There is no correction taking place at the country’s correctional facilities. The only correction that seems to take place is improving the mastery of hardened criminals into even ruthless, artful dodgers, writes Tebogo Khaas.
The Thabo Bester story is a deliciously inventive panoply of everything that’s wrong with our criminal justice system. Corruption and violent crimes are a serious problem in South Africa, and these have a direct impact on the criminal justice system. There is no gainsaying that our democratic institutions are facing a relentless onslaught from within.
In a recent podcast, a former prisoner alleged prisoners are released temporarily to go and undertake assassination assignments only to be spirited back into the sanctuary of correctional facilities where their alibis can be assured are the stuff that even Francis Ford Coppola could never dream of.
For, we have a correctional system wherein a convicted rapist and murderer, Bester, reportedly ran a sham “Women in Media” conference and even had event guests singing a happy birthday song to him, oblivious to his incarceration at the time.
A system wherein a cadaver, according to GroundUp, safely made its way into Bester’s maximum-security Mangaung correctional centre cell so as to stage a suicide ruse that let him – a convicted rapist serving life plus 75 years – out of jail and endanger society. And no one saw or heard anything?
No correction at our correctional services
Ours is a criminal justice system wherein prison wardens habitually engage in sexual relations with prisoners and conduct illicit business with them with reckless abandon. But nothing is new here.
Truth be told, there is no correction taking place at the country’s correctional facilities. The only correction that seems to take place is improving the mastery of hardened criminals into even ruthless, artful dodgers.
But it is easy to see why. By presidential and governing party design, we have a government that has all but surrendered to criminals and criminality.
In police minister Bheki Cele, we have a politician whose name looms large in corruption, theft and fraud matters involving the provisioning of lodgings and meals for police force members on duty during the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament while he was the police commissioner.
READ | Sipho Masondo: Bheki Cele’s daring power grab at the police service
But Cele didn’t appoint himself to that position. Notwithstanding heavy clouds weighing down his Stetson hat, President Cyril Ramaphosa still regards him as the right man for the job. And he’s clearly here to stay.
Plunder of scarce public resources, the intensity with which corruption, assassinations, gender-based violence, rapes, violent crime are committed has catapulted this nation into could be described as a den of criminals.
The recent assassination of liquidators Cloete Murray and his son Thomas, both responsible for overseeing the winding up of high-profile insolvent estates, raises serious concerns about the extent of corruption in the insolvency process. If liquidators are targeted and killed for investigating and reporting on fraud and corruption, it sure deters others from carrying out similar work, and creates a climate of fear that enables criminal activity to thrive.
Swift action needed
Lest we forget, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) officially greylisted South Africa last month due to concerns about its anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing efforts. The deeds registry, overseen by the Office of the Master of the Court in Pretoria, is a critical component of the country’s anti-money laundering regime, as it records property ownership and transfers. And if allegations of corruption within the Office of the Master are substantiated, this could result in increased scrutiny and pressure from the FATF, which could lead to further sanctions or even blacklisting.
In order to address these concerns and maintain the integrity of its anti-money laundering regime, South Africa will need to take swift and decisive action to investigate and root out corruption within its institutions. This will require strong leadership, political will, and collaboration between law enforcement agencies, whistleblowers, and other stakeholders.
According to Transparency International, South Africa ranks 69th out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption can take many forms, from bribes paid to officials to secure favourable treatment to embezzlement of public funds. The result of this corruption is that the criminal justice system is often unable to function effectively. Corrupt officials may accept bribes to overlook criminal activity or to facilitate the early release of criminals from prison. This undermines the public’s faith in the justice system and makes it more difficult to secure convictions.
READ | Prison break: Dozens of inmates escape from jails around the country
The risks associated with shining the light on and investigating crime are significant. Those who engage in corrupt activities often have significant financial resources and connections to powerful individuals in government and business. They may be willing to use violence to protect their interests and silence those who threaten them.
The Thabo Bester case is a prime example of the extent to which criminals operate with impunity, even while incarcerated or outside prison.
The fact that “no one” at the correctional facility noticed the cadaver that was used to stage a suicide ruse that secured Bester’s freedom further highlights the incompetence and corruption within the correctional system.
Also, that Bester was able to freely move within public spaces undetected despite prison officials and police being aware of his escape months earlier is dispositive of the criminal negligence and recklessness within the criminal justice system.
Of course, we need to strengthen our law enforcement agencies. This would require greater investment in training and resources as well as improved coordination between different law enforcement agencies. But no amount of training and resourcing the criminal justice system would, per se, vanquish the paucity of ethical leadership within the criminal justice system.
Criminals like Bester and those who murdered the Murrays are part of organised criminal networks that exploit corruption within the criminal justice system. That we could have individuals like Bester’s girlfriend ostensibly providing aid and comfort to a fugitive from justice renders the fight against crime, particularly gender-based violence, futile.
It is a sad indictment on our criminal justice system that whistleblowers who risk their and their families’ lives – as in Bester’s girlfriend’s brother – are not provided with the protection and support they need. This only deepens the lack of trust between the police and the community they are supposed to serve.
The impact of crime and corruption on South Africa’s criminal justice system is far-reaching. It undermines the rule of law and erodes public trust in the justice system. It makes a mockery of our world-acclaimed Constitution, which looks to us as citizens to vindicate.
– Tebogo Khaas is political commentator and chair of Public Interest SA.
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