/ 17 November 2023

Justice delayed is justice denied: The sorry state of South Africa’s crime and justice system

Thabo Bester2
The escape of a convicted criminal of Bester's profile should serve as a wake-up call, urging us to address systemic weaknesses and demand accountability from those responsible for maintaining the safety and well-being of our communities. (Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

In South Africa, crime and justice are critical focal points demanding immediate attention and transformative action. These challenges transcend mere statistics; they are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society, representing a call for justice, equality and the safeguarding of fundamental human rights.

First, we must urgently spotlight the alarming rise in hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community. The increasing violence, discrimination and fatal attacks underscore the persistence of entrenched prejudices. 

Recently, authorities arrested seven individuals in Johannesburg in connection with a kidnapping ring linked to 87 cases involving LGBTQIA+ individuals who they lured using the Grindr app. The group was caught after kidnapping an 18-year-old man from Wits University who was found tied up at a hostel in Johannesburg. 

This highlights the inherent risks faced by the LGBTQIA+ community, where members encounter disproportionately high levels of violence and discrimination.

This is further evidenced by two cases in the Vaal where, within a year, two lesbians were murdered simply for being who they were — and their families are still seeking justice. 

Nomvula Chenene disappeared on 10 December last year after leaving her home with a friend, while Queen Mthembu went missing on 11 June 11. Weeks later, their bodies were discovered — one underneath a shack and the other in an open field — in disturbing conditions. 

The lack of successful prosecutions against hate crimes, coupled with the slow wheels of justice, does nothing to alleviate the prevailing societal attitudes that fuel such violence.

Another pressing concern that demands our collective attention is the protracted delay in decriminalising sex work. South Africa is shackled by outdated, colonial laws, necessitating the urgent recognition and protection of the rights of sex workers. 

The prevailing hostile environment, fuelled by criminalisation, perpetuates violence and harassment, leaving sex workers exposed and devoid of adequate protection. Moreover, existing prohibitions on renting premises for sex work and organising further marginalise sex workers within society. 

The Decriminalisation of Sex Work Bill, proposed in February this year, after years of advocacy, was withdrawn for revisions in May and has yet to be reintroduced. This further postpones the rights of sex workers who confront an alarming rate of abuse from the police, clients and communities.

Likewise, gender-based violence, a pervasive and deeply entrenched issue, continues to afflict South Africa with perturbing rates of domestic abuse, sexual assault and femicide. The frequency at which women are assaulted and killed in this country is intolerable, and the absence of sufficient protection and safety leaves many women reluctant to report their perpetrators, fearing an increased risk of harm when they choose to leave. 

The police appear to be present only to re-traumatise these women because they don’t believe them or further harassment, emphasising the urgent need for a justice system that is swift, effective and attuned to the distinctive challenges faced by survivors of gender-based violence. 

Statistically, about 150 women report being raped to the police in South Africa daily. Out of these reports, fewer than 30 cases will be prosecuted, and no more than 10 will result in a conviction. This translates to an overall conviction rate of 4% to 8% of reported cases. 

On the 14 November 2023, the supreme court heard an appeal after the Eastern Cape high court overturned the guilty verdict of Loyiso Coko who was convicted of rape in the regional magistrate’s court. The justification given was that because the girlfriend of the accused consented to certain acts of intimacy, she implied she wanted to be penetrated by the defendant. This ruling showed a wilful misunderstanding of the concept of consent, one of the many problems facing our courts.

This overturning was heavily criticised for overlooking the nature of intimate partner violence and, more significantly, for reflecting outdated patriarchal notions of women and sexuality within our judiciary. 

This imposition of archaic beliefs in courts of law, despite clear legal guidelines regarding consent, sets a dangerous precedent in relation to sexual violence against women, perpetuating such violence and further entrenching such attitudes within our already violence-ridden communities.

In addition, violence against children is a persistent concern in South Africa. Recent statistics reveal that more than three children are murdered every day, while in the period between April and June 2023, 354 children faced attempted murder, an increase of 15,3% from the first quarter of the year. Furthermore 1 432 children experienced assault with grievous bodily harm. 

The staggering statistics paint a grim picture, revealing a harsh reality — children in our country are far from safe, an indictment on the reputation of the ANC.

Compounding the issue is the inadequate prosecution of such cases, often due to the incompetence of the police system and the National Prosecuting Authority. 

A poignant example is the case of four-year-old Bogkabo Poo, who was kidnapped and murdered in October 2022. Despite the accused being captured on camera with the victim and indicating the location of the child’s remains, the accused was acquitted on account of inadmissible evidence. This case highlights the systemic failures within the legal system that hinder justice for victims of child violence.

The court’s rejection of crucial evidence, citing procedural irregularities by the police, such as the suspect not being read his rights and mishandling of evidence, was a devastating blow for Bogkabo’s family. Unfortunately, this situation is not unique, as many families in South Africa live without closure or justice due to systemic shortcomings by the police.

The ineptitude extends to forensic labs in the country, which face significant backlogs spanning a decade. These encompass DNA testing, toxicology analysis and rape kits, creating a significant hinderance to the timely delivery of justice. The consequence of these delays is that perpetrators and criminals, who should be held accountable, roam free on our streets, perpetuating criminal activities without fear of consequences.

Last, the Thabo Bester case laid bare the unsettling reality that justice can be manipulated and traded in our country. Bester, a convicted serial rapist and murderer, managed an elaborate escape from Mangaung prison, revealing alarming gaps in our prison systems. What is even more disheartening is the involvement of officials in his escape, further eroding our faith in the effectiveness of the justice system.

Bester’s ability to break free and live without consequence demonstrates that the punitive measure of sending criminals to prison does not guarantee public safety. The failure of law enforcement to promptly acknowledge his escape and the subsequent reliance on grassroots media and vigilant members of the public to raise awareness underscore the deficiencies in our policing and justice apparatus.

This case further prompts a critical examination of the corruption rampant within our prison systems and calls for urgent reforms to ensure the security and efficacy of these institutions. This system, regrettably, mirrors the ANC, a party that has nurtured corruption within its ranks and disseminated it across all echelons of governance. 

The escape of a convicted criminal of Bester’s profile should serve as a wake-up call, urging us to address systemic weaknesses and demand accountability from those responsible for maintaining the safety and well-being of our communities.

The upcoming elections present an unparalleled opportunity to reshape the narrative of crime and justice, ensuring that our communities stand as bastions of safety, equality and justice.

The call to register to vote is a call to become architects of revolutionary transformation, standing against injustice and forging a path towards a South Africa that embodies the principles of justice and safety for all.

Leigh-Ann Mathys is the spokesperson of the EFF.