Postponed: SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory on backlog of cases in Western Cape

Community Safety, Cultural Affairs and Sport (WCPP)

04 March 2021
Chairperson: Mr R Allen (DA)
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Meeting Summary

Video: Standing Committee on Community Safety, Cultural Affairs and Sport, 4 March 2021, 09:00

The South African Police Service (SAPS) was invited to brief the Committee on the causes of the backlog of cases at the SAPS’s forensic science laboratory in the Western Cape, and to establish a way forward. The national backlog of cases stood at 117 736 as at December 2020, of which roughly 39 400 were in the Western Cape. These were cases that involved DNA samples.

However, the senior police officer at the virtual meeting said he was there merely to represent the provincial commissioner, and had expected a SAPS officer from the national office to make the presentation.

Members were concerned at the effect the delays were having on the justice system, but agreed that they could not make any meaningful resolutions without receiving full information on the situation. They also did not want to damage the Committee’s wonderful relationship with the Western Cape SAPS.

The Committee therefore decided it would engage with the Programming Authority to put an engagement with the SAPS on the agenda as soon as possible. It would also look to increase the scope of the brief.

Meeting report

SAPS forensic science laboratory backlog

The Chairperson said the invitation for the current meeting had been sent to both the Acting Provincial Police Commissioner and the Divisional Commissioner for Forensic Services, to unpack the causal factors to the backlog of cases at the South African Police Service’s (SAPS’s) forensic science laboratory in the Western Cape, and to establish a way forward. This followed a number of complaints received by the provincial Department of Community Safety. An apology had been received from

An invitation had been sent to the national SAPS office. The invitation had been acknowledged, but no presentation had been received by the Committee. He asked if Major General Beaton would be doing a presentation to Committee.

Major General Vincent Beaton, Cluster Commander (Blue Downs): SAPS, responded that he was not aware that he was required to present at the Committee. He was under the impression that officers from the national Commissioner, or some of the generals, would make the presentation. He had been asked to represent General Thembisile Patekile, Acting Provincial Commissioner, as a representative of the Western Cape.

The Chairperson said the national backlog of cases stood at 117 736 as at December 2020. Of these cases, roughly 39 400 were in the Western Cape. These were cases that involved DNA samples. It had emerged at a National Assembly Portfolio Committee meeting two days earlier, that the number of cases had now risen to 172 000 nationally.

The Chairperson asked Members if it would be appropriate to have the Procedural Officer reach out to call the SAPS?

Mr G Bosman (DA) wanted to know if Maj Gen Beaton was in a position to answer questions that Members might have with regard to the backlog of cases. This would assist in mapping a way forward.

Ms L Botha (DA) wanted to know what the General’s brief had been regarding his representation at the Committee for the current meeting. Had he received his briefing in writing? With regard to the Chairperson’s question about calling the SAPS, she said it would be ‘okay’ to call them.

Mr M Kama (ANC) said the Acting Commissioner must have had some sort of preparation for the current meeting. Even though the police were a national competence, the focus of the meeting was the Western Cape and the backlog of cases in the Western Cape. With regard to gender-based violence (GBV), DNA issues were a major challenge. Cases had been removed from the court’s roll due to delays.  He did not support the notion that Maj-Gen Beaton should brief the Committee, as he had said he was not aware that he was required to do a presentation.

Maj-Gen Beaton said he had received an email from Acting Police Commissioner Patekile instructing him to attend the current meeting. The e-mail had clearly stated that officers from the National Office would make a presentation at the meeting. With regard to the backlog of cases, he said that even though the police were a national competency, the provincial commissioner of the laboratory did attend SAPS meetings, and they did address the backlog at these meetings. The backlog was a concern for the SAPS as well, as it affected the SAPS’s conviction rate. As for the laboratory’s responsibility towards the province, they did have to inform the SAPS what they were doing to address the backlog. He suggested that the challenges being experienced should be escalated to the national level.

The Chairperson said the Committee was now in a tricky situation. It had not received any confirmation from SAPS. Some Members had enquired about public-private partnerships and how feasible they were. There was concern that the process was based on cases receiving media attention, or community outrage, before samples had been sent to a private laboratory.

Mr Bosman said it would be difficult to take resolutions, because the Committee had not received the necessary information. It was currently working off information received from community members and other stakeholders, and information that SAPS had put in the public domain.

Part of what needed to be understood was how the entity worked, and what some of the structural failures were that had taken place at the Forensic Services Laboratory (FSL) unit within SAPS. He said this was not a new issue -- it had been coming on for years.

He said media reports had raised issues around procurement, as well as corruption.  What other sections were there within the unit? How did these sections operate? Did their work complement or hinder the work of the biology unit? He had recommended visiting the facility, but fellow Member, Mr F Christians (ACDP), had stated that the entity would be very limited in what they would be able to show.

Mr Christians said he concurred with Members who had already spoken. It was important not to damage the relationship with the SAPS. The Committee should wait for communication from the SAPS national office in order to escalate what had happened with regard to the current meeting. It could have been an oversight. The engagement needed to be carried out constructively. The Committee did not have a hidden agenda, but was trying to make sure communities were served appropriately.

Mr M Xego (EFF) echoed Mr Christians’ comment. He asked that the SAPS be allowed to come back at a later date and make a proper presentation. He said the Committee needed the information.

Mr Bosman said Members needed to be aware that the Committee was always compromising when it came to the entity. The Committee had a wonderful relationship with the Western Cape SAPS, and it should reach out to the national office and find out how best to communicate in the future. The people of the Western Cape had just as much right to hear from national entities, especially regarding issues that affected the province. The Committee had to be careful not to compromise the quality of their oversight function by continuing to make compromises.

Comments from HoD: Department of Community Safety

Ms Yashina Pillay, Head of Department (HOD), Western Cape Department of Community Safety, said the issue of case backlogs was concerning and alarming. It was a very serious matter and a cause for concern for the Department and the province as a whole.

It would be good for the Western Cape to have a perspective on how it contributed to the current case exhibit backlog. The backlog had an effect on the functioning of the criminal justice system. It would affect the courts and cause overcrowding in prisons, because awaiting-trial detainees would not be able to appear because of the backlogs at the forensic labs.

It would be very good to arrange an engagement so that the province could have a clearer picture of what they were facing. The required procurement could be done to ensure the laboratories could address both the backlog as well as the functioning of the criminal justice system as a whole.

Mr Bosman said it should be noted that the laboratory in Plattekloof was operating under COVID protocols and at only 50% staff capacity. The lab’s roster allowed for staff to rotate between days spent working from home and days working at the facility. The matter needed to be escalated as soon as possible. The lab did not serve just the Western Cape, but the Eastern Cape as well as the Northern Cape. He made an example of a perpetrator who might commit a crime in one province, and resided in a different province. He asked the provincial SAPS team to recommend ways in which better co-operation could be achieved.

Recommendations

The Committee would engage with the Programming Authority to put an engagement with the SAPS on the agenda as soon as possible. It would also look to increase the scope of the brief.

There was a recommendation that the upcoming engagement be held at a SAPS facility, or at the Plattekloof FSL facility.

The meeting was adjourned.   

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