A farm labourer, Fanie Tshabalala, who stabbed his mother 35 times almost went free after the police bungled his case and failed to procure key DNA forensic evidence. The judge hearing the matter in the Harrismith Circuit Court, Judge Arrie Hattingh heavily criticised National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi who he accused of not doing his job. Key evidence disappeared from the Warden police station and the police involved in the investigation had no idea what had happened to the evidence. Ironically, the accused’s decision to give evidence in his defence sealed his fate. He proved himself to be a liar and his evidence, coupled with other testimony led to his conviction. Were it not for his decision to give evidence in his own defence, Judge Hattingh said he would have had to free Tshabalala.
Ultimately Judge Hattingh laid the blame on Selebi who the judge described as either not interested or ignorant of the state of affairs in the SAPS. The forensic police were not blamed for the lack of evidence as they either did not have the evidence to examine or lacked the equipment to conduct a proper examination. South African crime labs are a far cry from the crime labs we see in the CSI series. Local forensic laboratories are grossly understaffed and under-equipped to do their job.
When the Makwanyane case was heard over a decade ago (this is the Constitutional Court case that outlawed the death penalty), one of the points made was that the death penalty is not a deterrence if criminals know they are going to be caught. The inability of the police to identify and catch criminals undermines the criminal justice system and will lead to a complete disregard for the law. We see how high priority cases are dealt with immediately by the police and yet the crimes that happen in everyday life are hardly given the same attention. While this may a generalisation (there are, thankfully, many dedicated and hardworking police officers doing their utmost to solve crimes and bring criminals to court), the perception that the police are disinterested or incapable of doing their jobs is a powerful perception.
It isn’t the case that criminals are far more technologically advanced than the police and the police are, despite their best efforts, simply incapable of catching them. The main problem here is one of priorities. The government has consistently failed to dedicate the kinds of resources that are required to fully equip the police at all levels, recruit, train and retain police officers. Their salaries are abysmal (as was evident in a recent Carte Blanche expose on police officers moonlighting and even running their own businesses during their working days) and they are demotivated by their working conditions.
The scandal over the arms deals perhaps highlight the root cause of this problem facing the criminal justice system today. Amounts of money few people can conceptualise are used to buy military hardware which is not nearly as urgently needed as forensic equipment for the police, body armour, vehicles, weapons, decent salaries and more personnel.
This crisis extends beyond the SAPS and encompasses the court system as well. Some time ago Carte Blanche had a story about a computerised system that was being tested in the Durban Magistrates Court which basically created digital versions of police dockets and which would, if implemented, put an end the problem of dockets disappearing. It is reasonable to expect that this system would have been thoroughly tested and rolled out to more courts and yet the project faltered due to lack of resources and support from the Department of Justice. The technology exists to revolutionise and optimise the operation of our courts and all that is required is the will and the determination to make it all happen. The rapid growth of open source software makes widespread rollouts of computers far cheaper than was possible a few years ago and yet court officials are lucky to have working, networked computers.
It is clear that we in the midst of a crisis. It is also becoming patently clear that not nearly enough attention is paid to providing the necessary resources to not only the SAPS but also to other essential and often overlooked professions. The end result will be a breakdown in our society and way of life.