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  • Trials and Errors: The Promises and Pitfalls of South Africa’s Criminal Justice System
  • Alex Eliseev (bio)

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In 1983, Betty Ketani left South Africa’s Eastern Cape in search of work in Johannesburg. She soon found a job in the sweltering kitchen of a popular restaurant and began sending money back home. Then, in 1999, she just disappeared.

With her family hundreds of miles away, it took days for them to realize she was gone and to file a missing persons report. The police conducted only a perfunctory investigation, and, over the next 12 years, authorities would not interview a single witness or suspect. [End Page 100]

Before any resolution, Ketani’s mother died, and her daughter, who was only seven months old when Ketani vanished, became a teenager. The Ketani case began as an example of the very worst aspects of the country’s overburdened criminal justice system.

In contrast, the Michael Thomson murder mobilized an immediate, full-blown investigation. In late 2007, robbers attacked Thomson when he ran out of his house to defend his family against a home invasion. The father of three fought off one of the robbers and pulled another one into the swimming pool. Struggling in the water, he was stabbed over a dozen times with a screwdriver and eventually shot by a different gang member. He died in the pool as the robbers ransacked his house and fled without harming his family.

Thomson’s gruesome murder made headlines, and a hunt for the killers began. The Razor Gang—a group of thieves who broke into homes and raped, tortured, and killed their victims—was soon arrested. With the alleged criminals behind bars, his case seemed a slam-dunk prosecution.

Though Ketani—a poor black woman—and Thomson—a well-off white man—lived some 600 miles apart and grew up on opposite sides of South Africa’s divided history, their cases ended up illustrating both the potential excellence of the country’s judicial system and how easily it can be hampered by a heavy case load, shoddy police work, a lack of resources, and poor communication.

A young and fragile democracy, South Africa cannot afford to have its courts compromised. Following a series of corruption scandals that implicate President Jacob Zuma, the courts are needed—now more than ever—to keep the miracle nation on track. Twenty-two years after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s courts are being called upon to help resolve the bloody aftermath of events like Marikana, where dozens of protesting miners were gunned down by police, and to guide the nation as a younger generation questions deals struck by older politicians. South Africa faces a moment that has been described (coincidentally, at the Constitutional Court) as “delicate” and “dangerous”—a time when populist leaders are stirring emotions, the race debate is both cleansing and divisive, and universities and schools are being torched during protests for free education.

The situation in South Africa is hardly unique. In the United States, Donald Trump’s executive orders are already leading to court battles. And in the United Kingdom, there are legal clashes over the triggering of Brexit negotiations. As politics becomes more polarized and terms like “post-truth” enter dictionaries, it is the courts that must protect facts, secure basic human rights, and dispense justice without fear or favor. And yet, when any step in the process breaks down, justice can be denied. No two cases exemplify the promises and pitfalls of the criminal justice system better than the Ketani and Thomson murders.


For years, Ketani’s family waited and suffered. Then, in 2012, a family carrying out some last-minute weekend renovations at their home in southern Johannesburg found three pieces of paper under a carpet. The discovery ignited a fresh investigation, a new search, and, finally, a court case.

They chanced upon a secret letter, which appeared to be a confession from one of Ketani’s killers that began with the words, “If you are reading this then I am dead.” It explained how Ketani had been kidnapped and stabbed on the side of a dark...


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pp. 100-106
Launched on MUSE
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