/ 18 April 2021

Skukuza court closure was like a ‘knife in the back’ of rangers

Courting trouble: An accused poacher walks from the holding cells to the courtroom to attend his hearing at the courthouse in Skukuza in June, 2015, well before it was shut for more than a year. (Stefan Heunis/AFP)

The closure of South Africa’s flagship wildlife-poaching court in the Kruger National Park for more than a year was like a “knife in the back” to rangers who sacrificed so much to protect the country’s remaining rhino.

The reopening of the Skukuza regional court on 1 April after what has been described as a lengthy and suspiciously sinister legal battle waged by Mpumalanga regional court president Naomi Annette Engelbrecht to close its doors was a victory of “good over evil”, said Andrew Campbell, the chief executive of the Game Rangers Association of Africa.

Noting how rangers worked against all odds, Campbell said: “They need effective support from law enforcement agencies and the judiciary … Criminal syndicates have long tentacles and work day and night to discredit and disrupt the work of rangers who are the cornerstones of effective conservation action.” 

The association supported a call made by the nonprofit StopRhinoPoaching.com to build pressure to open the court, alongside other NGOs, including the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino

On 1 February, the Constitutional Court dismissed Engelbrecht’s application for leave to appeal a high court decision, allowing the rhino court to continue operating inside the park. She had wanted to move all cases set for the court to the Mhala circuit court 100km away and faced opposition from Mpumalanga high court president Judge Francis Legodi and the national director of public prosecutions.

StopRhinoPoaching.com founding director Elise Serfontein said Engelbrecht’s efforts to close the court had been lurking since 2017. 

“In September 2019, when news reached us that she again planned  — this time quietly — to close the court in October, we launched an urgent online petition along with fellow NGOs that gained instant traction.” 

Serfontein said the justice department had put a temporary stop to the court’s closure. “Engelbrecht simply ignored this instruction, ensuring that all the Skukuza cases were moved to Mhala court. Despite the honourable Judge Legodi issuing a directive on 2 December 2019 that the Skukuza regional court must continue, no cases were transferred back [there] per his instructions.”

Legodi enrolled a special review application to be adjudicated by the full bench of the Mpumalanga high court on 24 February last year to determine whether Engelbrecht was entitled to close the court.

The special review judgment issued on 22 April by the high court in Nelspruit ordered that the court be reopened. The judgement was particularly critical of Engelbrecht’s conduct, saying it “resulted in actual, and potential harm, to the administration of justice”. 

Several emails from Legodi, “some pleading, and some instructing”, were in vain. “It is indeed hard to see any good faith on her part. This was unbecoming of her as regional court president,” the review stated.

Engelbrecht, however, did not re-open the court as instructed. Instead, she took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, where her leave to appeal the application was turned down. Then, the Constitutional Court shot her down.

Engelbrecht did not respond to questions from the Mail & Guardian.  

“Her refusal to follow their instructions and her brazen insistence to push this process to the Constitutional Court has left a lot of people wondering what was driving her motives,” Serfontein added. 

Department of justice acting director general Jacob Skosana told the M&G he was not aware of any disciplinary steps undertaken by the magistrates commission, which did not respond to questions this week. 

Serfontein said parliament had recognised Skukuza as the benchmark of good practices regarding how rhino cases should be handled. 

“The court has boasted a 99.8% conviction rate and up to recently had a 100% success rate in opposed bail applications. Since its inception, the court has finalised approximately 80 cases, with convictions ranging between 12 and 40 years.” 

The court’s success, she added, was a direct threat to locally based and powerful poaching syndicates

SANParks area-integrity manager and former chief ranger Xolani Nicholus Funda said he always believed that the court would come back to Skukuza. “This is a victory for the rangers.”

As the court sits inside the Kruger, it is cheaper and safer for SANParks to transport rangers to the court. 

“Our rangers are not intimidated by the poachers when they provide evidence in court, as is the case in Mhala. At last, the principle of bringing justice closer to the victim is practised,” Funda added.