Many years ago, one of the favourite topics at school and university debating societies was: “Is there such a thing as the perfect murder?” Why it was relevant was the belief that all murders were detected and that murderers were punished. The rarity would be someone who committed a murder and got away with it: the perfect murder.
Today, in South Africa, the debate would be laughable. According to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the number of murders places this country 4th out of 219 countries in the world. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) says that 485 187 murders have been committed in the country since 1994.
Where are all the murderers? The Annual Report of Correctional Services discloses that there are 117255 sentenced offenders (for all categories of crime) in our prisons, with a further 43 789 unsentenced prisoners.
The latest crime statistics released by Police Minister Bheki Cele reveal that in 2017/2018 20,336 murders were recorded; that is 57 a day. But the annual report of the SAPS for 2016/2017 tells us that a total of 16 102 arrests for murder took place. That means that more than 4,000 murderers were not even arrested, let alone tried and if convicted, sentenced,
Meanwhile, the reports of the Director of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the SAPS show only small numbers of convictions were obtained. The detection rate was 23.92%. Of that, 81.83% had trial ready dockets and of that only 76.35% resulted in convictions. About 3,000 convictions out of 20,000 murders. Tens of thousands of murderers went unpunished, with victims and society generally not getting justice.
This ought to be unacceptable in any democratic society. Indeed, the minister stated as follows: “It borders close to the war zone while there is peace and there is no war in South Africa.” He added that the statistics were “bad news” and “depressing.”
The public has become somewhat cynical about similar comments by successive ministers. Minister Fikile Mbalula, the previous minister, said last year, “The SA Police are letting the people of South Africa down.”
Apart from murders, our justice system is failing many other victims. The total of sexual assaults reported for this year is 50,108. The number of arrests was 32 100. Graeme Hosken wrote an interesting article on 30 October 2017 in The Sowetan. It covered a report, “Rape Justice in South Africa,” conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) on behalf of the NPA. The number of convictions was 8.1%, with Gauteng accepting 26% of cases for prosecution but having only 6.5% of cases concluded with a guilty verdict.
Remember that only a fraction of the reported rapes gets to court; this means that tens of thousands of rapists get away with their crimes each year.
The MRC research aimed at establishing reasons for the attrition in rape cases and focused on a sample of the reported cases: 3,952. The report found that
One third of the perpetrators had previous convictions;
Police only visited 53% of crime scenes;
In 50% of cases where there were witnesses, no witness statements were taken;
42.2% of cases had no arrests;
In 23% of adult rape cases evidence collection kits were not even sent to police forensic science laboratories; and
In 17% of cases no rape survivor statement was taken.
Hosken quotes Rachel Jewkes, the MRC’s executive scientist for research strategy, regarding the failure to send evidence kits to the forensic laboratories: “The implications are that there are cases where DNA, which could have been found, analysed and used to identify rapists, especially serial rapists, was never collected.”
Jewkes goes on to say that of the 3,952 cases examined, prosecutors only enrolled 1,362 cases for trial. When researchers examined the 1,362 cases further they discovered that trials only started in 731 of the cases with just 340 cases finalised with a guilty verdict.
Perhaps worse still was the MRC finding that many of the sentences deviated from the prescribed minimum sentence of ten year’s imprisonment. Jewkes said, “What’s shocking is that while 247 perpetrators were imprisoned, 68 of those convicted received suspended prison sentences. In Gauteng 36% of adults convicted for rape received a suspended sentence, while in the Free State 20% of adults convicted for rape received suspended sentences. We cannot understand how this is possible.”
There is really no good reason to believe that the record of arrest and conviction for all other crimes (there were 1,109,589 arrests for serious crime last year) is any better than this shocking exposé of the rape and murder statistics.
The minister of Police, Bheki Cele, says that the SAPS have “dropped the ball.” Clearly, there is something rotten in the SAPS. Successive National Commissioners have been hopeless failures. This includes Cele himself who was fired after Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in 2011 found him guilty of improper conduct and maladministration when the police entered into a R500m lease for the Sanlam Middestad Building in Pretoria. Madonsela found the lease between the department and property tycoon Roux Shabangu's Roux Property Fund to be invalid and she requested that the National Treasury should review the lease to see what steps could be taken to terminate it.
Cele was brought back by President Ramaphosa as part of the “New Dawn.” Even though tainted by his past, at least he is a serious minister and a political heavyweight. There is now a respected professional as National Commissioner, Lieutenant Khehla Sitole, and he, together with Cele will be watched intently to see if this year’s promises lead to better policing. It is the government’s prime duty to ensure the safety of its citizens and up to now, this government has failed in that task.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com. This article first appeared in The Star newspaper.