Ignorance of the law is no excuse

There is a saying in law – or a rule to be more accurate – which goes a little something like this: "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." Admittedly it refers, in the strictest sense, to one of the parties involved in legal action but I believe that a case may be had for its possible application where the views of many of the country's citizens are concerned with specific regard to the law and the idea of justice.

As is now common cause, Tuesday saw the handing down of the verdict in the case against musician Molemo "Jub Jub" Maarohanye and his co-accused Themba Tshabalala, who were arrested following an alcohol- and drug-infused vehicle racing stint between the pair. The result of their actions, as the court concluded, were the deaths of four school children who were walking on Mdlalose Street in Protea North on that fateful day back in 2010.

Of particular interest to me is not so much the verdict handed down by the magistrate – guilty of four counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, driving under the influence and racing on a public road – not forgetting the denied bail, which means the accused will have to wait out the hearing of their sentencing on November 30 from the unenviable confines of prison. It was the reaction by many people regarding the verdict that I found most interesting.

On one hand some people seemed a bit too overjoyed at the decision, while others considered the judgment as unfair and incorrect. Among the latter were the views of those who bravely tweeted that "two wrongs don't make a right" and other missives along those lines.

Some people went as far as to resort to ethical relativist positions as counter arguments against those who welcomed the verdict. Accusations of "when last did you drive drunk?" and "it could happen to you" were bandied about. The crux is, of course, the fact that we have before us a matter of laws that were broken and the resultant consequences of those actions. Unfortunately, this little aspect seems to have gone by almost totally undetected.

The banter – mostly on social media platforms – made me wonder to what extent the majority of South Africans understand the role and function of law. When people say it is unfair that the verdicts were what they were, do they mean that a more lenient finding should have been handed down by the court, or should the accused have been found not guilty?

One thing is certain: the law does not appear to be able to appease every person. It's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't, if you will. Although we secretly find solace in the knowledge that the law exists and its inherent purpose is our guidance and protection – this is of course debatable in a country where crime and corruption are as rife as they are – we are often at pains to accept the manner in which it manifests itself. In the case of Maarohanye and Tshabalala it cannot be that the reactions to the manner in which the law took its course are only subject to the view that the law is in fact unfeeling and carelessly retributive.

We have become accustomed to politicians who suddenly fall sick at the impending reality of prison but every now and then the wheels of justice, slow as they move, catch up to those of us who live our lives with the garish ignorance of their existence. Do I feel sorry for the accused? Absolutely. But I am hard-pressed to admit to that without acknowledging the greater pain of the parents of those children who suddenly lost their lives on a day that should have been like any other day to them.

The accused are human, that goes without saying. Did they make a mistake? Of course and they seemed to show genuine remorse for their actions. But while their respective families may be losing them to prison (with the current state of South African prisons considered), the parents of the deceased children have lost them for good. It seems hardly relevant to make comparisons of suffering between victims and perpetrators in a situation like this. The law and its rough hand of justice prevailed, as it should have, and that is all.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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