commented on how good I looked while swimming,” Amy recalls. “I thought it was a little strange but shrugged it off.”
Twenty-four years old at the time, Amy naturally believed that she was in the hands of someone of safety and decided to give the doctor the benefit of the doubt. The opposite – that he was mentioning the encounter in a way that was hugely inappropriate – didn’t even cross her mind. How could it? This was a doctor, after all.
“I expressed that I was quite worried about an indent on my left thigh. I needed to take off my pants for him to examine me but kept my underwear on. He first examined me using a stethoscope and in that process, he touched my back and said, ‘Your back is so soft’.” Again, Amy found this peculiar but due to her societal expectation of medical professionals, didn’t think much of it. “I responded with, ‘my aunt has also said that.”
She continues, “I lay on my back on the examining table and he felt the indent with his right hand. He then placed his left hand on my navel and moved it down and stopped at my underwear, where he placed his fingers over my vagina and began rubbing it softly.”
Alarmed, Amy tried to wiggle her body to express her discomfort, her nervous system going into freeze mode from what was taking place. When they returned to his desk, she sat there in utter disbelief and says that the doctor was so casual it was scary. “Later on, I realised that this trait showed that he was a professional predator,” she says.
“He told me if I had any questions, I could contact him any time. He proceeded to write his personal phone number and email address on a yellow sticky note and gave it to me.”
She immediately told her best friend, who told her that she needed to go to the police to report the incident. Amy was extremely hesitant as she was still trying to process what had just taken place. When she got home, she received another message from the doctor, which she screenshot, saying, “Sooooo soft!”
It took her a day or two to tell her sister, who demanded that she tell their parents. Amy was again hesitant but knew it had to be done, so three days later, she came out with the news. A friend whose mother works at the hospital accompanied her to the hospital, where the doctor worked to report the incident to the hospital manager.
What followed is perhaps what one might expect – a major delay in taking the doctor to task before the HPSCA, after the accused doctor kept on postponing the inquiry allegedly due to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
By the time the HPSCA hearing finally took place towards the end of 2021, three more women had been added to the list of complainants. “We all lodged our claims separately so we didn’t know each other before we met at the hearing,” Amy says.
The Council included six medical professionals, with one being a woman and also the only endocrinologist. Amy says the lack of female presence on the Council wasn’t too much of a bother for her. It was what took place after she took the stand that disturbed her most.
“The lawyer said that firstly, he wasn’t here to bully anyone. Straight after that, he said something that went against his initial statement and I just smiled. He started shouting, asking ‘How dare I smile?’ and ‘Do you not know that this is a serious matter?’” Far worse than that for Amy was the smile that the accused allegedly had on his face the whole time the hearing was going on.
Amy describes the experience in the hearing as a retraumatizing experience. “I had to fight during that hearing. Not physically, but I had to fight to be heard.” According to Amy, the lawyer stressed how much this case had ruined the doctor’s life. Not only had his health taken a turn but he had lost his wife and home and was being forced to move to KwaZulu-Natal, where his parents lived. How could these women strip him of his life like that? This was the message Amy received.
A bigger message was the one received by the women when the accused was found guilty of five counts of misconduct, including sexual assault. On the complaint form that Amy and her family sent to the HPCSA, she wrote her desired outcome: “Thorough investigation into the matter, and if found guilty, his medical license should be revoked.”
Instead, the doctor was suspended from practicing for 18 months, retroactively from September 2020, which meant that he would practice a few months (March 2022) after the hearing took place. Amy was shocked by this outcome and couldn’t understand what their reasoning could have been for allowing this man to continue practicing after being found guilty for not one count of misconduct, but four.
“Most of his patients are women and girls because he’s a hormone specialist. How are they protecting future patients by allowing him to practice again?”
Amy poses a very good question. If there was ever an example to show how broken our justice system is, even amongst professionals who are meant to save lives, it is this one. It is terribly disingenuous to “help” someone with their physical health while clearly having no regard for their mental health and sense of self – which often leads to serious issues such as substance abuse, mental illness and even, sometimes, suicide. The abuse of power is certainly not new to South Africa, and the fact that this doctor has continued to practice is the proof in the pudding.
And, how could we forget the victim blaming? According to research done around rape cases, statistics prove that men are 230 times more likely to be raped than be falsely accused of rape. It’s so unlikely that an accusation is false, yet survivors are often bullied while trying to prove that their allegations are not falsehoods. In this day and age, with all the verbal and emotional damage that comes when someone stands up against a rapist, who would be willing to undergo the trauma? Let’s be honest, the survivor’s life often becomes far more stressful than the abuser.
Women are then left to consider their options. Is it worth it to go after the person that stripped them of their dignity? I shared my own story of being raped with Amy, a story that I’ve shared with very few people. She posed a great question, “Will you ever take action against your rapist?” Ashamedly, I said no. I said no because, as a person who struggles with her own mental health wars, I honestly think opening a case would add flame to the fire in my own life – for the moment at least. And this is what our society has taught many survivors – that we should rather leave such cases because our system doesn’t protect us. Amy and the other women involved also attempted to press formal charges against the doctor and three years later, she says she has not heard a single word from them regarding any progress.
Amy’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. One that shows that predators are protected – especially men with big, fancy titles attached to their names.
As Redi Tlhabi boldly wrote in her book Khwezi, which details the ever so victim-shaming rape case that Fezekile Kuzwayo brought against Jacob Zuma, “We should have interrogated, as a society, our own tolerance for men who take without any thought for those weaker than themselves. We should have redefined consent and agreed that a weak person agreeing to a powerful person’s advances, demands, or innuendos does not constitute it… Leave women and children alone!”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the survivor.