Court week comes to a conclusion

Today marked the end of court week experience. I must say I have come out of this week more informed and educated about how the court system works in South Africa but also highly disappointed and shameful about the justice system in this country.

My last day in court was by far the most touching yet eye-opening day I have had in a long time. I sat through district court and met an attorney who was friendly enough to take me down to the holding cell for underneath the court where prisoners are kept until they appear in court.

I learnt that these prisoners who have committed less serious crimes such as theft of consumer goods, robbery and assault. I mean less serious in comparison to the more serious crimes such as rape and murder.

The holding cell

I went down to the holding cell and I was taken aback by the mere appearance of the cell. It was very cold firstly and considering it was winter it was even colder. The walls were dull grey with paint coming off it, there was a wooden bench on the side of the wall for the prisoners to sit and they were closed in by a squeaky metal gate. There were at least 10 to 15 prisoners who were transported from Sterkfontein prison and Sun City prison.

The treatment of prisoners

The constable had told us that everyday at least 1000 prisoners were transported to the courts for their hearing. Sometimes there are not enough buses to bring all the prisoners to court to appear and they are left behind and unable to appear in court and are left in custody until the court postpones their case.

I learnt that the prisons in Sun City were full. A prison cell which is made for 42 prisoners, have over 100 prisoners in them. I learnt that people who commit theft, robbery or assault are kept in the same prison cell as the murderers and rapists. There is no separation.

An older looking man walked to the stand in court to appear for his trial, which was postponed, had tears running down his face as he explained what was waiting for him after his trial was postponed.

He spoke out and told his interpreter that he would like to address the court. He told the court that he did not want to go back to prison because he is going to sleep on the cold cement floor tonight with no blankets and pillows. He is not going to eat because the other cell dwellers who have been there longer than him bully him into paying them after they steal his meal. He said they are forced to pay R50-00 in order to get their food and sometimes he does not even eat because he does not have money to pay them. The man who was expressing real emotion in court in front of everyone said they are treated like animals, they do not have a voice to speak out for themselves and he was dreading going back there tonight and staying there until he has to appear in court again.

The courts response

The court was not too interested in this man’s testimony and told him that we as tax payers pay for you to be in jail and therefore you do not have to pay for food and that you should speak out for your rights, he was then escorted out of court back to the holding cell.

Two observations can be deduced here. One, that he was intolerably dismissed by the court and second that the prison system in the country is not efficient.

He appeared in court just to hear that his case is postponed and he will remain in custody. This judgment happens at least 10 times in court on any given day. So it is basically a waste of time.

In this court there was a specific case where a case was postponed because the court did not provide a relevant interpreter for the accused and therefore she could not understand the court proceedings without someone who would translate it for her. The defense attorney voiced his displeasure about this. He said that the state is taking this issue of translators very lightly and therefore have failed to provide the relevant interpreters for the accused and because of this; the accused should not be punished for it. What does this say about the constitution of South Africa? A citizen of the country cannot even get an interpreter in her own language and has to face further costs when her case is postponed because of the states lack of responsibility.

I think a criminal should be punished because they have committed actions which go against the law of the country. However, I feel punishment needs to be set out in degrees. I also think that the efficiency of the court procedures in South Africa is strained and inefficient.

Conclusive thoughts

My court week experience was moving and it also proved to me that you are unaware of the way the povertised live, you are unaware of the problems in the justice system of the country and you are unaware of the lives of others until you experience it for yourself. I learnt that it is easy to sit back and judge criminals without considering their circumstance and the lack of education. Education makes you wiser and that has been proven many times in court last week. I think that the first step for South Africa is to address the low rate of literacy in the country; this would be a step in the right direction.


The South Gauteng High Court

Today was the first day I stepped foot into high court. The Vuvuzela team was scheduled to spend the day at high court to gain experience of how magistrate court and high court differ. The different criminal and civil issues which are dealt with in the different courts and also just a general experience of courts are run.

The first experience

As I walked into the high court we were greeted by security that checked our bags and then a mass gathering of people and attorneys and advocates in the main area. Men and women in their black and white suits holding stacks and stacks of papers in their hands and also pulling an additional bag which I assume had more documents in them for their cases of the day.

The change at high court is that the advocates wear ropes and the attorneys are in suits, at magistrate court it is vice versa. Being around like 100 plus advocates throughout the day, I will admit is quite intimidating at first. There is an aura which surrounds them. They look very educated, very professional and very interested in getting the ball rolling. No one stood around aimlessly.

However, the personal experience I had with some of the advocates today was pleasant; looks can be deceiving because all of them were friendly, talkative and obliging to help.

The first courtroom

The first court room we entered was a motion court, where the advocates appear to the Judge to have their case taken off the roll for specific reasons, or get their case postponed or directed to the correct court. This is a quick and easy process which is done timelessly before lunch, so that afterwards the trials and other mores serious cases can take centre stage.

