South Africa | Cele admits police 'not out of the woods yet' on forensic backlog, which stands at over 200 000 cases

Police Minister Bheki Cele admitted the police's forensic case backlog – which now stands at 208 291 cases – is giving the police sleepless nights.

It is about 36 000 cases more than what it was at the start of March, when the backlog was 172 787 cases, after the police failed to process a single forensic DNA exhibit in January and February due to a lack of consumables.

Cele responded to an urgent debate on a matter of national interest, brought by DA MP Andrew Whitfield.

Whitfield said: 

Since Minister Cele has been the Minister of Police from February 2018, he has presided over an explosion in the backlog of DNA case exhibits from just over 7 000 in 2017-18 to over 225 000 this year – nearly a quarter of a million. That is a more than 3 000% increase in the backlog under his watch.

"It has never been this bad before. In January and February this year, not a single DNA sample was processed due to the lack of consumables. In response to this alarming fact, the minister said: 'No one has reported it before. One heard of it by chance'."

Whitfield said it was proof Cele did not take the DNA crisis seriously.

According to Whitfield, vacancies due to the police's internecine power struggles and "catastrophic contract mismanagement" were the cause of the problem.

He also apportioned blame to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

He said:

Mr President, you have ignored my letters, you have ignored the cries of the victims of violent crime, and you have ignored the failure of your minister to prevent this crisis.

Cele pointed out that the backlog is 208 291, and not 225 000, as Whitfield had said.

Of these, around 82 000 are gender-based violence related.

Cele said, while it resulted in sleepless nights, the police did not "toss and turn in our beds", but were working to resolve the problem.

He agreed that poor contract management was to blame and that the "huge backlog" was unacceptable.

Cele said they want to have normalcy within 18 months.

He laid out some of the measures to achieve this, including larger staff, funding, and contracts for consumables for two to three years.

The Portfolio Committee on Police has been seized with the matter since the start of the Sixth Parliament in 2019, and put pressure on the police to implement a turnaround plan, which they presented to the committee in March.

The ANC members who participated in the debate – committee chairperson Tina Joemat-Pettersson, Kebby Maphatsoe and Princess Faku – expressed their confidence in the plan.

Joemat-Pettersson warned against politicising the problem and decried using gender-based violence to score political points as "secondary victimisation" and "totally abhorrent behaviour".

"Why do you want to keep the Honourable President responsible for a matter that you helped resolve?" she asked of Whitfield.

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Several opposition MPs noted that the backlog led to cases – often gender-based violence related – going unprosecuted, allowing rapists to roam free.

"Rapists in South Africa depend on the ANC government to continue raping and getting away with it. That is a fact," said EFF MP Naledi Chirwa.

"The weakest link in the fight against gender-based violence and femicide is the South African Police Service," said DA MP Nazley Sharif.

Cele apologised to crime victims for "the pain the delay has caused".

He said all cases relating to gender-based violence and femicide were prioritised, based on guidance from the National Prosecuting Authority.

"77 485 such cases, which are court ready, but have outstanding results from our Forensic Science Laboratories, are being processed," he said.

FF Plus leader Pieter Groenewald said part of the problem was that Forensic Data Analysts (FDA) switched off the system to track and trace forensic exhibits after a contractual dispute with the police.

He said FDA alleges that the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) used its intellectual property for the new system the police started using on 6 April and might go the legal route, which could cause the problems to start all over again.

Cele said he doesn't know about a pending court case.

ALSO READ | Police's DNA backlog: It has 'catastrophic consequences for the criminal justice system' - DA

He did, however, admit that FDA switching off the system was "another dilemma", which gave rise to the backlog.

He confirmed the system that SITA developed with the police went live on 6 April.

"Before the 6 April, forensic analysts could only track and trace forensic evidence manually. They were only processing around a thousand specimens a week. Within a month, a total of 63 576 cases were registered, tracked and traced electronically. 33 752 of the total of cases were registered in the biology environment," Cele said.

"We want to assure this august house and the rest of the nation that, while we are not out of the woods yet, we certainly are on the path moving towards improvement."

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