The delay in processing DNA samples by forensic laboratories is a great cause for concern. Picture: Tracey Adams
The delay in processing DNA samples by forensic laboratories is a great cause for concern. Picture: Tracey Adams

Justice for rape survivors: South Africa’s DNA backlog faces uphill battle

By Keshia Africa Time of article published Aug 29, 2021

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Cape Town - Police forensics needs to be urgently tackled if justice for rape survivors is to be more than routine lips service come Women’s Month, warn women’s groups and civil society.

On Friday, Action Society instructed its attorneys who have sent a letter to the Presidency, the Commissioner of Police, National Minister of Police and the Commissioner of Correctional Services, to demand the urgent implementation of the Forensics Procedures Amendment Act that facilitates the creation and maintenance of a Convicted Offender Index in the National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD).

In 2019/2020, a total number of 3 193 murderers were convicted, and of these, only 770 submitted a buccal DNA sample. The organisation said that the database was an essential and effective weapon in the fight against crime.

However, police forensic is faced with a severe backlog, and the database would add to an already snarled system.

In May, Minister of Police Bheki Cele announced that the national backlog at forensic laboratories was pinned at 208 291 cases, just less than half of those cases, 82 000, were related to gender-based violence and femicide.

But this is not the first time Cele has promised that “the task is receiving urgent attention and was of utmost priority.” Since then, there has barely been any progress, even though R250 million was allocated to challenges faced in laboratories.

This week, police released a presentation to the portfolio committee of police with an update dealing with the DNA analysis. The document included information and statistics from April 1 to August 18.

Since April 1, SAPS reported that nearly 115 000 new cases were registered, of which nearly 44 000 have already been concluded. SAPS additionally stated that the DNA backlog would only be eradicated by November 2022.

In June, the Standing Committee on community safety completed an oversight visit to the SAPS forensic science laboratory headquarters in Cape Town. In the Western Cape, 107 118 samples were still awaiting testing.

Spokesperson for the portfolio in the province and chairperson of the committee, Reagan Allen, said there had been a 30% increase since December, showing that the longer it takes to address this issue, the worse it will become.

Allen said the statistics show the urgency of the matter, and that ultimately delays justice too.

“It further erodes the principle of consequences for criminal behaviour as cases are not heard in court due to outstanding evidence, which leads to cases being struck off the court roll.”

He added: “We cannot accept SAPS’ failure in this regard as it gives violent criminals a licence to murder and rape with impunity.”

Action Society said that SAPS was not taking the DNA backlog crisis seriously.

Spokesperson for Action Society, Elanie van der Walt, said the DNA backlog is having a domino effect on justice for victims of violent crime and gender-based violence.

“Bheki Cele is failing gender-based violence victims. He is dragging his feet in actively sorting out this backlog," she said.

She added: "The SAPS report given to the portfolio committee on police is vague and was ridden with errors – which makes it impossible to hold them accountable for the lack of progress,” she said.

Van der Walt added that the appointment of two private laboratories was a step in the right direction for the government to deal with the issue.

She said the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 37 of 2013 (Forensic Procedures Act) forces convicted Schedule 8 offenders (this includes murderers and rapists) to submit a buccal DNA sample for the NFDD. Since the creation of the NFDD in 2015, however, this Amendment Act has still not been finalised and is still awaiting the president’s signature.

“We simply cannot accept that the president has not approved this amendment allowing convicted criminals to walk free without submitting a buccal DNA sample and remain undetected to rape or murder again. DNA is the most effective tool to link perpetrators to cold cases and to facilitate future prosecutions for re-offenders,” van der Walt concluded.

Police media relations spokesperson Colonel Brenda Muridili said that a turnaround strategy was being implemented to reduce the backlog. Some of these solutions include changes to labour engagements to review basic conditions of employment to implement shift and flexi-shift systems.

Muridili said: “Contracts have been awarded to facilitate the procurement for several critical DNA reagents and consumables, maintenance and calibration of some of the specialised DNA instruments, waste removal, and proficiency testing.”

She added: “A multi-disciplinary action plan was established to manage the DNA backlog, including gender-based violence and femicide-related casework.”

Weekend Argus

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