News / Africa

S. Africa’s Criminal Legal System on Trial With Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 8, 2014.
Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 8, 2014.

The end is near for the murder trial of South African running star Oscar Pistorius. The legal spectacle has provided a snapshot of the South African criminal justice system. On one hand, it may have impressed onlookers with tenacious lawyers and gritty debate, not to mention a no-nonsense woman judge. It is not clear, however, if the Oscar Pistorius trial is a true representation of the South African justice system.

South Africa’s policing and criminal justice system has been under worldwide scrutiny for the past six months as the televised murder trial of the Olympic athlete and double amputee unfolded in a Pretoria courtroom.
He is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day - February 14, 2013. He maintains he shot her in self-defense, thinking Steenkamp was an intruder in his home.
The trial has become a test case of the legal system’s ability to deliver justice in a country where inequality persists 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Money, influence
Robyn Leslie, researcher for the Wits Justice Project in Johannesburg, said the Pistorius trial is an anomaly, not the norm.
“He is definitely getting the VIP treatment without a doubt… We hear [about] terrible legal representation, the accused end up in jail based on flimsy or non-existent evidence that isn’t sufficiently challenged in court, days upon days of remands for no reason… [It] is definitely not the situation most people face,” said Leslie.

The Pistorius trial is indicative of what money can buy, according to Leslie.
The trial has been peppered with testimonies from ballistic and forensic experts dissecting bullet trajectories and blood spatters and reenactments of the night Pistorius shot his girlfriend.
And Pistorius has been free on bail for 18 months.
This is not the case for more impoverished defendants. Legal Aid South Africa reports there are 10,000 people languishing in jails who cannot afford to pay the smallest bail.  

Constitutional rights

Natalie Jaynes, program manager for the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, said getting access to basic constitutional rights works only for the educated and the elite.  
“We fought so long and hard to have a fairly robust legal framework that provides us with good access to justice provisions for the poorest of the poor. The extent to which people are able to actually leverage that and access that, depends on so many external variables and so it still feels so unfairly biased in favor of people who are privileged,” said Jaynes.

The Wits Justice project says that 45,000 people -- a third of the prison population -- are subject to unreasonable delays during their trials. A Johannesburg prosecutor, who asked not to be named, told VOA trials often are delayed unnecessarily.
“In the Pistorius trial, everything was like made to be perfect… Witnesses were on time, the judge was on time.  It’s not happening in our case -- we often start at 10.30 in the morning, sometimes later.  We also have trouble with witnesses… The witnesses are scared so they don’t want to come to court.”

Other shortcomings highlighted during this trial, however, have nothing to do with the privilege of fame and fortune.
Jayne noted the shoddy work of police investigators who mishandled evidence at the crime scene.
“It has actually laid bare some of the very deep fissures within the criminal justice system.  If you look back to the very early phases of the investigation, the issues around the slip-ups of the police investigation, and really reflecting an absolute sloppiness there in that regard,” she said.

Final verdict

Justice groups, though, welcome the scrutiny. Leslie of the Wits’ Justice Project said that while the Pistorius trial will not necessarily improve flaws in the justice system, it is helping to educate a large number of South Africans about their legal rights.

“People are learning more about what the criminal procedure is… they are learning about bail, the big outcry. Was it legal to allow Pistorius bail? [It] means there is a basic understanding of the process just from that debate, that I think has been a really positive side to it,” said Leslie.

A final verdict on the justice system may take time. Meanwhile, a verdict in the Pistorius case will be delivered on September 11 by Judge Thokozile Masipa -- the second black woman to be appointed a high court judge in post-apartheid South Africa.


You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs