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Cape Town’s new state-of-the-art forensic science laboratory is set to reduce backlogs that hold up criminal trials.
Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa unveiled the multimillion-rand laboratory in Plattekloof on Tuesday.
He said the building was rated among the top six in Africa, largely for its architecture.
It took about six years and up to R600 million to complete.
Mthethwa joked that the forensic section had at times been called the “backlogs division”.
“There were unsatisfactory reports around courts that could not finalise cases on the court roll… and all these were attributed to the forensic delays.”
Mthethwa said delays meant that criminals who should have been in jail could “walk off scot-free”.
“The importance of this division is realised when it comes to our goal around convictions.”
Mthethwa said a turnaround strategy had achieved impressive results.
In the 2011/12 financial year the forensic science laboratory had reported a 63 percent overall increase in the number of cases received. During 2010 and last year, it achieved a 66 percent reduction in the overall backlog and in 2011/12 a 30 percent reduction.
“The work of tightening up the whole criminal justice chain is progressing apace,” Mthethwa said.
Work at the new lab began on November 1.
The complex includes ballistics, biology and chemistry labs and it has about 340 staff members.
Its hi-tech equipment was demonstrated to senior police on Tuesday.
“Our approach is to fight toughly and smartly – this being the smart part,” Mthethwa said.
Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane said workload in the Western Cape had been “too high” and caused backlogs.
The province had the highest number of drug cases and much of the backlog was cases that required the identifying of substances.
“One of our challenges is dealing with substances that are not drugs,” he said. “It is expensive equipment but worth having – we can’t afford to remain behind, while criminals are advancing.”
National police chief General Riah Phiyega said the lab would “go a long way” in the fight against crime, particularly the abuse of women and children, and substance abuse.
The police would continue to increase capacity in “this critical area”.
The central office is in Gauteng. Samples will be brought to the Western Cape from areas in the Eastern Cape and the Northern Cape.
Community Safety MEC Dan Plato, who has legal oversight over the police in the province, described the equipment as “excellent” and “state-of-art”.
“It’s much needed for the Western Cape. I hope it will assist the SAPS to work through its forensic backlogs, which we all know are massive.”
Forensic scientist David Klatzow told the Cape Argus: “It’s state-of-art equipment. And some of the existing staff are quality too. They will become better, because of this equipment, and improved working conditions. But we will have to see how the new staff perform. They will have to forge themselves in battle now, as it were.
“Hopefully, it will mean that I won’t be faced with the abomination that is the kind of analysis we get at present Take the (Fred) van der Vyver case for example. That case was riddled with most appalling forensic evidence.”
Van der Vyver was acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend, Inge Lotz. – Additional reporting by Murray Williams