Public perceptions of the South African Criminal Justice System

By Tshepang Sebulela

Kgotso House (Peace House) is a community-based Tribunal which was based in the township of Orange Farm, 7 kms from Johannesburg. Offenders were brought there and they would make grown men lie on a bench, sometimes in their underwear, and beat them with sjamboks. The voices of grown men crying and screaming were heard at least once a week.

Growing up, I used to visit Orange Farm during school holidays. We didn’t know of laws and rights such as the right to privacy, human dignity and the right not to be treated in an inhumane manner. I doubt we even cared.  All we knew was that they committed a petty crime. Did it work?  The reason Kgotso House was established was because the community felt tired of the crime levels. The police were of no help, let alone the courts. The community decided to take matters into their own hands.

This is why Statistics South Africa conducted the Victims of Crime Survey (VOCS). It is crucial that we know how the public perceives the criminal justice system and law enforcement. From these figures our government, especially the SAPS, Department of Justice and the Department of Correctional Services can improve and adjust where they are lacking. The target population of the survey consists of all private households in all nine provinces of South Africa and residents in workers’ hostels. The survey does not cover other collective living quarters such as students’ hostels, old-age homes, hospitals, prisons and military barracks, and is therefore only representative of non-institutionalised and non-military persons or households in South Africa.

According to VOCS, of all the murder cases that were reported to institutions other than police, they were reported to traditional authorities (38,2%), Community Policing Forums (31,6%) and local ward councillors (30,2%). Nationally, 64,7% of the households indicated that they were satisfied with the way the courts did their work. In 2010, Limpopo displayed the highest level of satisfaction (74,1%), followed by North West (71,6%), KwaZulu-Natal (70,5%) and Mpumalanga (70,2%).

Almost 80% of the households who were satisfied with the police in their area felt the police were committed. A similar proportion (77,9%) believed the police came to the scene of the crime. Seven-tenths (70,8%) of households felt that they are trustworthy. 64,6% of households were satisfied with the way police dealt with the crime in their area. In the Western Cape (71,1%), Limpopo (66,7%) and Gauteng (66,2%) households were satisfied with the way in which the police dealt with crime in their provinces. Nationally, 64,7% of the households indicated that they were satisfied with the way the courts did their work. In 2010, Limpopo displayed the highest level of satisfaction (74,1%), followed by North West (71,6%), KwaZulu-Natal (70,5%) and Mpumalanga (70,2%).When asked to explain their reasons for being satisfied with the way courts deal with perpetrators of crime, answers tended to focus on the sentencing of perpetrators. Of the households who expressed satisfaction with courts, 51,8% thought that courts passed appropriate sentences.

Does the community of Orange Farm fall outside the 64% that is fully satisfied with the courts? Or does it fall outside the 80% who felt that police were committed to their work? The gap between those households who are happy with the courts and those who are happy with the police system is very large, but it is noticeable. According to these figures the SAPS system is lacking somewhere and it is affecting the Judiciary. I’m tempted to say that one of the problems affecting these results isn’t the lack of resources within these departments. It is clear that the relationship between the SAPS, the Department of Correctional Services and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development is not as synced as it should be. As long as the those gaps between these three departments are not filled we will have the problems I have mentioned, and more.

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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.

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