Law and Vengeance: Is SA criminal law being overcome with NPA and Government emotion and zealousness?

Is SA’s criminal law being overcome with emotion and zealousness on the part of government to be seen to be doing something about the carnage on the country’s roads?

The question arises in the wake of a series of court cases in the country where vehicle drivers are reportedly being charged with murder following the deaths of people involving vehicle accidents where reckless driving was the main cause.

The first conviction of murder under the circumstances is that of Jacob Humphreys, a taxi driver from the Western Cape (South Africa) who will probably soon sit in jail for possibly the rest of his life after a High Court here Monday (December 12, 2011) found him guilty of murder following the death of 10 children and injury to others during an accident in the early hours of August 25, 2010 involving a minibus taxi he was driving colliding with a train at a railway crossing.

At the time of the incident, Humphreys (56) was transporting the children to school. The story is that on the day Humphreys drove recklessly as he overtook a row of cars and ignored safety signals at the Buttskop level crossing in Blackheath near Cape Town, leading to a train colliding with the minibus taxi ferrying the children.

Media reports in South Africa Monday and Tuesday hailed Judge Robert Henney’s “guilty of murder” verdict as “historical” since this was the first such finding to be given for a vehicle accident of the nature.

Judge Henney reportedly found that Humphreys ‘must have foreseen the consequences of his actions that day.’

The Herald (Port Elizabeth) reported Tuesday that there were several other similar cases currently underway in which the drivers have been charged with murder.

Meanwhile, the newspaper reported that both the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and government were excited over the precedent setting Western Cape High Court verdict in the Humphrey case, describing it as a “victory for justice and road safety.”

The statement was attributed to Western Cape Transport MEC, Robin Carlisle, while national Transport Minister, Sbu Ndebele reportedly celebrated the outcome thus: “Our society has degenerated to a level where some drivers continue to display a blatant disregard for human life. In conjunction with the ministries of police and justice, as well as the National Prosecuting Authority, we will continue to ensure we are more aggressive in dealing with with irresponsible drivers…No mercy will be shown to any person who disobeys road rules.”

All very well on the part of government to express strong and unwavering intent to enforce strict compliance with road rules and regulations by the motoring public, by any means possible – as provided for in law – except for what appears now as an application of a sledgehammer to corner an errant mouse, clearly motivated by desperation and high emotion, alternatively another case of “Shoot To Kill.”

It makes barely any difference that a labour union was reportedly also applauding the hard stance – and to argue lack of sympathy for the deceased and injured, alternatively tolerance of wrongdoing by motorists on my part is neither true nor to the point.

I am no lawman and won’t pretend to be one in any way even as the field is of keen interest to me as an affected party.

Surely, a charge of murder is a serious one with similarly severe consequences and to the best of my knowledge, conviction thereon involves irrefutable proof of intent.

According to Terblanche (2008: 1), murder is defined as ‘intentionally causing the death of another human being, whereas negliglent killing amounts to “culpable homicide.”

He goes further to state that: “In practice, little uncertainty remains as far as the exact legal details of these offences are concerned.”

In simple terms, both the NPA, lawyers and presiding officers in South African courts – be they magistrates or judges of different ranks – have a common understanding of the accepted meaning of these offences, and perhaps more precisely, the difference between them.

Now, how on earth have we, in the case of Humphreys and related, moved from negligent killing (culpable homicide) to intent to kill (murder) when the key contributor is unmistakably sheer recklessness, except to explain this in terms of palpable desperation and high emotion on the part of the NPA and government to be seen to acting decisively in punishing those that break road rules and regulations?

Is bending the law – at least that’s how it seems right now – to fit the emotion as well consequent desire a correct step to take?

Need it then be correct and acceptable by the rest of South African society solely on the basis of – as Minister Ndebele claims: (a) “Our society has degenerated to a level where some drivers continue to display a blatant disregard for human life’, (b) innocent people died due to recklessness?

Surely, we may as well bring back the death sentence!

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