months no trial for young man

While legal big wigs pontificate about the number of white judges versus black ones on the bench, true justice continues to leave the poor and marginalised of South Africa in the cold room.

While legal big wigs pontificate about the number of white judges versus black ones on the bench, true justice continues to leave the poor and marginalised of South Africa in the cold room.

Educated debate continues on more such stages where legalese is an escape vent for grandeur, in pretence to champion the cause of the "little people".

One such "little person" is Sechaba Mohlala, 26, an ordinary, unemployed young man from Naledi, Soweto, who is trapped in a judicial nightmare.

He has been languishing in the awaiting-trial prison cells for nearly a year. Yet, even so, his prospects of seeing justice done remain remote.

As things stand his constitutional rights have been violated straight into oblivion. He is one of those of our compatriots who are mere shadows - at least until the next election, when his vote momentarily makes him human. And then, its back to the freezing real world of inconsequence.

Mohlala was arrested in May 2009 and has been in custody since.

He has not been arrested for murder, rape or hijacking. He has been awaiting trial for almost a year for allegedly stealing a firearm from a neighbour.

But the police never found the firearm in his possession nor were there any witnesses, other than the accuser, to the alleged crime. During the past 11 months, the SAPS have not found or searched for any physical evidence and there are no corroborating statements that support the charges against Mohlala.

The investigating officer, Inspector Thomas Hlongwane of the Naledi police station, refused to take the statements of the two witnesses that contradict the accuser's claims.

The Wits Justice Project tried to intervene and called Inspector Hlongwane. He admitted to not taking down their statements. He said it was not his job. He said the court would decide whom to call as witnesses.

Sadly, if more frustrating, Mohlala's legal counsel - Gloria Shiringane from the Protea Justice Centre - it seems couldn't care one hoot to help him find justice. Maybe it is because he does not pay for her services. The centre is run by Legal Aid SA. Shiringane apparently does not see the point of challenging the charges against Mohlala.

She also refused to take the statement of the witnesses, Lebo and Philip Ntoagae, that can support Mohlala's version of events. She said that the WJP could not instruct her, that Mohlala was her client, and that he had never told her of any witnesses.

On March 29 this year Mohlala's case was postponed, for the 10th time, to April 16. When Mohlala protested, magistrate Robert Button could do no more than note Mohlala's unhappiness. The Protea magistrate's court processes a mushrooming number of cases with no commensurate increase in personnel and older cases have to be scheduled first.

Mohlala's nightmare began when his neighbour, Thabo Moloi, alleged that on May 2 2009 he was driving his car when a group of people, including "Sechaba of Naledi", forced him to slow down and stop. They broke his car window. He got out of the car and Sechaba held him while another man, unknown to him, tried to stab him with a knife. "One of the guys" took his firearm. Then he managed "to get inside and runaway" (sic).

According to Mohlala's docket statement, however, "on the said date" he met Moloi at a garage. There Moloi claimed that he had been robbed of his firearm "by a lady".

The WJP interviewed Lebo Ntoagae, the woman initially accused by Moloi of stealing his firearm, and her brother Philip, who would also confirm Sechaba's story and swear under oath that his sister was the person initially accused by Moloi. The WJP wrote up their affidavits. But when they took them to Inspector Hlongwane, he again refused to witness the statements as a commissioner of oaths and to accept them. He said that no one outside the SAPS "can tell me what to do".

His superior officer, Superintendent Thonyama, said she was not allowed to include the statements in the docket. She said the court would charge Hlongwane for defeating the ends of justice because there had been no instruction from the court for him to get the statements.

But, according to Professor Peter Jordi of the Wits Law Clinic, it does not defeat the ends of justice when an investigation shows the weakness of a complainant's claim.

The police docket contains only Moloi's statement, reports showing that his left eye was "red and swollen", and that his car window had been broken. In the docket is also Mohlala's "warning statement" and certificate from the SAPS Criminal Record System showing that he has no previous convictions.