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Every now and then we have an experience which is so at odds with our expectations that it makes us stop in our tracks and say, “Wow, what happened here?” Our expectations are formed by perceptions and experience and can be very powerful in shaping how we see the world.
On Friday I had one of those full-stop, “Wow” moments. It all started on December 29 last year at 05h30 when our neighbour, Wendy Hay, was attacked in her home which she rents on Dieter Beier’s farm in Vlakfontein. She was assaulted and robbed by four aggressive men who ransacked the house and terrorised her bedridden octogenarian mother. Sadly an all too familiar story in the South Africa of today.
What started to make this story a little different from the start was that Wendy’s screams were heard by Daniel Kamanga, and he raised the alarm. Daniel and Maxon Mulisidi’s response was swift enough to put the robbers to flight. Quick response from neighbours and a chase across the veld in a Land-Cruiser , scattered the assailants and one was cornered at the flooded Jukskei River. His desperate efforts to cross the river and escape where to no avail, as having managed to avoid drowning, he reached the west bank to find it was occupied by Eric Mlatyi and his colleague, of Drift Reaction, who had been directed to intercept the fugitive. He was secured and held. For once the stories at the braai would not be of the one who got away.
The story deviated even more from our expectations with the very prompt arrival of the Erasmia police in the form of Detective Warrant Office Peter Nkuna. The morning was spent making statements, and retrieving a TV and assorted other goods that had been abandoned in the chase. The attention to detail Peter paid to ensuring the statements where clear and unambiguous, the thoroughness of the finger print team who arrived on the scene shortly after 09h00, and the professionalism in general were also signals that this story might have a different outcome.
Other than confirmation that the three who got away were not traced, we heard little more. A summons to trial at the regional court in Attridgeville in mid-March was the next development. Here things took a more familiar path. Administrative ineptness, a prosecutor’s office that was described as “chaos” by the magistrate and a defence attorney who had taken a week to retrieve the disclosure document had a more familiar ring to it. But Wendy did have the satisfaction of seeing that her attacker was still in custody. All the witnesses had turned up and W/O Nkuna was confident. The case was postponed to March 20.
In retrospect the defence attorney did us all the greatest favour. When we again assembled in Attridgeville Regional Court E, yesterday morning, my expectations were low. Court hearings on a Friday are notorious for being postponed. Who would mess up this time? We did manage to assemble all five witness again, (another minor victory) but in contrast to the previous week the building was almost deserted.
After some corridor dead time, we were called to meet the prosecutor. Not last week’s dullard, but a new prosecutor on the case. Chi-chi Tshabalala is young, sharp, and very short. Without her Manhattan high-heels she would not be visible behind the lectern she stands at. There was an immediate improvement in our mood as she rapidly concluded her consultation with all five witnesses.
In the event she made her case with just two of the witnesses, Wendy and Daniel. The whole trial was conducted in a manner that made it a model of efficiency and professionalism. The magistrate was as impressive as the prosecutor. The two witnesses were described by him as, “exemplary, excellent, credible, good, honest, reliable, clear-minded, faultless.” (All in the same sentence.) The accused on the other hand was “unimpressive, evasive, inconsistent, “ and his story “ is senseless, irrational, nonsensical, lies, lies, lies,” and “so improbable as to be patently false.”
The accused was found guilty of robbery with aggravating circumstances. He was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment as a first offender. Much was made by the magistrate of the unfortunate prevalence of violent crime from our area. In the seven years he has been at this regional court he has seen far too many cases from the “Laezonia plots” that are particularly and extremely violent.
When I congratulated and thanked Chi-chi afterwards, she replied, “We try, and when we have good witnesses, we try harder.” Was my reaction out of proportion? I had just witnessed the smooth running of a vital state institution where every-one from the orderly, the translator, and the sound recorder to the defence attorney, prosecutor and magistrate had done their job in a professional and competent manner. Is this not how it should be? Surely it is.
This is my first and only direct experience of the judicial system in South Africa. What I witnessed was good people doing a good job with little fuss. Why then was my expectation that it would a shambles? We are victims of how we allow our expectations and perceptions to be shaped. The ineffectiveness of the first prosecutor ran true to my bias. The performance and professionalism of the second, blew me away. Both are a measure of my bias, formed by nothing other than hearsay and stories related by others and the media. Nothing in my personal experience justified that bias.
My overwhelming sense was that all is not lost. There are good people doing good work in a vital part of our society. They deserve support and help where they need it, not our cynicism and resignation and the expectation of failure and collapse. The “Woe are we” stories that dominate our social media and conversations eat away at our commitment to protect and nurture what we have. This is dangerous as we then give up on a hopeless cause instead of determinedly striving to reverse any rot or attack on the democratic institutions. Chi-chi changed my mind.