Public Protector investigation into DNA backlog means life or death for survivors of crime

The office of the Public Protector confirmed they will be launching an investigation into the handling of the DNA backlog within the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) National Forensic Science Laboratories (NFSL).

This investigation means the difference between life or death for survivors of violent crime in South Africa. The abscence of justice, with court cases being dragged out and postponed increases and prolongs trauma for survivors that have been subjected to these violent crimes and families of victims who are seeking closure.   The Public Protector investigation will reaffirm that senior leadership in the Presidency and in the Ministry of Police, due to their negligence and apathy, has blood on their hands,” stated the spokesperson for civil rights organisation, Action Society, Elanie van der Walt.

The investigation follows a complaint lodged by Action Society, against the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele; the DNA Oversight Board; the South African Police Service (SAPS); the State Information Technology Agency SOC Ltd (Sita); and President Cyril Ramaphosa in October 2021.  Action Society requested the Public Protector to investigate these parties for their failure to deal with the backlog of DNA evidence in a sufficiently expeditious manner.

“Action Society is pleased to confirm that the Public Protector has committed to investigate whether there is failure by the SAPS to address the administrative backlog of  DNA tests; and if such conduct by the SAPS, Minister of Police and the DNA Oversight Board amounts to maladministration. In addition, the Public Protector stated it will ensure that these bodies implement all measures necessary to enable the SAPS to reduce and/or eradicate the backlog of DNA analysis so that the judicial system be efficient in combating rape and GBV cases,”

Although they welcome the feedback from the Public Protector, the organisation is still actively holding government accountable for the DNA backlog crisis.  Their attorneys have sent a letter to the SAPS, addressing various concerns regarding the progress on the DNA backlog “turn-around strategy”.

Van Der Walt continues:   “Although an urgent turn-around strategy to eradicate the backlog was presented to the Portfolio Committee on Police in August 2021, it doesn’t seem that real progress has been made.  Public private partnerships with the KRISP laboratory at the University of KwaZulu Natal and CAF at Stellenbosch University  were supposed to launch on 1 October 2021, but almost three months later, they are still not operational.

The organisation also requested feedback on the construction progress of the new DNA facility at the NFSL in Gqeberhba which was supposed to be operational by end 2021.  Another issue that requires urgent attention, is the alleged shortage of personal protective clothing (PPE) at the two operational laboratories.

“We want to know what the exact number of backlogged cases are to date. The SAPS need to be held accountable and communicate the true scenario to South African citizens. Victims of GBVF and other violent crimes  ̶  waiting for their day in court and to get justice  ̶  deserve answers and transparency.”

With more than 150 rape cases being reported and 8 women murdered daily, South Africa is in the midst of a GBVF pandemic.  The current prosecution rate in rape cases is a miniscule 8% and a true reflection of the government’s failure to protect the women and children of South Africa.  Court cases are being struck off the roll and perpetrators walk away scot-free due to the lack of forensic evidence.

Action Society has  approached the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to clarify the impact of the DNA backlog in South African courts.

“Our lawyers have sent a request to the NPA, to assist us with information regarding the progress of cases in which there are currently no forensic evidence available due to the backlog.  We’ve requested the NPA to divulge exactly how many cases, especially cases that involve children or are GBVF related, have been struck off the roll due to the lack of DNA evidence.  We need to understand the full impact the DNA backlog has on the justice system and address the short comings at all levels of government.  Minister Cele and the President can’t say they are fighting GBVF when they are not taking the necessary action to sort out this miscarriage of justice.”

Action Society, with support from their members and other non-profit organisations, had a successful campaign in 2021 to get Section 36(D)1 of the Criminal Law (Forensics Procedures Act) promulgated by the President.

Section 36(D)1 will enforce the compulsory DNA sampling of offenders arrested on any schedule 8 offence, this sampling was not mandatory in the past.  Schedule 8 offenders include rapists and murderers.

Compulsory DNA sampling of schedule 8 arrestees is a victory in the fight against GBVF and violent crime in South Africa but it will place even more pressure on the NFSL.  The backlog needs to be eradicated as a matter of urgency in order for the NFSL to be fully functional and able to effectively manage the influx of these crucial DNA samples for the population of the National Forensics DNA Database (NFDD).

“We need to remember that the backlogged DNA cases are not just numbers  ̶   these are the lives of innocent survivors and families of  victims who are waiting to get justice and closure, we will keep giving a voice to the voiceless,” concludes van der Walt.

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