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Petty criminal records lock away the future for SA’s youth

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

If you are really crooked and have served jail time, you can end up in politics in South Africa, and have your record expunged or overlooked, but incompetence and bullying bureaucracy is what you can expect if you are just a young voter. When laws or regulations are unjust or arbitrary or lazily applied through benign bureaucratic neglect and non-existent political will, they must be challenged.

Nelson Mandela was 38 when he was arrested in 1956 on treason charges, leading later to 27 years in jail, a criminal record and worldwide respect and recognition. (By the ANC’s standards, Mandela would have been considered a “youth” at 38.)

But Mandela, revered as one of the great statesmen of the modern age, remained on US terrorist watchlists until 2008.

Read more here.

There was a time when breaking the law in South Africa was like breathing – if you were black. With every aspect of life regulated and rigidly controlled, large numbers of people racked up impressive criminal records as they resisted the madness.

Today, many young South Africans have criminal records for offences that are more social than lawless or criminal in nature – unlike their predecessors.

When laws or regulations are unjust or arbitrary or lazily applied through benign bureaucratic neglect and non-existent political will, they must be challenged.

The putrid conditions and circumstances so many young people are forced to endure in contemporary South Africa exposes them to a variety of threats. Often young people are caught up in currents that are not of their making.

Set free all under-25s

At the launch on 19 April of Rise Mzansi, national leader Songezo Zibi said the party – which is in the process of registering for the 2024 elections – would focus on the need to expunge criminal records of people under 25 convicted of minor offences. We are not talking about Thabo Bester types, but ordinary young people caught up in currents impossible to avoid or escape.

This is how Zibi described what passes for everyday life for the vast majority of the country’s unemployed and unemployable young: “At night they live in the dark and are terrorised by crime; crime that sometimes comes from within the community because young people live a life of no opportunity and no hope.

“These young people are introduced to the prison system at a young age and can no longer find work because they have a criminal record.”

If you are really crooked and have served jail time, you can end up in politics in South Africa, and have your record expunged or overlooked, but incompetence and bullying bureaucracy is what you can expect if you are just a young voter.

We are all criminals here

Theoretically, it is possible to have one’s record relatively easily expunged in democratic South Africa, but the reality is that the SAPS does not always have the capacity or inclination to act swiftly.

The middle classes might have access to intermediaries who can speed up matters, but, for the vast majority of the country’s unemployed and indebted working class, this is a luxury. So, many are denied a shot at even low-paid McJobs.

Read more here.

Example number one: A retired Capetonian in his sixties, raised in District Six in the 1970s, was contacted after Covid and asked to manage a team of young people drafted to work on a transport/road contact.

A devout Muslim, father of many, our man worked his entire life. Of course he had a criminal record – for minor assault when he was a teenager in the 1970s and for possession of dagga, which today is no more illegal than being a Gupta brother in possession of valid South African citizenship.

A fair amount of foreign investment partnerships had joined the initiative and our Capetonian was thrilled to have an opportunity to lead a young team in a rural project.

He might have been seen as a pensioner by some, but his expertise was invaluable and he was offered the work on a contract basis.

Within a week, our friend and his team were sent back to Cape Town. He and many of the young people had not obtained the necessary “security clearance” – they couldn’t provide a clean record.

The foreign company partnering locally insisted on this  for the entire team. They just don’t trust us, you see. And can you blame them? Look at our leaders.

Some women on the team, our elder reported, had convictions for retaliating in domestic abuse “disputes”, with vindictive partners laying charges.

Having to stab or fight off a drugged-up or drunken, violent boyfriend, husband, partner, brother, uncle, cousin, neighbour or stranger is a reality for many, many young women in this country.

Many young men, too, end up with records not because they have criminal minds but because criminality and lawlessness is a way of life and they need to survive.

Once the failing system has you on its failing, tenderised IT systems, that’s it for you. Hell forever.

Should be chop-chop

For our friend, attempting to find out if his old record still existed took enormous effort and time – and money wasted on transport.

SAPS officers meant to be dealing with the process were either out of the office or had gone elsewhere for the day. That’s how it works on the ground. They send you round and round, they spin you right round baby, right round.

You could try what the SAPS website recommends: “Complete the application for expungement of a criminal record and attach all necessary documentation. The clearance certificate must also be attached to the application…”

All of this must then be “posted (ha ha) or delivered by hand” to the Director-General of Justice and Constitutional Development.

Try all this with not a coin to rub against another.

One could just keep quiet about an old criminal record and hope the system is so old, so paper-based and so inefficient that it has evaporated, like the Gupta family, into volcanic air.

But our elder and his young team don’t want to live with the uncertainty and they do not want to lie on their application forms or contracts. They do not want to be dishonest – and for this they are punished.

When the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, the young Ronald Lamola, was sworn in in 2019, he agreed that companies were hostile to employing “reformed offenders” and also those with “criminal records”.

Back then, he said his department would consider a law to make it easier for people to re-enter the job market after a minor brush with the law.

“It is something which I want to make my legacy because the rehabilitation of offenders is very important for our society and growth of the economy. When they are rehabilitated and have acquired skills, it means they do not become a burden to society.

“There is a challenge of backlog in terms of expungement of criminal records,” said Lamola at the time.

He said the governing party was looking at policy proposals to make it easy for criminal records to be expunged.

Well, here we are in 2023, and Zibi has taken up the baton for the young. We should support the call, either way. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Some logic,you sure he is a politician?I used to be a cop, and my experience is they focused on the guppies and left the sharks.

  • Peter Smith says:

    By enabling the system to expunge records you will be opening another loophole to be manipulated. Better to educate the users of the information.

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