/ 21 July 2021

Dedicated courts to fast-track looting cases

Looting 3834 Dv
Scenes of destruction: Thousands of shops and businesses were looted following a wave of violent protest in July 2021. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The department of correctional services and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) will use virtual links between a number of remand centres and a series of dedicated courts to fast-track the trial of more than 4 000 people arrested in connection with last week’s wave of arson and looting.

They will also look at lesser penalties and diversion programmes for “low level” looters who enter into plea-bargain agreements, while ensuring that those people who planned, incited and co-ordinated the attacks are dealt with “ruthlessly”.

Addressing parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and correctional services, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola said that, as of 19 July, 1 288 people were being held on remand in correctional centres in Gauteng and another 2 786 people in centres in KwaZulu-Natal.

The spike in the number of awaiting-trial prisoners caused by the looting meant that there was a shortage of prison uniforms in correctional facilities in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria and Johannesburg, and more rations were required to feed the additional prisoners being held in the centres.

The looting had also interrupted supply of bread and other foodstuffs to a number of prisons, he added.

Lamola said audio-visual technology was being installed at eight prisons and linked to 26 courts in the two provinces, both to speed up the process and limit the movement of prisoners between remand centres and court.

Special measures, approved on 16 July, allowed for dedicated courts to hear unrest-related cases, which would assist in ensuring that they were completed faster, with accused being tried for crimes that stemmed from the unrest.

“Where necessary, additional dedicated staff, including from a pool of experienced retired magistrates and prosecutors, will be called on to fast-track trial-ready cases [for which] hundreds of arrests have already been effected,” Lamola said.

Those people found guilty of less serious offences could be fined or sentenced to community service as part of a restorative justice programme.

The criminal justice cluster had differentiated between actual looters and those people buying stolen property, and the organisers and planners of the riots and the large-scale looting and arson, on whom it would focus, the justice minister said.

National director of public prosecutions Shamila Batohi said that the “attack on the people of our country” had “exposed very serious weaknesses that we have in our system”.

Batohi said that, although it was essential that the criminal justice cluster “ensure respect for the rule of law”, a differentiated approach would be used when dealing with the “low-level” looters, many of whom may have joined the looting out of hunger.

But Batohi added that although hunger may have driven some of the looters, this could never be an excuse for committing crime.

Each case would be dealt with on its individual merit, she said, with the major focus being on the high-level “instigators and planners” and the mid-level organisers who had been involved in co-ordinating the actual looting.

“The NPA understands that we need to consider each case on its merits. Where justified, we will consider dealing with vulnerable perpetrators in terms of restorative justice policies,” Batohi said.

The pursuit of those “most responsible for what has happened in our country’’ would, however, be “relentless”, as the NPA and the South African Police Service (SAPS) “move up the chain”.

Thus far, three people have been charged with inciting the riots, with the SAPS focusing on 12 suspects believed to be key to organising last week’s attacks.

“We will follow the evidence and nothing else. We will serve only the people of this country and no one else,” Bathoi said.

This Wednesday, former Ukhozi FM announcer Ngizwe Mchunu appeared in the Randburg magistrate’s court after being arrested for incitement of the riots.

Mchunu’s bail application was adjourned until 28 July.