Pietermaritzburg - Public attention has been riveted on the developments in the Rajivee Soni murder trial in Pietermaritzburg throughout this year, and the case is likely to again take centre stage in 2016.
The trial has all the ingredients of a real-life soap opera, based on allegations that after failing in an elaborate campaign to run his love rival, Dr Bhavish Sewram, out of town using a variety of threats, intimidation and false charges, Soni turned to murder and hired hitmen to assassinate the doctor.
More spice is added by the alleged involvement in the plot by dirty cops, as well as the allegations of witness tampering that emerged during the course of the trial. Sewram, a father of two, was shot three times as he left his surgery in Chota Motala Road on the night of May 13, 2013, by self-confessed gunman Sabelo Dlamini, who is now serving 25 years in prison.
The associated trial of ex-policeman Brian Treasurer and Mfaniseni Nxumalo — who were both convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for their roles in the doctor’s murder by Judge Anton van Zyl this year — had raised hopes among the doctor’s family that they would get final closure this year.
However, Soni’s trial appears to be far from over. Judge Jacqueline Henriques has said she will deliver her verdict on January 22 (in Durban) on whether to admit a video recording taken by state witness Professor Sithebe into evidence in the case.
But then the state still has witnesses on its list who could be called to testify before the prosecution closes its case, and only then will the defence case begin.
The civil dispute in which the doctor’s widow, Yuvadia Sewram, is suing Soni for R10,6 million for loss of support for herself and her children, is also in the pipeline for next year. The legal test that applies in civil law is different to that in a criminal trial, and the outcome of the damages claim against Soni is therefore not necessarily dependent on the verdict in the criminal case.
Vacca Matta club stabbing
Not everyone was happy that justice was served in the local courts in 2015, with the family and friends of a young stabbing victim, Juran Raman (20), unhappy with the acquittal by a regional magistrate of the man charged with his murder, Sherwin Cara (24).
Raman died after being injured on the dancefloor of the Vacca Matta nightclub at Golden Horse Casino on March 26, 2011. Cara’s defence, which was accepted as reasonably possible, was that Raman fell on shards of broken glass, one of which penetrated his neck.
2007 taxi crash
A former Pietermaritzburg man now living in Durban, Grant du Bois, is also not satisfied with the justice system and is still awaiting a verdict in connection with the death of his wife in a car crash in 2007. The taxi driver charged with culpable homicide in connection with the accident now has a new lawyer and will appear in court again on January 19.
Claims against state hospitals
Pietermaritzburg’s civil courts have seen a spate of damages claims this year totalling millions of rands against the Department of Health, mainly by women who are alleging that their babies’ birth defects were the result of negligence on the part of medical staff at state hospitals. In some cases the department has already admitted liability, with just the amounts to be decided, and others may return for trial in 2016.
An interesting issue that has also raised its head in the civil courts is a pending application in the Constitutional Court concerning the rights of the South African public to use dagga.
A Howick man, who was criminally charged in the magistrate’s court for cultivating and possessing dagga, won a temporary reprieve from trial pending the outcome of the constitutional challenge. John Strydom (44) said he is a member of the Dagga Party of SA, a national registered political party, and that he has smoked and eaten dagga for 28 years for its medicinal benefits and for spiritual reasons.
Violence against women
Women’s rights also came under the spotlight in a number of cases. One which raised the ire of the community was the murder of Lifeline staff member Thulile Phungula (23), who was allegedly forced to drink battery acid, was sexually assaulted and also had acid poured into her genitals. On trial for the murder is her former boyfriend, Simphiwe Mbanjwa, who was granted bail of R15 000 after a prolonged bail application that was opposed by the state. A petition bearing signatures from all over the world was handed in to court to highlight the public’s opposition to bail. But the magistrate said the case against Mbanjwa was “not overwhelming” and he was entitled to bail.
However, she ordered him to live at an alternative address 200 km away from Pietermaritzburg pending the finalisation of his trial.
Child abuse was another serious issue dealt with by courts this year, with one case in particular making headlines locally and abroad.
This was the case of a mother who sold her 19-month-old son for R5 000 after advertising him for sale on the Internet. The toddler was “bought” by police who set a trap for the woman, at which she handed him over at a local food outlet after money changed hands on October 15. He is currently in the care of Social Welfare officials. The mother is awaiting sentencing in 2016 after pleading guilty.
Pietermaritzburg also had its fair share of shockingly brutal rape, murder and robbery trials.
The trial of three men charged with being part of an armed gang involved in an attempted heist at Capitec Bank in Richmond last January will continue in 2016. Two G4S guards and three alleged robbers were killed during the attempted heist.
Perhaps the most shocking of all the murder cases this year was the strangulation, rape and murder of Ixopo nun Sister Gertrud Tiefenbacher (87) on April 18 at the Sacred Heart home. Her two 25-year-old killers were each jailed for life plus 18 years.
A number of judges and magistrates raised their concerns when sentencing criminals about the increasing levels of gratuitous violence accompanying robberies in the country. Even severe sentences do not appear to be curbing this trend.
The vulnerability of the farming community and the contribution of farmers to the economy and food security of the country is a factor judges regularly take into account when sentencing offenders for farm attacks.
Among the farm murders to be dealt with in the capital this year were the killing of Mohamed Engar (67) at Winterton, and that of mine foreman and part-time cattle farmer Timothy Green in Newcastle, whose killers were all jailed for life.
Witch hunts and xenophobia
Another unusual and tragic case before the high court, and which drew the crowds this year, was the recent guilty plea by two brothers (Thulani and Sibonelo Mncwabe) who massacred eight members of their family at Umzinto on the south coast.
The judge accepted they were motivated by the belief that two of the victims (a husband and wife) practised witchcraft, but the other victims were killed because they could identify the brothers as the assailants. They were sentenced to life plus 20 years.
Apart from witchcraft, xenophobia also fell under the spotlight, and will continue to do so in 2016, following the arrests of a number of people in connection with attacks on foreign nationals that caused outrage this year.
Animal welfare was also not forgotten. A local court official entered into an agreement with the SPCA not to keep any animals in future to avoid criminal charges of animal neglect.
And critics of the multmillion-rand canned lion hunting industry in SA were the victors in a civil case in which the owner of Zanchieta Animal Farm CC in Bloemfontein tried but failed to stop the further screening of the documentary Blood Lions, which has been shown to audiences worldwide.