‘There’s not a rich man there, who couldn’t pay his way, and buy the freedom that’s a high price for the poor’. So goes songwriter and activist Graham Nash’s poignant Prison Song – a song with a particular resonance for South Africa where the powerful may evade justice, and where the poor (some of them innocent of any crime) may languish in prison, facing rape, or even death, at the hands of prison gangs. Far too often the quest for justice by the powerless is thwarted, whereas cases involving the rich and famous not only receive priority attention from the police (and well paid private investigators) but draw on the services of top – and hugely expensive – lawyers who are able to pick holes in what are often poorly investigated cases. Unlike the Pistorius or Dewani cases, the vast majority of murders never reach court, let alone lead to convictions. Three recent cases show some of the obstacles the majority of families of crime victims face in their quest for justice.

In 2007 Dundee councillor Grisham Bujram was murdered, ostensibly because of his attempts to expose corruption in the municipality. While they had not orchestrated the hit, two men were convicted of the killing. A third alleged accomplice, together with one of the convicted men, claimed that they had killed Bujram on the instructions of the then mayor who subsequently stood trial. However, the case dragged on, with postponements linked to the accused’s alleged ill-health. The state witness conveniently disappeared, and the accused was acquitted for lack of evidence. There has been no closure for the family, traumatised by the long drawn-out proceedings, since the identity of the mastermind has not been confirmed. Nor has there been any follow up of the corruption which they believe was behind their loved-one’s death. Mrs Bujram also claims that she has been threatened for pursuing this matter, and that there have been incidents which appear to have been attempts on her life.

Mr X, a taxi operator was killed, together with an acquaintance who was giving him a lift, when their car was riddled with bullets by police members pursuing them. Not long before he died X had made a statement to the police that he feared being killed by other taxi operators colluding with the police because he refused to pay extortion money. Despite the gravity of the matter, and potentially incriminating evidence, IPID failed conspicuously to do its duty, leaving the investigation to a local detective who was accused of colluding with X’s opponents. This detective denied that Y, the policeman named in the shooting (who allegedly had taxi interests), had been at the scene. However, that Y was implicated in the incident was confirmed by, among others, his unit commander. Due to the extremely shoddy investigation there has been no prosecution and now, according to the family’s lawyer, important evidence has disappeared from the docket.

Nor has Leonie Luckin seen justice done after her only daughter, Leanne. died, in September 2013, when police who had chased her for many kilometres along the N2 fired at her car, causing her to die of injuries sustained when it crashed. The deceased, who lived on the lower South Coast, had opened a case against the police before she died (she had told her mother a police member had tried to bribe her). According to a witness at the shooting scene, cited in a press report, the police not only failed to assist the dying woman, but interfered with the crime scene by removing the vehicle. Follow up of the case by IPID appeared slow, and it is not known whether the vehicle – which was left standing at the insurer’s premises – was ever subject to a thorough examination. According to Mrs Luckin, she has had no information about who the police were, why they were chasing her daughter, and whether reports about police conduct at the scene of the crash have been investigated. She has simply been informed by IPID that prosecution has been declined, and that the case will proceed to inquest.

What is of great concern in this and other cases in which there has been no prosecution is that victims’ relatives are not informed about their right to apply for a formal inquest. It appears that it is left to the discretion of magistrates to decide on whether to hold a formal inquest hearing or simply file the matter away. At the very least, cases in which the police have killed people should automatically be subject to a formal inquest at which families enjoy competent legal representation.. This court procedure may be denied victims’ families because they do not know their rights, nor do they usually have access to quality legal assistance.

The dismal conviction rate for murder is due to a number of factors, starting with the appalling state of policing – especially detective services and crime intelligence – the failure of the prosecuting service to guide investigators and ensure quality evidence and, in some cases, poor prosecution. Nor does the disappearance of ballistics evidence from police custody help the cause of justice.. That the disgraceful state of crucial forensic services – broken x-ray machines and scales, incompetent, ill-disciplined staff and insufficient well trained pathologists – also defeats the ends of justice is shown by the recent well publicised trial of men accused of killing British marine Brett Williams. The blame for this state of affairs lies with the departments and ministers concerned – including the provincial Department of Health and its MEC who must take personal responsibility for the virtual collapse of the forensic pathology services which can make or break justice in the province. Ultimately, it is the complete lack of accountability, and arrogance, of elected officials, which is responsible for the vast majority of South Africans being denied justice in cases of violent crime.

The recent murder of Senzo Meyiwa was indeed tragic – but so are all murders. To slightly re-work poet John Donne’s immortal words, ‘each death diminishes us for we are part of humanity’