In our November 18 2016 edition we reported on the experience of a man we chose to call Mandla, who had recently been discharged from the witness protection programme. What he told us, as a disgruntled recent participant, provided a rare glimpse inside that secretive programme.
Mandla spoke of his fear for the former comrades in crime he had turned against, his frustrations with the impairment of his dignity that came with being in hiding and his concerns for the future. He wished, he said, that he had rather gone to prison, with its rehabilitation focus and support systems.
Due to time constraints the article carried a very limited response to Mandla’s experience from the Office of Witness Protection (OWP). Questions were first put to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), which helps administer the OWP, in October.
Only shortly before the publication of Mandla’s story, after it was informed that the Mail & Guardian intended to go ahead with the article, did the OWP provide a six-page response to questions.
The full response cannot be published as it may reveal sensitive details of Mandla’s movements.
In main, the response stressed that witnesses have access to psychological and medical support, have mechanisms to air grievances and can qualify for salary replacement payments.
The picture it paints of witness protection is not all moonshine and roses, yet considerably better than that presented by Mandla.
Providing an appropriate place of safety is important to psychological well-being, the OWP said, so entertainment such as satellite TV is provided despite budget constraints. “At times places of safety have swimming pools,” it said.
Nor does it matter “if a witness is dripping with blood”, as can be the case of witnesses such as Mandla who testify to crimes they participated in, “all witnesses receive the same treatment based on each one’s personal circumstances”.
The OWP confirmed that people in the programme receive a R750 monthly allowance, but said a salary replacement can be paid. As a covert unit, the OWP is subject to a special audit and extra payments require proof of former income, tax documentation and the like.
“OWP has many cases where large amounts of money was paid for salary replacement,” the organisation said.
As for psychological support, the OWP has four social worker managers and uses outsourced clinical psychologists, the office said.
It is not true that Mandla did not have recourse to raise concerns or complaints, the OWP said.