By Kotie Geldenhuys
On the first day of Autumn 2020 and during the writing of this article, eight-year-old Tazne van Wyk, was laid to rest. As the Minister of Police, Mr Bheki Cele, addressed the mourners at her funeral, he admitted that the Criminal Justice System had failed the young murder victim. On 7 February 2020, Tazne disappeared without a trace near her home in Elsies River, and almost two weeks later her body was found in a storm water drain near the N1 outside Worcester.
The man who had allegedly abducted and murdered this young victim had been incarcerated for another child murder but after serving ten years, he was released on parole in October 2016. A day before Tazne's disappearance, the Department of Correctional Services declared the man an absconder, after they were unsuccessful in trying to track him down in the Southern Cape. His criminal record goes as far back as 1981 and includes convictions for culpable homicide, vehicle theft, theft, assault, child neglect and housebreaking (Jansen, 2020). It is mind-boggling to think that someone with such a criminal record can be released on parole and is a clear example of how the Criminal Justice System fails the victims (and survivors) of crime in our country … and in fact, also the broader community from which their following victims my come.
The Criminal Justice System (CJS) refers to all of the agencies whose aim it is to control crime. In the South African context, the CJS has six main role-players:
- The South African Police Service (SAPS) is responsible for preventing, combating and investigating crime, and arresting suspected offenders.
- The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has to decide whether or not to prosecute someone who is suspected of having committed an offence.
- The Department of Justice and Constitutional Development provides accessible and quality justice for all.
- The presiding officer, namely the magistrate or judge who hears the case, and the judiciary (the courts), have to decide whether the accused is innocent or guilty after having heard evidence. They also have to decide on an appropriate sentence when someone has been found guilty.
- The Department of Correctional Services (DCS) has to ensure that sentences are carried out. They also have the responsibility to attempt to rehabilitate the convicted offenders in their care.
- The probation officer and/or social worker provides social services to the poor and to vulnerable people. They work with victims of crime, families and communities. Probation officers are appointed by the Minister of Social Development and are officers of every magistrate's court (www.gov.za/faq/justice and crime prevention/how does criminal justice system work).
When a suspect has been arrested for an offence, the community expects the swift and successful prosecution of that offender. In addition, the community expects that this offender must be incarcerated after the conclusion of the court trial. The community therefore believes that when an offender has been sentenced to incarceration, the interests of justice have been served.
The SAPS fail to fulfil their role
The SAPS is often regarded as the first role-player in the CJS since this is where both offenders and victims enter the system. The SAPS is the national law enforcement agency whose mandate it is to ensure the safety and security of the South African community (SAPS, 2014). There are many incidents where uniformed members, working in the Community Service Centre (CSC) and those patrolling the streets fail victims by not responding to crime or not wanting to open cases. If they do not open cases or respond to crime as they should, these incidents can neither be investigated nor prosecuted to ensure that justice is served.
Once a criminal case has been opened, the SAPS investigating officers or detectives are tasked to investigate the case and bring the offenders to book. Mediocre investigation of crime and the subsequent acquittal of offenders may have a negative effect on the already fragile relationship between the police and the community. Haphazard investigations and negligence result in a large number of cases being closed without being investigated properly. Some cases make it to court, but sloppy police work place successful prosecutions at stake. One case that comes to mind is that of 22-year-old Maties student, Inge Lotz. In his biography, Steeped in blood - the life and times of a forensic scientist, Dr David Klatzow, describes the Inge Lotz case as “one of the worst police investigations ever to take place in South Africa, leaving her killer roaming free” (Thamm, 2014). During the trial, which lasted ten months, every detail of the State’s case was subjected to an intense attack by a team of the world’s leading forensic investigators and in the end, Judge Deon van Zyl found that the murder accused, Fred van der Vyver, who was Inge’s boyfriend at the time, could not have murdered her, that he did not murder her and that the evidence was so weak that the case really should never have been brought to court. The Judge however refused to find that the police had fabricated the evidence, generously leaving open the possibility that this was a case of “negligence” and “utter incompetence” (Altbeker, 2011). Despite a string of frustrating court cases, authorities have still not given the Lotz family closure.