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Wed Oct 22 11:42:48 SAST 2014

The two faces of justice

S'Thembiso Msomi | 27 February, 2013 00:07

We might all have been frustrated by how terribly long it took him to deliver the ruling in the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, but Pretoria chief magistrate Desmond Nair did our justice system a great service on Friday.

In a country in which the justice system is one of the most highly contested terrains, and in which court decisions are sometimes subjected to accusations of bias along racial or class lines, it was crucially important for the public to understand Nair's full reasons for granting bail to the star Paralympian who is currently facing a murder charge.

One wishes more high-profile court rulings were broadcast live and in full, if only to help us citizens fully appreciate how the judiciary reaches certain decisions.

For it cannot be denied that our judicial system still has a crisis of credibility with sections of our society.

Most of it is due to ignorance and misinformation on the part of citizens, though there are a number of instances of our judges and magistrates shooting themselves in the foot.

But, on the whole, we have a pretty good judicial system - one that is strongly backed by a constitution and a bill of rights that champion equality and justice.

However, perceptions of bias in favour of the rich, famous and powerful could threaten the long-term sustainability of the system if the reasons for such perceptions go unchecked.

As it is, there are just too many South Africans who are not convinced that Lady Justice is indeed blind and impartially balances the scales of justice to weigh the case for or against those who stand before her.

There are those who believe that Lady Justice has vision that is crystal-clear but jaundiced by her alleged racial and class preferences.

In the Pistorius case, a number of incidents have stoked the suspicion that the justice system - especially the police service - is being lenient because of the athlete's social status.

But not even the groups that called on the court to deny Pistorius bail can, with a straight face, accuse Nair of bias. Whether they heard the ruling in the courtroom, on the radio or on their television, they must be satisfied that the magistrate had fully applied his mind in making the decision - even if they might have liked to see Pistorius remain in detention for the duration of the trial.

A summarised version of the ruling would not have given them such satisfaction.

But, while we are congratulating Nair and the broadcasters who brought the ruling live to our workplaces and homes, elsewhere a decision was being made that once again cast doubts on the impartiality of the system.

The correctional services department in KwaZulu-Natal announced on Monday that it had released Durban businessman "Prince" Sifiso Zulu on parole.

The socialite, said to have strongties to high-ranking members of the ANC, was released after serving only nine months of his three-year sentence.

He was in prison for killing two people and injuring 10 in a drunk driving incident.

According to evidence presented at his trial, a drunk Zulu skipped a red robot and smashed into the bakkie carrying the victims.

News of his parole has resulted in the general public claiming that he was given preference by the correctional services department.

What was especially worrying was the clandestine way in which the entire process was carried out - with no announcement beforehand and Zulu being released at 4am to avoid the media.

Given the recent history of ANC-connected convicts being released early from prison, in some instances on suspicious grounds, these claims of preferential treatment are neither surprising nor unjustified.

The correctional services department insists that Zulu, who was initially sentenced to five years - two of which were suspended - qualified for release because he last month applied for a special remission of sentence in terms of the announcement made by President Jacob Zuma for all non-violent offenders on Freedom Day last year.

Department officials might be right to say they did everything according to the book.

But the secrecy surrounding the process leading up to Zulu's parole leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

If Nair helped enhance the image of our justice system on Friday, the correctional services department discredited it on Monday.

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Wed Oct 22 11:42:48 SAST 2014 ::