Crime and punishment in Western Cape townships

by Jacques van Heerden

“Farce is a tragedy played at a thousand revolutions a minute”

Whether it appears as a book, film, or newspaper article, the basic formula for a detective story is simple: a crime is committed, a detective investigates, and the criminal is identified. One subgenre, the police procedural, focuses on the detective who interviews witnesses, gathers and examines evidence, and follows leads to identify the guilty party.

Similarly, in stories that focus on the justice system, the prosecutor builds and presents a case to the court, based on evidence the police obtained during their investigation. Meanwhile a defence attorney tries to find flaws in the prosecution’s case or alternative explanations for the evidence.

The Task Team report into the state of policing in Khayelitsha, commissioned by the National Commissioner of the SAPS in response to a complaint by a group of NGOs, tells a completely different story. This report focused on “line function activities”, including “attendance of complaints, crime prevention, sector policing and the investigation of crime”. Reading it reveals a story of apathy and incompetence, exacerbated by inadequate training, equipment, support, and accountability.

Crimes are reported but no arrests are made, or suspects are released because of a lack of evidence, sometimes after being held more than 48 hours. Often the police reports do not explain why suspects were arrested in the first place.

Other examples of basic failures of policing listed in the Report:

  • failure to attend to a complaint of two missing teenage girls
  • failure to comply with regulations in terms of domestic violence
  • failure to ensure that a murder docket was at court on a scheduled date/failure to take dockets to court on a scheduled date
  • failure to register dockets, investigate/inspect/check dockets, or present dockets for inspection
  • failure to send charged suspects to court
  • non-compliance to instructions in case dockets
  • wrongful release/escape of suspects

The report also identifies worrying trends about how crimes are investigated. For example, crime scene experts are seldom asked to collect fingerprints or other forensic evidence. Police officers fail to take witness statements or to invite witnesses to look at mug shots. They also fail to ask cell phone companies to track stolen phones and do not circulate the serial numbers of stolen goods.

CSI: Khayelitsha this isn’t.

Meanwhile, “nearly 50%” of criminal cases opened in townships are for possession of pocket knives, which the police wishfully classify as “dangerous weapons”.

These problems are exacerbated by a lack of discipline:

  • failure to report on duty/being absent from work without reason
  • assault
  • failure to carry out lawful orders
  • refusal to assist a complainant
  • shouting at a complainant

The situation doesn’t get much better once the courts are factored in. Most of us are familiar with books and films where someone innocent is accused of a crime and must then be acquitted. Often, the innocent are saved by a dedicated and upstanding attorney, a particularly enterprising jury member, or a last-minute plot twist. Sometimes a criminal goes free, but that is the price people pay for a justice system that prefers to err on the side of caution: better to let a hundred criminals go free rather than send one innocent person to jail.

By contrast, the residents of the townships seem to live in a dystopia where all these assumptions have been overturned and where the justice system has more in common with Kafka’s The Trial than with Twelve Angry Men.

In The Trial, Josef K. is arrested but is never told what the charge is, who accused him, or what evidence there is against him. No one ever explains how the courts or the justice system work, no one explains any laws, and even though he is sure he has never committed a crime he is punished by death. Justice in this world is a confusing and intimidating bureaucratic hell.

According to the Report, cases arising from the townships are often thrown out of court because police fail inform witnesses about the hearings. Most cases “are settled otherwise than as guilty”, in which case the accused are referred to rehabilitation programs. This, together with the inflated number of arrests due to the activities of the “pocket knife” police, still qualifies as a success in terms of the SAPS’s official performance figures. But should this be enough?

Even in cases where investigations were declared to have been “properly investigated”, convictions can still take years. In one case of assault, rape, and murder, it took five years to get a conviction. The two suspects received sentences of 10 years (3 years suspended) and 8 years (3 years suspended). In another case, a man was stabbed to death in 2002. Ten years later the case is still in court.

There are many different ways to tell detective stories or courtroom dramas, and there are many variations on the basic formula, but the question of innocence is crucial to all of them. There are many reasons why it is important to ensure that the right people are prosecuted and sentenced for crimes they committed, that crime is kept to a minimum, and that everyone who works for the police and the justice system is competent and accountable. Similarly, crime and punishment need to go hand in hand because unless criminals are caught and punished, unless crime has some kind of consequence, there is no reason it will stop.

John Mortimer wrote that “Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.” In other words, if something appalling happens once, it is tragic, but if it keeps happening it turns into a farce. Regardless of what happens to the Commission of Inquiry into policing, for too many people living in townships across the Western Cape, the police and justice system is too much of both.

There will always be crime and no one would suggest that it is possible to eradicate completely. But the breakdown in the police system in informal settlements has reached a point where all semblance of law and order is a fiction: no justice system can tolerate such levels of vigilantism, corruption, and lack of accountability. These problems have persisted for much too long, and they require urgent action and reform. The residents of these communities are still waiting for justice.

*This article first appeared in the Cape Times, 18 December 2013