The judge for the motion court was a judge I will never forget. This judge was a lady and she went against every stereotype I have in my mind of judges. She was straight forward, experienced and efficient but above this she was a human. I think sometimes judges forget their human appeal in court and they treat it as a process rather than a space for interaction.

The judge was very talkative, she took the time to speak to the attorneys; she cracked jokes and kept the court room interested in the proceedings and when a time came when she had to correct something and teach someone she did so giving stories of her personal experience in this profession.
I remember there was a new attorney who was appearing for the second time in motion court and he was very nervous. The judge had a mini conversation with him and made him feel comfortable and told him that it does not get worse, this is the worst.

An awe-shaking experience in my midst

Later on in the day we saw prisoners with chains around their ankles waiting to appear in court for different reasons. I sat two people away from a prisoner of murder; it was scary to know that I was in the same room as a murderer, which I have never been in before.

Seeing the prisoners in general was a very real experience. They were approximately 7-10 prisoners who were accompanied with many correctional officers. I could not stop myself from staring and thinking about what story they have to tell, they all looked like people who had many life experiences to share, despite their crimes they were human beings and it interested me as to how different they were from me, yet the same.
I eventually sat through a trial between the state and a taxi driver, who is suing the state for R150, 000 in damages from the South African Police Services due to a collision of a taxi and police van which occurred in August 2010.

It’s always hard choosing the best information for your story when you have so much information about the case. Today I got all the relevant names I needed and spoke to all the right people and I definitely learned from my mistakes yesterday.

I can write off the day as an experience, a good one.

Magistrate Mayhem

Magistrate Mayhem

Magistrate Mayhem

The life of a legal reporter can be described as hurried or maybe rigid, but nonetheless, as a student journalist of this course I, along with my 16 other counterparts, were thrown into the deep end. A visit to the Johannesburg Magistrate Court came a bit unexpected.

Court preparation

I might have, by unintended misfortune, forgot to mention that during the past two to three weeks we have had some great guest speakers come talk to Team Vuvuzela in preparation for court week. Among the very elite group was Dario Milo from Wenzel Weller who spoke about media law and defamation. I think the most important sentence which has been imprinted in my mind from that talk is “Defame but do so lawfully.” I now know that my craft is immune to defamation and it is not forbidden.

We also had Gilbert come speak to us about the court structure in South Africa and Franny, who seemed like a very experienced legal reporter and to my surprise she was excellent in teaching us how to target, hit and crack a legal story, which isn’t often the case.

I can say that we were sufficiently informed about courts and laws regarding the media before we entered this week. With this in mind I strolled in this morning quite exhausted but not highly preoccupied with the idea of court, it seemed to me that if I paid attention in class and read my notes it would be like riding a bicycle. To my surprise that was not the case.

We arrive at “Magis” court at 9am sharp. Ready for the day I hurry through the turnstiles, walk through the metal detectors perfectly, everything is fine and I was off to be a “legal reporter” today. It was that feeling of your first day in high school, full of excitement yet nervous to the core of my stomach.

Stumbling our way around magistrate court

First we looked at a schedule of sorts, which basically listed all the court cases which will be held today, in which court room, case number and accusers. I glanced over the crowd to get a peek of what this sheet of paper was all about, impatient to wait in the long queue for my turn I got some cases from a colleague of mine and proceed to jet off to the first court hearing.

The first thing I noticed as I walked into court four was the horribly squeaky wooden floor I had to place my feet on. It hits you like a shockwave and all of sudden, if things were not awkward enough the floor draws all the attention to you and you have 10 people staring at you as you try to make your way to some seat you think is appropriate.

I seat myself down and wait…wait…wait…and nothing seems to happen. People walking in and out, magistrate, security and police men whispering, grumbling sorting out papers, and I find myself utterly confused. I decided to walk out and find another court.

I and two other colleagues of mine find an attorney along the way who is kind enough to direct us to the trials of the day, on a green notice board outside one office in a dark passage. We follow his advice and enter court seven. A drug dealing case, an 18 year old boy arrested for possession of 22 rocks of heroine and two packets of cocaine. The accused has been in custody for the past eight months; he is acquitted and suspended to five years 10 months in prison or a R10 000 fine. Case one done, interesting but could be better. Case two upstairs in the district or regional court was a proper trial and I will be posting my article I wrote on it. Very interesting and educational. The day seemed to be over for me, time to head out of the courts for the day.

A conclusion on how the day’s proceedings went

Magistrate court is mayhem! It is a culture shock, from the architecture to the smells in the court rooms; it is something quite distant to what I am familiar with. It would be something you would have to adjust to and it is not something that comes in a single day.

I will admit I went into the day unprepared but I learnt some hard lessons in the newsroom this afternoon. I know that getting the charge sheet is of utmost importance, speaking to the stenographer, prosecutor or the accused or complainant themselves is empirical for acquiring the details of the case and getting the correct names of practically everyone in the courtroom is something you have to do, whether you like it or not.
Tomorrow is the High Court. So let’s see how this goes and I will keep everyone posted.