Detention Justice Forum Statement on Allegations Made Against the Wits Justice Project by Zach Modise

21 October 2014

To: Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Honourable Minister Michael Masutha.

CC: Chairperson, Portfolio Committee for Justice and Correctional Services, Dr Mathole Motshekga; Acting Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services, Mr Zach Modise

Dear Honourable Minister,

Acting Commissioner, Mr Zach Modise is Wrong.

The Detention Justice Forum (DJF) addresses this open letter to you in response to the statements made by Acting Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services (DCS), Mr Zach Modise regarding the work of the Wits Justice Project (WJP) and civil society organisations on Thursday 16 October 2014, at the Oscar Pistorius sentencing hearing.

The DJF is a civil society coalition of non-governmental organisations and individuals seeking to ensure that the rights and well-being of detainees are respected as enshrined under the South African Constitution, laws, and international human rights norms and standards.

When a government takes away a person’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect them. However, health and human rights violations in detention continue; they devastate the lives of inmates, and represent a fundamental blight on South Africa’s young democracy, that affects us all.

The DJF is deeply shocked by the uninformed attack on one of our members, the WJP, by Acting Commissioner Modise during Pistorius’s sentencing hearing. Mr Modise’s statement that the WJP is run by ‘two journalists’, who publish stories about ‘correctional services that have not been verified’, is untrue. The WJP is part of the Wits Journalism Department at Wits University, one of Africa’s highest ranked universities in the world. Firstly, there is no obligation in law that journalists must have their statements/observations verified by the DCS. This was a requirement in the 1959 Prisons Act which has been repealed. Further, we know from our experience of working with the WJP that they adhere to very strict ethics and journalistic corroboration and verification. DJF is proud to have the WJP among its members, and highly values the WJP’s contribution to the Forum, and, more broadly, in strengthening South Africa’s criminal justice sector.

Certainly, many of the WJP’s reports are shocking. Sadly however, we know from our work in DCS correctional and remand facilities that they are not farfetched but depict the circumstances that vast numbers of inmates face on an everyday basis. It is true that Victor Nkomo awaited his trial for over eight years; it is true that Tebogo Meje was subjected to assault and electro-shock torture while incarcerated in Mangaung prison in 2013; it is true that Ronnie Fakude had no access to a wheel chair and his paraplegia – confirmed by an independent doctor – was questioned by DCS in court.

These are harsh truths – as are the problems of sexual abuse, HIV and TB in detention, all requiring enhanced urgent attention. It is thus worrying that instead of addressing these issues, Modise chose to attack an organisation that works hard to promote the health and human rights of inmates, and to uncover miscarriages of justice.

The enormous challenges facing DCS should not be contested: in 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Commission found that Mr Bradley McCallum’s right to be free from torture protected by Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, had been violated while in DCS custody; and the South African Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Mr Dudley Lee in his case against DCS for his contracting of TB during incarceration. These cases mirror abuses and conditions facing thousands of others, who are not in a position to access redress or support. It is thus all the more important that civil society organisations continue their work to support DCS to deliver on its mandate, hold it accountable to do so, and contribute to promoting transparency, needed to counter impunity.

It is unfortunate and odd that Mr Modise takes such a defensive approach to the watchdog role of civil society, which is essential to meaningful democracy. The DCS’s interaction with NGOs and other stakeholders, especially regarding critical comments, remains insular. In this regard we would like to remind Mr Modise and DCS of the Jali Commission’s observations in 2006:

This is a sad state of affairs because it is this very attitude that discourages any input from people who might be experts in other areas, which would be of assistance to the Department. The Department cannot operate in isolation. It is not an island but an integral part of the South African society. The manner in which it conducts its affairs has a bearing on the lives of all South Africans, who expect the Department to consult and interact with experts and relevant stakeholders to ensure that correctional facilities in our country are competently run so that they compare with the best in the world. (Jali Commission, p. 945)

It is now long overdue that DCS acts fully on the recommendations of the Jali Commission, and harness the diverse expertise brought by civil society. Fundamentally, DCS has to focus on implementing the many policies and guidelines which Mr Modise spoke of so highly at Pistorius’s sentencing hearing, and ensure that they are felt in the lived experiences of inmates and officials. DCS must do this now.

Respectfully submitted,

The Detention Justice Forum

Endorsed by the following organisations:

1. Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS)
2. Centre for the Study of Violence & Reconciliation (CSVR)
3. Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative (CSPRI)
4. Childline South Africa
5. Egon Oswald Attorneys
6. Footballers for Life
7. Hope Prison Ministry
8. Just Detention International-South Africa (JDI-SA)
9. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR)
10. Phoenix Zululand: Restorative Justice Programme
11. Restorative Justice Centre
12. Section 27
13. Sonke Gender Justice
14. Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)

The PDF version of the statement is available here.