Court drama

by Ruth Hopkins

‘I don’t give public records to strangers,’ said Mr. Peter Kabai, the clerk to High Court Judge Makhanya, when I asked him if he would respond to my written request for public court records on unreasonable delays. I was baffled and mildly amused at his terse retort. Amused, because his remark was an obvious oxymoron, as public records by their nature are supposed to be accessible to strangers, unless you know everyone in the whole world. And baffled, that a court officer views it as his job to scare away observers.
‘Welcome to South Africa!’ people quip when I share my surprise at these shenanigans. For weeks, I have been following a South Gauteng High Court trial of 10 men and one woman, accused of armed robbery and murder. It is proceeding at an agonizingly slow pace, burdened by many postponements and delays. The accused have been in remand detention for over 53 months and it is wearing them down. They alerted the Wits Justice Project to these lengthy delays and I was sent to investigate.
Courts are a familiar environment to me. I worked as a court reporter for years in the Netherlands, where I lived most of my life. The court room is a fascinating place, because in the arena of criminal law the dramas and dilemmas of daily life are exposed, scrutinized and – hopefully – resolved. The accused tell a story of flawed humanity, while the interplay between the court officers reflects society’s capacity to deal with those flaws fairly and justly.
Although criminal matters are dramatic and compelling the world over, I have found that the way the legal practitioners deal with these daily dramas differs. The most exciting thing I witnessed in this regard was a sleeping judge (this was actually in the International Court of Justice in The Hague – a mitigating factor).
There was so much going on in this Joburg trial though, no one could nod off for a second. When I spoke to the accused about their grievances, in the brief period after the accused are led to the bench but before the judge arrives, their lawyers intervened. They told me to back off, because ‘I am stealing their show’. They then proceeded to complain to the judge about ‘Miss Hopkins, who is playing funny games, by interfering with the court proceedings.’
The judge completely ignored the complaints and reluctantly sent home a state witness who had been waiting for hours, because the submissions about me had eaten up the whole court day. Them after repeated request for the court records, the clerk pointed out that he does not work for the Wits Justice Project. He stated adamantly that he could not be pushed or commanded. Later, he tapped me on the shoulder to tell me the court records I had requested cost a lot of money. When the WJP intern attended the trial, the clerk sidled up to her to find out what she was doing there. He joked he could get us all sent to prison.
I was hoping the investigating officer might have a more tranquil state of mind. But, when I asked him if he was aware that some of the accused have HIV and are not receiving appropriate care, he replied: ‘ach, they all have HIV. He continued: ‘I might sound like a racist, but it was better during apartheid, there were no delays like this. Courts started and finished on time.’ Lastly, there was the heavily armed police officer whose job it was to guard the court room. He shared his idea of South African justice in a nutshell: ‘They are born criminals, it’s in their blood. When they get out, they will do it again. But I will seek them out, shoot them and plant a gun, so it will look like self-defence.’
Welcome to South Africa indeed. The only people in the court room with some measure of sanity seemed to be the accused and the judge. The accused simply want their trial to be fair and speedy. They do not want to be stuck in Johannesburg Prison’s remand detention centre Medium A forever, because it’s a dog’s life inside. Being ‘ non-contact inmates’, they hardly get any visiting time with family and friends and when they do, they are separated from them by a glass partition and faulty speaker phones. Exercise in the fresh air is practically nonexistent and massive overcrowding leads to physical and mental violence and the spread of diseases.
The farcical and – it must be said – entertaining shenanigans in the court room overshadow these real human rights issues that stem from systemic flaws in the South African criminal justice system. The judge was aware of that when he criticized one of many postponements by stating the obvious: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’

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About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

2 Responses to Court drama

  1. Pingback: Imagine it was you « Wits Justice Project

  2. Grant D Muhl says:

    Great report, Ruth. We have had similar experiences with the judicial system over the past 4 years. And then a guilty verdict based simply on the magistrate’s subjective opinion of the over-confidence of the female accused!

    Prison life in JHB Female wing is no better. The standard answer to anylack of facilities or equipment (blankets, 3rd meal each day, toilet rolls, simple implements such as forks and spoons) is “The budget is already finished!”

    What can be done to address the appalling conditions in our prisons?

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