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MALAIKA MAHLATSI | If law won't act against criminals,people will stop reporting crimes

Public can become desensitised

Fake TikTok doctor Matthew Lani leaves the Johannesburg Magistrates court after charges of impersonating a medical professional were dropped
Fake TikTok doctor Matthew Lani leaves the Johannesburg Magistrates court after charges of impersonating a medical professional were dropped
Image: Alaister Russell

Many years ago, an incident occurred in the township of Meadowlands, Soweto, that still traumatises everyone who remembers it.

A notorious young criminal casually walked up to a group of men who were enjoying a warm afternoon over some beers, and stabbed one of them to death.

The brutality of the crime stunned everyone, not least of all because the man who was viciously stabbed was wheelchair-bound. It is said that as the perpetrator took out the knife, the wheelchair-bound man began to tremble and plead for mercy.

But his pleas fell on deaf ears and right there, in front of stunned onlookers, he was repeatedly stabbed. After this, the perpetrator simply walked away.

He did not run – he walked away. The brazenness of the crime was typical of the violence that defined Meadowlands at the time. I have shared some of the shocking incidents of crime that litter the memories of my childhood in Meadowlands in this column.

But what made this particular crime unconscionable was that the perpetrator was a known criminal – one who had repeatedly slipped through the criminal justice system. It is said that because of his ability to evade the law, members of the community eventually stopped reporting him to the police.

Even in the few cases that went to court, he would be acquitted of the charges because no-one was willing to be a witness. First, the failures of the criminal justice system, and then the desensitisation of the community, entrenched his impunity.

I found myself reflecting on this a week ago when the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) dropped the case against Matthew Lani, a TikTok influencer who had been impersonating a medical doctor.

Lani, who was exposed after the institutions from which he claimed to have received his qualifications refuted his claims, was famous for the medical advice that he would provide on his account as well as selling diet pills and other pharmaceutical products.

With hundreds of thousands of followers, Lani would upload videos while at healthcare facilities around the Gauteng province. Lani was finally apprehended after he was caught trying to sneak into Helen Joseph Hospital, clad in a stethoscope, once again pretending to be a medical practitioner.

Despite being caught red-handed, and having an extensive digital trail in which he impersonates a medical doctor as well as offer medical advice and sell pharmaceutical products, the NPA said it had no evidence of criminality against Lani and referred the case for further investigation.

I am a geographer and urban planner, I do not pretend to have a comprehensive grasp of the law.

But I know enough to know that impersonating a medical practitioner is a criminal offence as set out in the Health Professions Act of 1974.

The act clearly stipulates that: (1) it is a criminal offence to pretend to be registered with the Health Professions Council in respect of any particular health profession (2) it is a crime to impersonate any person registered with the council (3) it is a crime to use any name, title, description or symbol likely to represent that you hold a qualification (which is one recognised by the relevant professional board) if this is false.

Lani committed all these crimes and more. Significantly, he did it in full view of the world through social media. That it is said that there’s inadequate evidence to charge him is not only preposterous but also deeply concerning.

It communicates that crimes committed in the virtual space, which has become an intrinsic part of life in the physical space, are of no significance despite the fact that these are not victimless crimes. More than this, it entrenches a culture of impunity for perpetrators – a culture which encourages the already frightening brazenness of criminals in our country.

It may seem sensational to compare the case of Lani with that of a cold-blooded murderer in Meadowlands, but the principle in both cases is exactly the same. When the law doesn’t act on criminals, communities can become desensitised and stop reporting crimes.

This in turn emboldens criminals and their crimes escalate. Lani, who is now walking free after committing a crime, has become emboldened.

We shouldn’t be shocked if he, years from now, resurfaces with his own medical practice, this time, performing complex invasive surgeries on people. The NPA decision has communicated to him that he just might get away with it.

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