Africa

Why Dewani and Pistorius acquittals are not failures of South African justice

Judge Jeanette Traverso Image copyright AP
Image caption Judge Traverso said the state's case against Shrien Dewani was "riddled with contradictions"

The murder trials of UK businessman Shrien Dewani and athlete Oscar Pistorius seem to have punched holes in the credibility of the South African judicial system.

Many people were surprised when Judge Thokozile Masipa dismissed murder charges against the Paralympic athlete, although she has now allowed prosecutors to appeal against this decision.

Judging by what I've heard here, people feel let down by Judge Jeanette Traverso's decision to throw out the case against Mr Dewani.

Many people, not least the family of the Swedish victim, Anni Hindocha, wanted to see Mr Dewani take the stand to explain what happened that night in November 2010 when his wife was murdered during their honeymoon.

But the evidence presented by the prosecution was so weak that Judge Traverso cut the trial short.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Pistorius was cleared of murder but convicted of culpable homicide, or manslaughter

Despite the disquiet about the case's collapse, there are also many people here who believe that justice is not just about convictions, but also about acquittals.

Advocate Mthunzi Mhaga from the justice department told the BBC: "We did not bring Shrien Dewani to be convicted. We brought him here to face justice.

"For us as law enforcement, as prosecution and as government - we wanted him to have his day in court. He had his day in court."

No kangaroo courts

When Nelson Mandela took his oath of office in May 1994, he established a country based on the rule of law - where all persons will be equal before the law regardless of colour, gender, religion or creed.

Twenty years later, Mr Dewani has benefited.

Judge Traverso said: "If any court permitted public opinion or emotion to influence their judgements it would lead to anarchy.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption South African prosecutors spent months getting Shrien Dewani extradited

"The evidence of the accused, if he does not incriminate himself, can never strengthen the state's case. Even if the accused should enter the witness stand… I will still be left with a weak state's case, which cannot on any basis pass legal muster."

Judge Masipa took a similar view in Pistorius' case, when she acquitted him of murder in October.

On Wednesday, she acknowledged the prosecution's right to appeal against her own verdict, showing that South Africa's courts were working well.

And so South Africans must be proud that theirs is not a kangaroo court system run by a lynch mob, and remember the apartheid regime at the time of Steve Biko's death in 1977. He died at the hands of the state without ever going to trial.

Shoddy police work

Here in post-apartheid South Africa, we have also not seen the like of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and New York.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands of Americans have protested about the failure to indict policemen who killed unarmed black men

Grand jury decisions not to indict policemen who killed unarmed black men prompted thousands of Americans to stage protests.

Imagine if prosecutors in South Africa had declined to bring charges against Pistorius or Mr Dewani, deciding, like US grand juries in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, that there was insufficient evidence.

Far better that the South African cases went to trial, for the evidence to be heard in public.

Newspapers that attacked the conduct of the Dewani and Pistorius trials are right to criticise shoddy police investigation work.

But they might also explain why in the US we so rarely hear of police officers shooting unarmed white males or facing charges for shooting unarmed black men.

The evidence of the past few months suggests that no country has a perfect judicial system, not even the most powerful nation on earth.

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