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A reader who has asked to remain anonymous has written of his exasperation at what he experienced when he went to the Durban Magistrate’s Court as a witness to a robbery. This is his story...
Durban - One day in early July, I was driving in Manor Gardens at about 5pm when I witnessed a woman being robbed of her cellphone at knifepoint by two young thugs.
Three residents of the Cato Manor township and I managed to catch one of them, retrieve the cellphone and hand the robber over to the police. The victim opened a case of armed robbery against the captured thug, with me as witness.
Fast forward to today, my day in court...
I was issued a subpoena compelling me to stand witness in the trial of our captured thug. A fine and not more than 30 days imprisonment warned against neglecting to attend.
I duly arrived at the prescribed hour of 8am and after picking my way through the chocolate wrappers, chip packets, cigarette cartons and so on that were spread liberally about the grounds of the magistrate’s court, I found myself inside the building that is the centre of Durban’s legal justice system.
Sadly, the inside left as much to be desired as the outside – there was evidence of the grandeur of the old building poking through the grime here and there, but to be honest, it had been chronically neglected. The floors were covered in brown grime, the walls had knee-high grime lines where leaning folks put one shoe up, dirty hand prints graffiti-like on the walls.
I won’t even begin to describe the hand rails or lift buttons, peeling vinyl walls, non-functional lifts (five of them) and so on.
Having eventually found Court H, (the information desk was unstaffed the entire time I was there), I was instructed to see the prosecutor at 8.30am so I could re-read the statement I made to the police. She was unhelpful and made it clear that my presence in her office was annoying; that said, she was working, so fair enough.
The same could not be said of the court officials whom I had to pass to get back to the waiting area outside.
There were four of them, enjoying a muesli breakfast, reading the newspaper and chatting about the weekend’s football. At 9.30am the fair number of us waiting in the gallery were told to move to another court.
Naturally we all got lost.
Eventually, we found our way, but the equivalent officers of the court barked at us asking what we were doing there.
They tried to send us back to Court H but then the prosecutor arrived and explained that proceedings had been moved to her court.
Those of us in the gallery sat down as the prosecutor, defence lawyers, court translators and session recorder chatted, much laughter and showing images of parties and girlfriends on their smartphones. We all kept quiet in the gallery.
When the magistrate arrived, a number of accused were questioned one by one by her, all on why they had not paid their bail.
One by one they were set free under a “warning”, given their next date to appear in court, and told that “it would not look good for them if they do not turn up on their due day”.
The crimes they had committed included armed robbery…
At least six or seven were treated in the same way – to applause from some of the gallery.
Those of us not criminally inclined then had the pleasure of being seated with these newly released pillars of society.
The thug against whom I was bearing witness sat behind me, with four young, but obviously hardened men who glowered at me whenever I looked back at them.
Court was adjourned after 45 minutes, and the sheriff of the court informed us that the magistrate was off to tea and that we should be back shortly – how long was the break – no one knew.
Consequently we did not leave for fear of not being present when required.
After half an hour, court recommenced, with more accused being set free under warning.
At this point one of the court officers fell asleep. Her colleague tried in vain to wake her.
She slept shamelessly through the rest of the session, in full view of all of us seated in the gallery, and the magistrate.
Sadly, when “my” thug’s case was due to be heard, the young lady whom I and the men from Cato Manor risked our lives for did not bother to appear. It was confirmed that she had signed her subpoena, just as we had.
No complainant meant no case, so the case was dismissed and an armed robber is now free and prowling the streets of Manor Gardens once again.
His four friends were silenced by the magistrate when they clapped their approval at his freedom.
The final stage of my first experience of South Africa’s legal system involved the witness fees payable to cover transportation costs.
Not only was the administrator of said fees unreachable, there was also no cash to be paid to the queue of witnesses waiting.
So I picked my way through the litter garden once again and went to work, making sure that “my” thug and his four friends did not see which car I got into and followed me.