Before 1994 the security forces and the justice system functioned with the express intention of upholding the apartheid state. The security forces were despised by most people, lacked legitimacy and operated as an instrument of control.
Twenty years into our democracy the situation is very different. Today the police and the criminal justice system are committed to protecting all citizens and upholding the rule of law.
As South Africans commemorate Human Rights Month, we must never forget the brutality and oppression of our past. The protections entrenched in our Constitution and the Bills of Rights are a guarantee that citizens will never again be subjected to human rights abuses by the state.
At the recent Justice, Crime Prevention and Security (JCPS) Cluster media briefing, Jeff Radebe, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, reminded the nation of the challenges we faced in 1994.
“The new democratic government inherited a dysfunctional and polarised system which deliberately denied the fundamental rights of the majority of people. The challenge that confronted us was to unite and help transform a nation that was divided across race, class, sex, creed and economic status. In addition, we were faced with the urgent task of ensuring a safer and secure South Africa,” he said.
He emphasised: “As government we knew that we needed to remodel the criminal justice system and align it with the values enshrined in our Constitution. We needed to create a system that is readily-responsive to serve the citizens, to afford them dignity and recourse; one that is able to inspire the confidence of the ordinary South African.”
The sorry state of affairs at the time is echoed by findings from the Twenty Year Review South Africa 1994 – 2014. It shows that before 1994, separate systems for the administration of justice functioned in South Africa. The former homelands had police and justice departments and other justice - related structures. As a result, there was a disparity in the delivery of services, depending on race and geographic location. Commanding personnel were mostly white men.
The report highlights that before 1994, the primary focus of law enforcement and the justice system was on upholding the apartheid state. The resulting highly centralised, para-militarised and authoritarian police service concentrated its efforts and resources on eliminating opposition to the apartheid regime.
South Africa today is indeed a better place; however the government acknowledges that more must be done. Our successes in fighting crime must be viewed against what we inherited as a nation in 1994. The prevalent view of crime increasing since 1994 is wrong.
The Twenty Year Review shows that crime had reached alarming proportions before 1994. In 1992 alone, more than 20 000 people were reported to have been murdered in South Africa as a result of political and criminal violence. At the time, there were 380 000 rape cases in South Africa every year, with 95 per cent of the victims being African.
Significant progress has been made in reforming the criminal justice system. The rule of law is paramount and the Constitution guides our efforts. In line with the prescripts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a number of state institution are in place to ensure access to justice. Our courts operate without fear or favour, are independent and are subject only to the Constitution and the law.
Independent bodies such as the Office of the Public Protector; the South African Human Rights Commission; the National Prosecuting Authority; the Independent Police Investigative Directorate; Anti-Corruption Task Team; Directorate for Priority Crimes Investigation; Civilian Secretariat for the Police; and Legal Aid South Africa, all serve to further strengthen and legitimise the rule of law.
The fight against corruption has always been on government’s radar and has been significantly ramped up. Measures have been put in place to prevent public servants from doing business with the state, and the JCPS Cluster is busy developing an Anti-Corruption Framework.
Much has changed since 1994 but further work must be done to reduce levels of serious and violent crime. Efforts to ensure an efficient and effective criminal justice system must be further improved so that all citizens may enjoy equal access to justice.
As we look forward to the next 20 years, government will continue to work with society to ensure a safer South Africa. Our historic journey has shown that no challenge is too great.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)