Defend Truth


Police DNA testing failures an insult to GBV survivors and victims of crime — but the system can be fixed


Gillion Bosman is DA Western Cape spokesperson on cultural affairs and sport. He also chairs the provincial standing committee on community safety, and the standing committee on finance and economic opportunities.

One of the most effective measures of gathering evidence and identifying the perpetrators of GBV is by way of analysing buccal samples from the arrested persons. This is done by swabbing the inside of the cheek to collect DNA from the cells in their saliva. But in the Western Cape, crucial equipment for DNA processing is out of service, some for more than 1,200 days.

At a recent digital press conference, the DA in the Western Cape revealed a direct correlation between the mismanagement of the national SAPS acquisitions department and the DNA backlog of 37,647 sexual offence cases in the province.

Since November 2019, there has been a decline in the processing of forensic DNA sampling which has led to this backlog. By the end of 2020, performance related to the processing of DNA samples, which are used as evidence in matters of criminal investigations, including sexual offences, declined by 75%. This meant that the DNA processing backlog grew by a staggering 300%, of which about 92% were for sexual offence cases.

After conducting an oversight visit and submitting questions in Parliament, I uncovered that the decline in DNA processing is a result of crucial equipment being out of service, some for more than 1,200 days.

This is not a simple administrative error — it is a deliberate act of mismanagement. The failure to renew a contract has had immeasurable impacts on thousands of survivors of sexual assault and the estimated time to complete the backlog is 18 months, at a minimum. Meanwhile, survivors of GBV and sexual assault are denied justice while perpetrators take advantage of the delayed prosecution.

The national Police Minister, Bheki Cele, has confirmed 240,000 DNA samples that have yet to be analysed to satisfy the burden of proof for criminal prosecution.

One of the most effective measures of gathering evidence and identifying the perpetrators of GBV is by way of analysing buccal samples from the arrested persons. This is done by swabbing the inside of the cheek to collect DNA from the cells in their saliva, secreted by buccal glands. It is the most efficient way of connecting a suspect to a crime scene. Collected DNA samples can be processed manually, which is slow and arduous, or it can be handled efficiently with the aid of automated machines.

These automated DNA machines require regular servicing and calibration to function correctly and for samples processed to be admissible in court. The failure to service machines has been caused by an unsuccessful tendering process by the SAPS offices in Pretoria to source a company to maintain the machines after the previous contract lapsed in 2019. 

I compiled a dossier outlining the current state of GBV in the province with a recommendation to outsource the DNA processing to private laboratories, in the hopes that this would hasten the reduction of the backlog.

The Western Cape MEC for Community Safety, Albert Fritz, has addressed this issue by tabling the backlog as a Policing Need and Priority (PNP) in the Western Cape in an attempt to improve the provision of justice to the vulnerable members of our society. These PNPs are an integral part of the Department of Community Safety’s oversight and accountability role in line with the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, read with the Community Safety Act of 2013. Identification of PNPs is crucial because they allow the provincial department to escalate community issues to SAPS at a national level. It may not be attractive campaign material for Minister Bheki Cele, but it is something he needs to pay attention to, nonetheless.

As a Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature, our powers are not unfettered. We do not have operational control over the national police service, which makes it difficult to compensate for their shortcomings. What we can, and have done, is everything in our capacity through the structures of Parliament to exercise oversight, uncover this issue, make recommendations and bring it to the attention of the public and the responsible national structures.

I drew on the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan to support our argument, citing their mandate of “providing a multi-sectoral… programming framework to ensure a coordinated national response to the crisis of gender-based violence”. I also relied on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s responsibility to spearhead the national task team as a means to address this issue — with disappointing results.

A response from his office deflected the problem to Minister Bheki Cele, who has been aware of the processing backlog but has failed to take action — until the week after it was spotlighted by our press conference. A credible source has confirmed that the dossier was received by the minister and that he has had a meeting at the Forensic Services Laboratory in the past weeks.

Most concerningly, the dossier elaborated on how this issue has affected the provision of justice in the Western Cape. GBV-related crimes often go unreported due to societal stigmas, fear and inaccessible police services. However, once reported there is no guarantee that perpetrators see the consequences of their actions.

From October to December last year, the Western Cape Department of Community Safety’s Court Watching Brief unit recorded 50 cases related to GBV that were thrown out due to “policing inefficiencies”.

It is imperative that provincial police services have access to the requisite equipment to build watertight cases and ensure convictions. Eight of the 30 national gender-based violence hotspots are in the Western Cape. These are Delft, Nyanga, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni, Mitchells Plain, Kraaifontein, Gugulethu and Bellville.

Considering the scale of the gender-based violence problem in this country, it is surprising that the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan, with its exhaustive provisions, was structurally inadequate to deal with mismanagement on this scale, leading to the thousands of backlogged cases. No emergency backup measures were instituted to bypass the bureaucratic hold-ups to provide relief to thousands of survivors. Without political will and a sincere conviction to take up the plight of the vulnerable, these kinds of lofty documents remain nothing more than a set of hollow promises.

We are currently in the process of following up on the progress of Minister Cele in addressing this problem. A recent parliamentary question that I submitted requested a progress update on the situation to ascertain the current case backlog and a renewed timeline for reducing the backlog.

Decentralising the policing mandate and budget to competent, financially sustainable provincial governments is one such measure that would take the responsibility out of the hands of an inefficient national government, and as Premier Alan Winde says, “bring governance closer to the people”. We alerted SAPS to this issue months ago — to no avail.

We are better positioned to address the issues in our own province because simple solutions such as renewing maintenance contracts can happen efficiently under our watch. We believe that to achieve a safe society, we must start by prioritising women’s rights and dignity. Devolving policing powers is integral to this end. DM


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