Jo'burg justice is a daily grind
The Johannesburg Magistrate's Court is at the corner of Fox and Ntemi Peliso streets, situated between two worlds. The entrance is on Main Street, a walkway restored to a pristine sterile symmetry of greenery and face-brick paving, courtesy of Anglo American, whose corporate offices are across the road.
Walk in the opposite direction towards Commissioner Street and you are in another place – Chinatown, where the descendants of Chinese mineworkers, who came to South Africa in 1904, sell anything from green tea and jellyfish to Chinese porn magazines.
To enter the court you pass through a metal detector, then a turnstile. Inside its hallways cream marble pillars stretch from a cold, black-stone tiled floor up to a two-storey-high ceiling and voices echo amid the sound of the small plastic wheels of cases being dragged by attorneys. Advocates, magistrates and prosecutors walk briskly in their black flowing robes clutching files to their chests.
Everybody else seems to be sitting outside courtrooms on wooden benches, waiting – women with babies, men in their work overalls, office workers. Here you wait your turn and bow to the magistrate when you enter the courtroom. The wheels of justice turn slowly in an overburdened system. The courts seem to run according to their own clock, oblivious to time in the outside world.
It is about 11am on Wednesday August 8. Roslyn Olifant is sitting outside courtroom 12. She says her son was falsely accused of robbery and she had to take leave to support him in court. She felt it would help his case if the magistrate saw that she took an interest in him.
"But I couldn't always attend because of work," she says.
But perhaps her strategy has worked. Today, after almost a year, the state has dropped the charges.
Sipho Vilakazi has also taken time off from his job as a mechanic to support his brother, who was arrested after the police found a stolen car in his workshop. It is his first appearance. From here, it will take some time before the case can take off.
After a first appearance, when the accused might or might not get the opportunity to plead guilty or not guilty, he or she either has to appoint an attorney or get legal aid. In all likelihood, it is the start of a long road for Vilakazi and his brother.
In court 29, where civil cases are heard, Sarah Ndlovu is waiting outside an empty courtroom. She was sent here by someone "downstairs" – she is not sure who – because this, she was told, is where you have your debt reviewed. Her husband died of pneumonia in June and now she needs to clear his municipal debt for water supplied to their house in Palmridge.
"I'm working in a butchery. It's not a serious job, just to bring bread. But I don't see anybody here," she says.
Then she sees the court schedule pinned up on the wall next to the door. If your case is not listed, it states, you have to come back the next day to room 1053 before 9am. It is already 11am. She realises with dismay that her trip has been futile and that she will have to return tomorrow. "I'm supposed to be at work," she says.
Inside the courtrooms there is heavy wooden furniture. The magistrate, sitting at the front of the room, is elevated a metre above the rest. To his right the witness box and to his left the prosecutor and the defence attorney. The accused held in custody emerge from cells below the courtroom to the sound of grating metal as the court police officer opens the cell gate. At the back is space for the public.
In criminal court 23, at about 12pm, prosecutor Penny Pillay is waiting for magistrate Simon Radasi to return from a recess. She is a small, feisty woman with shoulder-length black hair that hangs loosely over her prosecutor's robe. She delivers every sentence, question, accusation and instruction sharply and succinctly, as if they were indisputable facts, in a piercing voice.
Radasi enters and everyone in the court rises. Pillay calls into the dock Nhlanhla Ndlembula, case number 41/1112/2012. He appears in a school uniform, wearing a red blazer. He is 18 years old and in grade 11. After this, he has to head back to class.
He is on trial for robbery with aggravated circumstances. While walking home from school with a friend in Northcliff on June 13, he assaulted another teenager and took his cellphone. He was chased and caught by community members and later arrested.
His attorney, Lebo Motaung, has advised Ndlembula to plead guilty, which he does. The state accepts his plea and the magistrate sets September 26 as the date for sentencing.
"A social worker will come to you. I want to know more about you," says Radasi.
The social worker's report will give him an indication of what an appropriate sentence would be. For now, it seems Ndlembula may get a second chance. This matter has been dealt with quickly, but others are not so lucky.
Several cases are postponed in court 23 before it adjourns for lunch. In the first, no docket is before the court. In the next, there is no accused, although the records show he is meant to be in custody. In the third case the accused enters the dock in an orange prison uniform, shackles on his feet. The magistrate is annoyed with the correctional services officer who has brought the man in. "I can't do trial now because he is not dressed," he says to the officer. He warns him that it must not happen again. The case is postponed.
A week later, on Wednesday August 15, I am back in court 23. Case number 41/2412/2010 is being heard. Mlungisi Mtshali, a young man in his early 30s from Durban, appears before the magistrate in a red T-shirt and a black bomber jacket. He has a beard and an open, soft face. He is alleged to be what the media has dubbed the Birthday Rapist, who would allegedly lure women to hotel rooms under the pretence that it was his birthday and that he wanted to celebrate it with them. The court is set to hear closing arguments.
Looking for help
Mtshali faces 122 counts, including rape, theft, kidnapping, assault, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and sexual assault. He is accused of raping 20 women, all in their late teens and early 20s, and all of them several times, between March 2008 and November 2010 in the Johannesburg CBD and surrounds. He faces charges of kidnapping in the cases where he allegedly took the women to hotel rooms to rape and assault them. In every case, according to the charge sheet, he also robbed them of their valuables, including cell phones, money and bank cards.
But the case will not resume today – Mtshali's attorney is not feeling well. The matter is postponed until August 27.
The next morning I walk to the family court at 15 Market Street, a few blocks from the regional court. This court deals in divorce, child maintenance, adoption and child custody. It also houses the domestic violence court.
It is about 11am and a 33-year-old woman, who fears for her safety and does not want to be identified, wanders around the grey hallways of the domestic violence section with her two-year-old son. She is looking for help.
She approaches a security guard, who appears to be the first port of call for new arrivals, and tells him her story. He advises her to go back to the Kliptown Magistrate's Court, which he deems more appropriate to deal with her matter because it is closer to her home.
"I've been abused by my husband for 10 years," she says as we stand talking next to an elevator foyer, for lack of a better place to talk.
"I went to Eldorado Park Police Station, but he knows too many people there because he was a policeman. All the evidence just goes away. I think I've tried to open a case 10, maybe 11, times."
She says she has been verbally, sexually and physically abused. She has tried to leave him, but he threatened to kill her and their four children.
Last week, she says, she drank tile stripper to kill herself, but her mother got a friend to break down the locked door to her house and gave her milk to counteract the chemicals. As soon as her mother left the room, she says, her husband started strangling her with his hands.
I walk with her to counsellors who can point her in the right direction. They are in offices near the back of the courts. Here, she can tell them her story – in an open room without much privacy.
I visit the divorce court. A couple has been married since 1988 and she is seeking an order against him and wants him to forfeit his share of their house. He wants a division of their assets.
The magistrate sets out the terms according to which he decides the matter: the duration of the marriage, the reasons for marital breakdown and whether either party is guilty of misconduct.
During their marriage, the husband was convicted of domestic violence for assaulting his wife and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The magistrate rules that the defendant is guilty of gross misconduct, which ultimately led to the breakdown of the marriage. "The defendant forfeits in favour of the plaintiff," he rules.
With that, everyone stands as the magistrate walks out of the room. Case closed.
Heidi Swart is the Eugene Saldanha fellow for poverty and social justice reporting