Mamphela Ramphele

Justice denied to many through delayed forensic reports

2019-06-19 05:00
Forensic scientist investigates fingerprints

Forensic scientist investigates fingerprints

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There are numerous reports over the last decade about the parlous state of our forensic services including inadequate substandard toxicology laboratories. Yet, government does nothing, writes Mamphela Ramphele.

The anguish of the mothers of the two toddlers who died of suspected poisoning at an unregistered crèche facility in Gauteng should rouse us into action to protect our children better and ensure justice for those wronged. 

It is shocking that these mothers are expected to wait for up to 5-6 years before getting the toxicology test results to confirm the nature of the poisoning. How can we as a society tolerate this inordinate delay in ensuring that justice is not only done but seen to be done for these mothers?

How do we expect these mothers to find closure in such circumstances? The combination of the unspeakable pain of sudden death of one's child and a non-responsive system of justice is too much to expect any mother to live with.

There are numerous reports, including the Auditor General reports to Parliament over the last decade, about the parlous state of our forensic services including inadequate substandard toxicology laboratories.

Why is our government failing the most vulnerable people in our society in a country with such high levels of crime? Our Constitution is very clear about the obligation of the state to ensure that the fundamental principle of equality under the law for all citizens is observed at all times.

It is unjust that citizens with the private means to hire private forensic services are able to find closure when faced with inexplicable deaths, but poor people have to carry the burden of open wounds for years.

How does the Department of Health explain the failure to turn around our Forensic Services despite promises made by then minister Aaron Motsoaledi in 2009 following the damning Auditor General's reports presented to Parliament?

The major problems identified then that persist to date include poor physical and technical infrastructure; unaccredited laboratories in three of the four areas with Cape Town as the exception; staff shortages and low morale; overall inadequate management and red tape from the department.

Five years later in 2014, in response to a parliamentary question, the following horrific statistics about the status in October 2013 were revealed: 17 017 unprocessed toxicology samples; 34 185 unprocessed blood alcohol samples; 1 546 alcohol unprocessed post-mortem samples. Parliament has over the years failed to hold the executive accountable to ensure that these issues are addressed to secure justice for all citizens without inordinate delays.

There is an urgent need for the president to intervene and demand action by all responsible actors to secure the rights of citizens to justice and to restore trust in the system. Justice delayed is justice denied.

The extent of the crisis is such that the president should consider mobilising a "thuma mina" campaign to address this critical success factor in our criminal justice system. The following actors should be considered:

•   The private sector laboratories that could be harnessed to collaborate on an emergency basis to clear the backlog of samples.

•   Our global development partners to help us design and develop a more effective system to strengthen our physical and technical infrastructure to meet accreditation standards.

•   Recruit and train unemployed BSc graduates in private and development partner institutions to strengthen the quality and quantities of technicians. Recruitment of retired experts would help provide mentorship and coaching to new recruits. We have enough talent in our youthful population, all we need is a smart plan to develop and utilise it appropriately.

•   Create credible programs at higher education institutions to ensure a strong pipeline of technical expertise to keep our forensic systems running at high levels of accredited standards. We need to elevate the status and visibility of forensic services as career opportunities.

•   Appointment of leadership and management capabilities to ensure that essential public services such as forensics are kept running at high enough levels of excellence to regain public trust and motivate the dedicated people in this essential service.

We cannot continue to ignore the pain of the most vulnerable citizens in our midst whilst we pursue political and personal agendas that are displacing the focus on essential services. The loss of these two toddlers should rouse us to refocus our attention on essential services that affect the poorest the most.

The quality of our democracy will always be judged by the level of attention we pay to what matters most in the lives of the least amongst us. 

- Mamphela Ramphele is co-founder of ReimagineSA.

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Read more on:    department of health  |  justice


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