Cape Town – As the end of 2016 fast approaches, most South Africans will be looking forward to a break, but for the courts there is never downtime.
Not all courts will shut down over the festive season, only closing their doors on public holidays. Police statistics show that crime rates increase during this time of year, as people consume more alcohol and drugs.
All alleged criminals must legally appear in court within 48 hours of their arrest.
High Courts across the country have been on a six week recess, from mid December, however.
While Judges try and wrap up cases before then, many continue in 2017. One such high profile case involves internationally acclaimed artist and murder accused Zwelethu Mthethwa.
Mthethwa was arrested in May 2013 for allegedly kicking and beating to death 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo in April of that year.
The trial has been dogged by delays, and at times Western Cape High Court Judge Patricia Goliath has voiced her frustration that the case will not be concluded before 2017.
Final arguments were set down for December 14, and judgement has now been set down for March 9 next year.
But, national headline grabbing cases that were wrapped up included a case that involved one of South Africa’s most sensational trials involving a child that was abducted and missing for almost two decades.
A 52-year-old Lavender Hill woman, who could not be named to protect the identity she gave Zephany Nurse, was convicted of kidnapping, fraud and contravening the Children’s Act. In August she was sentenced to an effective 10 years behind bars.
She stole three-day-old Zephany Nurse from her mother’s hospital bedside on April 30, 1997. The infant had been born via caesarean section to Morne and Celeste Nurse on April 28.
The Western Cape High Court was abuzz with both international and local media throughout the trial.
The court heard how the child’s true identity was revealed in February last year when her younger biological sister started high school at the same school as her.
Classmates remarked on their striking resemblance, the sister informed her father, and after he conducted his own investigations he contacted the Hawks. DNA testing proved that she was indeed Zephany Nurse.
Another case that dominated international headlines for several years and finally concluded this year, was that of fallen paralympian Oscar Pistorius.
Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp by shooting her through a locked bathroom door at his Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day, 2013.
He was originally convicted of culpable homicide in 2014, after claiming it was an accident as he believed she was an intruder.
The following year the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that it was murder, however, and he was sentenced for a second time for the more serious crime in July this year.
Judge Thokozile Masipa, the same judge who sentenced him the first time around to five years for culpable homicide, sentenced him again, this time to six years for murder.
The National Prosecuting Authority appealed the sentence describing it as “shockingly lenient”, but the appeal was dismissed in August.
In that same month, a civil case overtook media headlines as former Umkhonto we Sizwe commander Ronnie Kasrils won his defamation case against Kebby Maphatsoe and the MK Veterans Association.
Kasrils sued Maphatsoe for R1m for defamation, after he claimed in 2014 that the struggle veteran had sent President Jacob Zuma a “honey trap”. He claimed Kasrils, who was intelligence minister at the time, had handpicked the woman who accused Zuma of raping her.
Zuma was, however, acquitted of raping the woman known as “Khwezi” in 2006.
Maphatsoe, who is the deputy minister of military veterans, and the MKVA were ordered to jointly pay Kasrils R500 000.
Another case that has transfixed South Africans involves a son allegedly taking the life of his television personality mother.
Mark Warona Zinde was arrested in June after the body of his mother, former SABC board member Hope Zinde, was discovered in the boot of her car at their upmarket home at Hartebeespoort Dam.
He was initially granted bail, but that has since been revoked after he allegedly assaulted his father some months later.
The trial is expected to get underway next year.
Cases to watch out for in 2017 include another one of a son allegedly turning on his parents.
Alleged axe murderer Henri van Breda is accused of killing his father Martin, 54, mother Teresa, 56, and his brother Rudi, 22, using an axe on the evening of 26 January 2015 in their home.
He is also accused of attempted murder for allegedly attacking his teenage sister. She survived the attack.
Van Breda was only arrested in June, and is expected to go on trial in the Western Cape High Court in March 2017.
Another trial that is likely to grab international headlines and is set to get under way in April next year involves a Guatemalan man, from an exceptionally wealthy family, accused of murdering his American girlfriend in 2015.
Diego Novella allegedly murdered Gabriela Kabrins Alban in the room they were sharing at a boutique hotel in Camps Bay in June, 2015.
The trial of the man dubbed the “Springs Monster” and his wife is under way and will also spill over into 2017.
This case is being heard in the high court in Pretoria and is one of the most shocking child abuse cases in recent years.
The couple face charges of abusing their five children including attempted murder, attempted obstruction of justice, child abuse and breaking the Schools Act.
The husband is also accused of raping and abusing his eldest daughter. The pair is also accused of showing her pornographic material when she was still a minor. They have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
While many of these criminal cases have dominated the headlines, political cases making their way into courtrooms have also become the order of the day.
In November, a large group of protesters wearing ANC T-shirts and brandishing placards written “Hands Off Hlaudi” gathered outside the Western Cape High Court to show their support for the beleaguered South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Group Executive of Corporate Affairs.
Judge Andre le Grange and Judge Owen Rogers heard an application brought by the Democratic Alliance (DA) to have the outcomes of Motsoeneng’s disciplinary hearing set aside, and his position at SABC declared invalid.
The Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Executive, James Selfe, said the the court must remove Motsoeneng from his position “until and only if the Public Protector report is set aside”.
The 2014 report found, among other things, that he had lied about his matric qualifications, and had given himself massive salary increases which were irregular.
In the main application, DA lawyer Advocate Anton Katz SC said they sought to have Motsoeneng removed from the SABC: “We say he can’t be there at all”.
“Far reaching cases call for far reaching remedy”.
Katz said Motsoeneng’s heads of arguments that suggest that the DA is politicking in court has already been rejected by the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court.
“This is a battle about legality, not about getting votes in the next election. When it comes to the principle of legality, the courts are obliged to enter the arena”.
Judge Andre le Grange noted that “these cases” were on the rise “and we are getting swamped with them”.
Katz responded: “That is because Parliament is failing”. Judgement in the case was delivered on December 12.
The court ruled that Motsoeneng may no longer hold any position at the SABC, pending the outcome of fresh disciplinary proceedings, or if the public protector’s 2014 findings are set aside.
In another political case that dominated headlines, President Zuma asked the high court in Pretoria this month to review and set aside the remedial action recommended by the public protector in the “State of Capture” report.
Zuma filed an affidavit in which he questions former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s recommendation in the report that he establish a commission of inquiry, but that it be headed by a judge selected by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
He also wanted the court to refer the report back to new Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane for further investigation.
Also this month, the DA approached the Constitutional Court to seek a declaratory order that President Zuma had failed to meet his constitutional obligations by not appointing a judicial commission of inquiry in line with former Public Protector Madonsela’s report on state capture.
Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court held that Zuma had failed to uphold and respect the Constitution by not complying with Madonsela’s directive that he refund the State for improvements to his homestead at Nkandla.
He was eventually forced to pay back R7.8 million.
The Constitutional Court also made some far reaching rulings, which include one last month that effects same sex partnerships.
The court ruled that a surviving partner in a same sex permanent relationship, even if not married, inherits the deceased’s intestate estate.
And in another ruling this month, the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled against terminally ill South African’s right to die.
Government had lodged an appeal against a high court decision to allow a terminally ill cancer patient to commit suicide.
By all indications high profile court cases will continue to grab headlines in 2017.