The country’s justice heads got rapped over the knuckles on Wednesday in Parliament over delays in the prosecution of apartheid-era atrocities.
“The question we should all ask ourselves is whether we’ve met the threshold in dealing with the deaths of those who lost their lives in pursuit of our democracy. And the answer is a very painful ‘no’,” justice portfolio committee chair Gratitude Magwanishe said, following a briefing by Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) Shamila Batohi.
The two had been called to appear before the committee to address various issues.
These included the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) having missed a 2 December deadline to make a decision on charging anyone over the 1985 deaths of Fort Calata, Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkonto and Sicelo Mhlauli – “the Cradock Four” – at the hands of the apartheid state.
During her time in the hot seat, Batohi said the delay in coming to a decision was after private lawyers for the victims’ families had identified a number of issues that required “further investigations”.
She said the state had indicated to the families’ legal representatives that this would require more time but it appears this was left to the last minute and that the message didn’t reach the families until after the fact.
Batohi insisted, though, that Eastern Cape director of public prosecutions Barry Madolo was working with the families’ own investigators to move the case forward.
Speaking to the broader issue of delays in prosecuting these types of crime, Batohi said it was “critically important” for the families of the victims and the survivors to receive justice.
“And the reality is up until now, our country as a whole has failed in terms of holding accountable those responsible for atrocities committed during the apartheid era,” she said.
But she insisted this work was now a priority – pointing to the recent creation of a “dedicated capacity”.
Her address didn’t appear to allay the committee’s concerns, though, with the ANC member of Parliament (MP) Qubudile Dyantyi saying the NPA had “a problem”.
“Your justification for this lack of progress is not persuasive, is not compelling … the NPA has been caught with [its] pants down … No amount of justification is convincing,” he said.
Said DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach, meanwhile: “We are 28 years down the line of our constitutional democracy and still those families are waiting…
“The only thing they have left is some sort of justice for their family members who were killed or disappeared and if they don’t get that justice, the NPA would have failed them and so would we and we can’t afford to do that.”
Batohi agreed it was “unacceptable where we are with the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] matters”, again insisting, however, that work was underway.
Deputy NDPP Rodney De Kock conceded thatthe Cradock Four matter, particularly, “should have been dealt with differently”.
“The prosecutors should have indicated they needed an extension earlier, which is the way it normally works … This is how it should not work,” he said, adding the NPA would “correct it going forward” and that engagements were underway to “rearrange how the matter is managed going forward”.
Going forward, the committee now wants quarterly updates on the authorities’ progress on TRC cases.
Magwanishe on Wednesday said they also wanted to meet with the minister early next year for an update on the appointment of a judge to chair an inquiry, in line with the South Gauteng High Court’s 2019 judgment, in which it ordered an investigation into political interference in these prosecutions.