South Africa

BUDGET VOTE DEBATE

Justice Minister Lamola must step up to the plate to restore public confidence, MPs tell Parliament

Justice Minister Lamola must step up to the plate to restore public confidence, MPs tell Parliament
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola. (Photo: Flickr / Dirco)

The budget vote debate comes after a series of blows to the NPA and the justice department, including the failed Gupta extradition, the judgment in the Nulane case and the ongoing Thabo Bester saga.

The budget will enable the department of justice and constitutional  development to uphold and protect the Constitution and the rule of law and render accessible, fair, speedy and cost-effective administration of justice in the interests of a safer and more secure South Africa,” said Justice Minister Ronald Lamola in Parliament on Tuesday. 

Lamola was seeking the National Assembly’s approval for the department’s budget. The key takeaway from the responses of MPs was that the justice system faces a myriad problems – from maintenance woes to an entrenched backlog of cases. 

Delivering his budget vote speech, Lamola said the department has a budget of R23.2-billion for the 2023/24 financial year. This is a slight increase from the previous budget for 2022/23, which was R22.4-billion. 

While the budget vote was supported by several MPs, they agreed that the budget allocation was not enough. EFF MP Yoliswa Yako said the party rejected the “uninspired budget vote”.

“We do this because access to justice has become an elusive dream for millions of our people, for whom courts remain out of reach because of the exorbitant costs needed for one to access justice,” said Yako. 

DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach said Lamola’s term in office cannot be seen “as a stellar success story”.

“While the minister is great at making promises and delivering plans on paper, he has been unable to put them into operation and has focused on attempting to propel his own personal career within his party rather than make a success of the job he was given.

“The minister has not succeeded in restoring faith in our justice system and this will be his legacy. He will be remembered for failing … to take steps to protect citizens after the escape of a convicted murderer and rapist

“Minister, it’s a good time for you to reflect, and in the very limited time you have left, to do better,” said Breytenbach.

Backlog of cases

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has been allocated R5.4-billion for the 2023/24 financial year. This includes an additional grant of R915-million to help in the fight against crime and corruption, according to Lamola. 

The Investigating Directorate has been allocated R336-million for the new financial year. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Narrative that NPA is failing is ‘dangerous and flawed’ – Batohi

Lamola lauded the “significant progress” made by the NPA and the Special Investigating Unit, particularly in investigating corruption-related cases.

“Although there have been some setbacks, they are not insurmountable, and plans are in place to address them,” he said. 

However, several MPs were not convinced. 

“The NPA has not succeeded in gaining the confidence of South Africans that it is capable … of improving its ability to deal with high-profile matters of corruption in particular. The NPA has been palpably slow to act on cases, leaving long delays in justice,” said Breytenbach. 

“This not only denies justice to the victims of these crimes but creates a culture of impunity for criminals. It undoubtedly makes the game seem worth the gamble, and we are not winning.”

Breytenbach, along with Inkatha Freedom Party MP Christian Msimang, noted that the NPA has been operating under a severe lack of resources and capacity – challenges which must be remedied to deal with the backlog of cases. 

Msimang said the underfunding of the NPA was a concern, and its budget needed to be increased “to ensure justice is delivered swiftly and efficiently … Another perennial challenge we face is the underfunding of the NPA. 

“The NPA is struggling with insufficient resources. This leads to case backlogs, lengthy court proceedings and, in many instances, unsatisfactory results.” 

Breytenbach said there is a crisis of public confidence in the justice sector. 

“This crisis of confidence is particularly acute amongst vulnerable populations, including women, children and LGBTQI+ individuals … often disproportionately affected by corruption, violence and the backlog of cases,” she said. 

Additionally, the backlog of cases is particularly egregious in cases of gender-based violence, where survivors often wait for years to see their perpetrators brought to justice, said Breytenbach. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Statistic of out-of-control violence – 969 women murdered in South Africa in just three months

Gupta fugitives

The budget vote debate comes after a series of blows to the NPA and the justice department, including the failed Gupta extradition, the judgment in the Nulane case and the ongoing Thabo Bester saga. 

Yako said the NPA “showed incompetence in bungling the extradition” of Gupta brothers Atul and Rajesh from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The UAE refused South Africa’s request to extradite the fugitive brothers in February this year. In the fallout, a clear picture of the UAE’s duplicity has emerged. Read Ferial Haffajee’s reports here and here

“We have not bungled any matter – including the Gupta extradition case,” said Lamola. 

“We have complied with every requirement as per the extradition treaty between South Africa and the UAE.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: NPA’s ID head Andrea Johnson on the failed Gupta extradition — ‘We were blindsided when we got the response’

Lamola said the Department of Justice would be meeting with UAE authorities on 5 June “to iron out all the issues that emanated from the matter” and to discuss the way forward. 

“We want to assure South Africans that, with all extradition matters, they are protracted in their nature, but justice will prevail. They will definitely come back at some stage to answer for their crimes.” 

He added that Tuesday marked the beginning of the court hearings in Malawi that will decide whether Shepherd Bushiri and his wife are extraditable to South Africa. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Delayed ‘Prophet’ Bushiri extradition process in Malawi begins to move

“The relevant officials are in Malawi to give evidence as per the requirements of the courts in Malawi. We will await the outcomes of the hearing. This is a matter of national interest to the South African government. This shows that the wheels of justice are turning,” said Lamola.

Access to justice 

MPs and Lamola were at loggerheads over the issues facing Legal Aid SA, which has a constitutional mandate to provide legal services to those who cannot afford them. Legal Aid SA has had its budget cut by 15% in the medium-term expenditure framework due to “resource constraints and fiscal consolidation”, Daily Maverick reported.

“Our legal services remain poorly funded and inaccessible to many, which leads, in many instances, to a denial of justice. This is patently unconstitutional and we must ensure that [Legal Aid SA] receives adequate funding to provide quality and easily accessible legal services to those in need,” said Msimang. 

His statements were reiterated by the EFF’s Yako, who said Legal Aid SA staff were overworked and the entity was poorly managed.

Lamola announced that the Legal Aid SA “means test” has changed to allow more people access to justice. 

“From April 1 2023, applicants falling under Regulation 27(2)-(6) of the Legal Aid SA Act 39 of 2014 faced a higher means test. The Extension of Security of Tenure Act (Esta) eviction matters will also have a new means test set at R13,625 under the Esta.”

“These changes aim to ensure a fair and accessible legal system for all,” said Lamola. DM

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