What is assault and what should you do if you are assaulted?

The very word “assault” understandably sparks fear and alarm in many people. Although assault can be verbal, we most often associate assault with a physical act. In South African law, assault is a criminal offence defined as the unlawful or intentional application of force to a person or inspiring belief in another person that force is going to be applied. There are two categories of assault: common assault and assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).  

Common assault refers to the intentional infliction of minor physical harm or injury without any aggravating factors. Assault with GBH involves the intention to cause serious harm to another.  

Assault statistics

South Africa suffers from extreme rates of reported violent offences, with assault (both categories) at the top of the list. Rape and sexual offences, although involving assault by definition, are categorised separately in the annual crime report compiled by SAPS, as are murder and attempted murder. Common assault and assault with GBH were the most reported crimes in 2022-23, with 185 374 cases of common assault and 169 374 cases of GBH. Both of these categories showed a notable increase over the previous year (9.1% and 4% respectively). 

Elements of assault  

Proof of assault must demonstrate:  

  • Intention: the state must prove that the accused intended to cause fear or make physical contact without consent.  
  • Reasonable fear: the victim must have reasonably feared immediate bodily harm based on the actions or words of the accused.  
  • Lack of consent: the victim did not consent to the physical contact or harm inflicted upon them.  

Both crimes of assault involve intention. However, assault with GBH not only implies intention but specific intention to cause grievous bodily harm. If the accused intended to cause grievous bodily harm, a conviction of assault with GBH could follow whether or not grievous bodily harm actually occurred. The burden of proof rests on the state to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had the intent to assault the complainant and that the accused had the intention to cause the complainant grievous bodily harm. 

Penalties for assault  

The penalty for assault is based on the severity of the offence, the circumstances of the incident and the offender’s criminal history. However, common penalties may include:  

  • Fines: up to R10,000, depending on the seriousness of the assault and the offender’s financial situation
  • Imprisonment: up to two years, with potential suspension based on case specifics
  • Compensation: courts may order offenders to compensate victims for injuries or damages suffered

These penalties are not exhaustive and the courts may use their discretion to impose additional penalties appropriate to the circumstances of the offence.  

Recourse for victims  

Victims of assault should report the incident to SAPS for investigation. In addition, the Criminal Procedure Act makes provision for compensation to be awarded to victims of a crime who have suffered damages because of the criminal conduct of an accused. The Act states that where a person is convicted of an offence which has caused damage to or loss of property the court may award the injured person compensation for such damage or loss. This award is at the discretion of the courts and will only be granted where the accused is convicted of an offence. 

If you are a victim of assault you have several avenues for recourse. You can apply for a protection order at the nearest Magistrate’s Court. A protection order is a court order listing various acts that a respondent is prohibited from committing in relation to a complainant. The purpose of this order is to prevent further harm to the complainant. You can also file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator for damages, which can include compensation for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other related costs.

If you can’t afford private legal services, free or affordable legal assistance is available from Legal Aid and other sources. They can help you obtain a protection order and navigate the legal system.

Support for victims

If you suffer an assault, your physical wounds will probably heal much faster than the emotional damage. Being assaulted is a traumatic event and you may need help and support to recover. Various community-based organisations provide counselling and psychological support to victims of assault. The Department of Social Development runs Victim Empowerment Programmes (VEPs) that offer a range of services, including emotional support, referral to relevant agencies, and assistance with reintegration into society.

Immediately following assault, if you don’t know where to turn and need help, there are 24-hour hotlines that provide support and advice to victims of assault. SAPS also has victim support services that provide immediate support to victims at police stations, offering initial counselling, information on rights and available resources, and referrals to other service providers. As you come to terms with your experience, support groups run by civil society organisations may enable you to share your feelings and receive support from others who have gone through similar situations.

Let our law firm help you 

These various services will provide the help you need to recover and rebuild your life. Cape Town attorneys SD Law & Associates Inc. are experienced attorneys and we can guide you through the legal procedures and ensure you receive justice and any compensation you are entitled to. Call Simon on 086 099 5146 or email for a confidential discussion.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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