Quote of the week

An ‘important purpose of section 34 [of the Constitution] is to guarantee the protection of the judicial process to persons who have disputes that can be resolved by law’ and that the right of access to court is ‘foundational to the stability of an orderly society. It ensures the peaceful, regulated and institutionalised mechanisms to resolve disputes, without resorting to self-help. The right of access to court is a bulwark against vigilantism, and the chaos and anarchy which it causes. Construed in this context of the rule of law and the principle against self-help in particular, access to court is indeed of cardinal importance’.The right guaranteed s34 would be rendered meaningless if court orders could be ignored with impunity:the underlying purposes of the right — and particularly that of avoidance of self-help — would be undermined if litigants could decide which orders they wished to obey and which they wished to ignore.

Plasket AJ
Victoria Park Ratepayers' Association v Greyvenouw CC and others (511/03) [2003] ZAECHC 19 (11 April 2003)
11 August 2008

Criminal justice system in turmoil – and not only for Zuma

Mr Johnny De Lange, the Minister Deputy Minister of Justice, admitted last week that the criminal justice system is in turmoil and is being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases it has to deal with. He revealed in Parliament that:

  • Two million cases which are reported each year are never solved – so much for those who think bringing back the death penalty will solve our crime problems. Criminals obviously think they will never be caught rather than fear harsh punishment.
  • More than 700 000 court cases are withdrawn or struck from the role annually.
  • The police only has 2082 experts who visit crime scenes to look for clues. This means every expert must visit three crime scenes per day but every two experts share a car and five must share a cell phone, while three share one computer.
  • On average, only six cases are concluded in each court a month.
  • Up to 35% of all cases in Regional Courts have been on the role for more than nine months.
  • Up to 48 000 prisoners are trial-awaiting.
  • Some court cases are postponed up to 50 times.
  • Regional Courts are, on average, in session for only 3.5 hours a day.

These are troubling statistics because it shows that the government is not winning the fight against crime. It also puts into perspective all the complaints by the supporters of Mr. Jacob Zuma alleging that he is being harshly and unfairly treated by the state because of the long investigation and all the delays in his case. Those who feel Mr. Zuma has been unfairly treated might have a point, but if one agrees with them, it would mean we will have to agree that almost all accused persons are harshly and unfairly treated because their cases drag on for years – and unlike Mr. Zuma they often cannot afford bail – while the police and the prosecution lurch from one bungle to the next.

It is against this background that a court will have to decide whether there should be a permanent stay of prosecution for Mr. Zuma and whether his case should permanently be thrown out of court. If a court agrees with this application to be brought in the next weeks, it will open up a can of worms that will – if followed in other cases – lead to the total collapse of the criminal justice system.

If one assumes that Mr. Zuma must be treated no different from any other accused – because one believes in the Rule of Law and equality before the law – his complaints ring rather hollow. It is only if one thinks he should never have been investigated because others in the ANC got away with far worse, that one can really make any claim that he is being unfairly treated. Either that or one believes all accused are unfairly treated and almost all cases should be thrown out of court – which would mean the total collapse of the criminal; justice system.

Mr. Zuma himself alluded to this outside court last week when he said that if he is put on trial he will reveal the whole truth about the arms deal, thus in effect admitting that there is a lot of scandal to be revealed in this matter. This to me sounds like an admission of guilt on his part: “I might have done stupid and bad things but others did worse,” seems to be his defence.

But this is not surprising as his supporters themselves have more or less all admitted that he is guilty of wrongdoing. This is because to claim that Mr. Zuma is being unfairly treated is really to admit that both he and many others in the ANC are guilty of corruption and fraud but that he was unfairly singled out for prosecution.

It is really an extraordinary kind of admission of guilt on the part of himself and his supporters and demonstrates a breathtaking lack of respect for the Rule of Law. The fact that his supporters do not see how damning their claims of unfair treatment is and how it implicates him in wrongdoing – given the context of how our criminal justice system works or does not work – is a rather sad reflection on the kind of ethical path our ruling party is on at the moment.

Claims of unfair treatment therefore reflects badly on Mr. Zuma. It might be better if his supporters start claiming that he did not take any money from the convicted fraudster, did not do any favours for that fraudster, did not lie to Parliament about it. Such a campaign will address Mr. Zuma’s innocence – not his relative less crookedness than others in the ANC – and might thus find a more sympathetic audience.

Only problem is, the highest court in the land has already confirmed these facts, so such claims might ring hollow. No wonder Mr. Zuma and his supporters rather focus on a plan B in which he is painted as a victim because he was unfairly singled out for prosecution when others did far worse and got away. It’s a bit like a boy caught stealing a slice of cake who then defends himself by saying: “But my brothers tole three slices!”

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