Magistrates face danger at work

The Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has revealed that magistrates are living in danger. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

The Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT) has revealed that magistrates are living in danger. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

Published Feb 25, 2024


MAGISTRATES’ safety is at stake at courts, a study has found.

Many magistrates have been threatened, harmed and sexually harassed.

The study’s results were released recently. The study was conducted by the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) of the University of Cape Town (UCT).

About 230 magistrates were surveyed across the country, examining factors such as safety, security, perceptions of corruption and the impact of Covid-19.

According to the study, almost a quarter (23%) of magistrates said they had been personally threatened or harmed because of their work.

They said this happened once or twice, but 10% said this happened a few times.

The report said: “These two figures combined mean that a third had been threatened or harmed in the last year. In the Western Cape, this was as high as 39% (4 in 10). Such a degree of direct harm and threat to magistrates is of serious concern and is a reflection of deteriorating control by the state of safety in South Africa.”

Many of the threats were related to the outcome of a matter that the magistrate presided over. Others received threats when dealing with gang-related cases.

The DGRU said it was deeply concerning that magistrates were exposed to physical harm and threats as a result of their work.

Over the past few years, the country witnessed the killing of some magistrates. Among them was Cape Town’s Romay van Rooyen who was killed in 2022 and a Kwazulu-Natal magistrate -whose name has not been ascertained - who was shot by a group of men during an suspected hijacking near the R66 at Denge in KwaNongoma last April.

Van Rooyen was found murdered in her home in Red Roman Street, Marina Da Gama, and her car, a Toyota Rava4, was stolen, and recovered in Mitchells Plain two days later.

Police said at the time “The KwaZulu-Natal magistrate was driving a Toyota Hilux when a taxi full of men hijacked him. His body was recovered a few kilometres away from where his vehicle was hijacked.”

In 2020, a group of farmers stormed the Senekal Magistrate Court and forced their way to the holding cells, where Sekwetje Mahlamba and Sekola Matlaletsa were held in connection with the death of farm manager Brendin Horner. A police vehicle was overturned and set alight, and court property was damaged by the mob.

According to the study, more than a quarter of magistrates indicated non-existent security within the courtroom and outside the building, including at their parking area.

“Very high percentages said that security in these locations was ‘poor’, which suggests that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development should pay particular attention to these issues. Court orderlies from the SAPS are mandated to provide security within the courtroom, yet security in this location was identified as ‘poor’ by almost half (44%),” the report said.

“Given the threat to magistrates, better attention must be paid to security near the court building, especially if magistrates must traverse the area outside the court building (where there is no direct access from parking to the court building).”

The lack of security also resulted in prisoners escaping from the courts.

Last year, eight awaiting trial prisoners escaped from the holding cell at Mankwe Magistrate’s Court in Mogwase, North West, after overpowering a court orderly.

“Coupled with sexual harassment, apparently increasing bribery and negative findings in relation to the security in and around courts, strongly suggests a need for specific security interventions. This may include better security in and around courts, more attention being paid to the quality and selection of court orderlies, and better directly provided security where magistrates are involved in sensitive matters,” the report read.

In the 2019 DGRU Magistrates’ Perception Survey, it was recommended that magistrates cannot be expected to dispense justice while being left in harm’s way.

“Security within the court buildings should be addressed as a matter of priority. It should be remembered that improved court security will benefit all court users, not magistrates alone.

“This recommendation still stands, as this survey report has revealed that there have been no improvements in the safety and security of the magistrates. While there are certain measures put in place in the Magistrate’s Courts, such as screening at the entry of the court building, these measures are just not enough.”

The DGRU suggested that there should be cameras in every corner of a court building, and security in the presence of each level of the court.

“Security should not only be provided at the entrance of the court but should be provided everywhere else in the court building.”

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