Rhodes Park ruling highlights disparities in the Criminal Justice System

The three men accused of the Rhodes Park attacks in Johannesburg have been sentenced, but has the large media attention surrounding the case put pressure on the judge to perform?

Last week, after little more than a year of searching for the suspects of the Rhodes Park murders and a long court trial at the South Gauteng High Court, Judge Masopa gave three accused men four life sentences each, as well as 15 years for robbery.

In 2015, Mduduzi Lawrence Mathibela, 33, Edmore Ndlovu, 24, and Thabo Nkala, 26, attacked two couples who were taking a late afternoon walk through Rhodes Park in Kensington, Johannesburg. 

The accused murdered the two men, and raped the two women while they threw the bodies of the men into the lake. 

Thanks to CCTV footage from the park, as well DNA evidence, the men were found and brought to justice. 

Their sentencing was met with songs of celebration by community members, but also tears from the two victims who relived their trauma every day in the court room. Meanwhile, there was not a blink from the three men who were going to live out the rest of their lives in prison. 

In the courtroom, it felt as if a community had united for the well-being of its people. Not everyone in the court that day knew the victims personally, or even the accused, some were affiliated with the Department for Community Safety and some were there in their own capacity to show support and ensure that justice was served. For me, when this happens and strangers unite for common good, it is a warming and extraordinary sight to behold. 

Working at the Wits Justice Project means that we are exposed to and investigate miscarriages of justice every day..  Maybe it was the substantial media attention surrounding the case which put the spot light on Judge Masopa to perform. It is important to keep in mind that this doesn’t happen every day. 

In an article she wrote for the Daily Maverick Ruth Hopkins, senior journalist with the Wits Justice Project, points to the disparity between high profile trials of e.g. Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani and those of ordinary South Africans. 

She writes: “But ordinary South African citizens are by no means guaranteed a fair trial. They battle a dysfunctional court system where bail is denied for no apparent reason; transcripts go missing, where lengthy delays put presumed innocent suspects behind bars for years, where overworked state-funded lawyers do not bother to question glaring inconsistencies, shoddy evidence and lying police officers.” 

Although these three men have been brought to justice and victims given at least some closure knowing that their attackers are in jail, the question remains if this outcome was achieved because of the media and community interest involved in the case. As Hopkins points out, there is an ineffective side to court trials which exist away from the watchful eye of the camera lens. 

-Azarrah Karrim

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