Maverick Citizen


Free at last — one man’s noble quest to clear criminal records from vulnerable people’s past

Free at last — one man’s noble quest to clear criminal records from vulnerable people’s past
Freedom Actionist Wayne Jean-Pierre has developed an online platform that helps people to expunge their criminal records. (Photo: Thom Pierce))

Committed freedom Actionist Wayne Jean-Pierre has dedicated the last decade to the complicated task of helping others clear their criminal records.

Halfway through my interview with Wayne Jean-Pierre, he breaks down in tears. I have just asked him why he has dedicated the last 10 years of his life to helping other people clear their criminal records. His answer is simple and clear. If he knows how to do it, then it is his responsibility to help others who don’t. And “it”, navigating the bureaucratic gauntlet that stands in the way of hope and opportunity, is no simple task.

“Our country has over one million people registered on a criminal database, most are poor and vulnerable and will never get assistance because they won’t get resources.”

It is a kindness and generosity that not everyone would show, especially towards so many people who he does not know, over such a long period of time. But to understand why it is such an emotional issue for him we need some context… 

Wayne Jean-Pierre was born and raised in Wentworth, a coloured community on the outskirts of Durban. The challenges of growing up in apartheid were many, but in a community such as Wentworth, just standing your ground against a police force that was out to vilify you, could get you into serious trouble. 

Over the course of the last century, thousands of people have received criminal records for “crimes” under apartheid laws. Offences that are based on old legislation, archaic race laws, and for defending themselves against a system that was constructed to control them. 

Crimes of ‘necessity’

Of course, there were also legitimate causes for criminal records, but many of them could also be categorised as crimes that were forced onto people out of necessity. Is it a crime to steal food to feed your children when the government will not allow you to work? 

“If you look at criminality we have to look at the decolonisation of criminality and those offences.”

In 2010, Wayne had his criminal record cleared. To me, the nature of his crime did not matter. I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell. The very fact that he had cleared his record indicated that it fell into the categories that meant his “freedom” was deemed warranted. 

A crime is not annulled on a whim or by fluke, there is a complicated and lengthy process of assessment. All the more need for someone like Wayne, who has experienced the system and learned how it works. 

Many people who have a criminal record cannot afford a lawyer, many cannot read, and often they do not have access to the technology needed to simply print and scan a form. But almost all of them feel the weight of historic injustice. 

Building up a pardon file

“To build up a pardon file can take about three months. As more people start doing it, the process becomes longer and corruption starts to kick in. When police officers are not doing their work, the public pays the price.”

Motivated by the need to assist as many people as possible, Wayne has developed an online platform that helps people to expunge their criminal records. ClearMe is a free and simple tool that takes the user through a step-by-step process. Users are initially helped to assess whether they are eligible to have their records cleared (based on their original sentence or punishment) and, if eligible, they are taken through the paperwork and application process needed to proceed. 

“Driven by the injustice. What I have learned, people will get for free. I could be a millionaire over and over, I could easily open files for people and charge them money but at the end of the day, it’s not going to reach the people that need the assistance.“

Wayne’s actions raise an important question about our responsibility towards the people around us. If we have the knowledge to help people with something that could change their lives for the better, is it not our imperative, as humans, to do so?

For Wayne the answer is simple. Yes. What’s your answer? DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at The Actionists or email [email protected]

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 6 September 2023.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • berkeley says:

    Wayne is a commited member of the community whose been an activist all he’s life. He’s a true patriot who loves he’s fellow man. Unlike most, this is truly a labour of love with no desire for self enrichment. He fought again injustice during apartheid and continues today. I’m proud to call this man a fellow South African.

  • Allan Moolman says:

    I can say nothing more than what @berkeley says except to add that our country needs many more people like Wayne – willing to step up and do the right thing. Support his work and the campaign he is currently running.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Very admirable and so necessary. But isn’t it ironic that those who still HAVE to steal to either feed themselves or their families very often get caught and thrown into jail, whereas the REAL criminals who are well connected hardly ever see a jail from the inside.

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