PRETORIA, South Africa — Before the murder trial of the double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius opened, a judge who ruled that most of it could be broadcast said his decision would counter the notion that South African justice treated the rich and famous “with kid gloves” while it was “harsh on the poor and vulnerable.”
Almost seven weeks after the hearings started, many lawyers here say it has proved just the opposite. What has become a season of high-profile cases has turned an unusually unforgiving spotlight on a justice system that likes to depict itself as among the most sophisticated in Africa, or even the world.
In Cape Town, after lengthy extradition proceedings, Shrien Dewani, a wealthy British businessman, faces accusations that he arranged to have his wife, Anni, killed on their honeymoon in 2010 — a case in which two South Africans have already been convicted. In Johannesburg, Radovan Krejcir, a fugitive from the Czech Republic, was again refused bail this week on charges — which he denies — implicating him in a dark underworld of drug dealing, police corruption and kidnapping.
But of all the courtroom dramas, the Pistorius case has highlighted the wide gap between celebrity justice and the treatment meted out to ordinary South Africans.
Until he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Feb. 14, 2013, Mr. Pistorius, a double amputee since infancy, was viewed primarily as an emblem of human grit in the face of disability for his achievements as a track superstar. The athlete, who says he shot Ms. Steenkamp by mistake, thinking she was an intruder, was quickly granted bail last year on terms that permitted overseas travel and other lenient conditions.
Usually, a senior judicial official said, bail is granted to defendants accused of premeditated murder, like Mr. Pistorius, only when “there are exceptional circumstances which show that it is in the interests of justice” to allow it.
“If you have got money, you are going to get a different kind of trial,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under department rules.
But the experience of David Mkhwanazi, seized by the police while running for a train as people were being rounded up in a murder investigation, is far more typical, according to the Wits Justice Project, an advocacy group at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“The lawyers were ill, had vehicle problems, or they simply didn’t show up. The prosecutor also caused postponements,” wrote Ruth Hopkins, who is part of the project. “Half a year ago, six years after his arrest, the judge assessed the evidence against Mkhwanazi and released him immediately,” but not before he contracted tuberculosis in an overcrowded prison in Johannesburg known to inmates as Sun City, the name of a glamorous resort.
Ms. Hopkins added, ordinary South Africans “battle a dysfunctional court system where bail is denied for no apparent reason, transcripts go missing, where lengthy delays put presumed innocent suspects behind bars for years, where overworked state-funded lawyers do not bother to question glaring inconsistencies, shoddy evidence and lying police officers.”
It is “clear,” the newspaper The Mail and Guardian said, “that, when it is very much in the public eye, our justice system operates differently from the occasions, the vast majority, when it does its business in media-free obscurity.”
Just last week, the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders said South Africa’s 241 correctional facilities housed around 162,000 inmates — 44,000 more than their official capacity of around 118,000. About 10,000 of them are prisoners awaiting trial who have been granted bail but cannot afford their often small sureties.
“Clients will tell you that there are eight to 10 people in a cell built for four,” said a trial lawyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of continuing cases. “If the television cameras moved from outside the Pistorius court to any magistrate’s court, they’d see a different picture altogether.”
“There are really incredible disparities, and access to justice is completely dependent on your pocket,” the lawyer said.
“South Africa is not the only jurisdiction with such unevenness,” he said, alluding to legal bills generated by high-priced lawyers in the United States and elsewhere, “but it’s worse here simply because there are so many poor people.”
In South Africa, nothing completely escapes the prism of apartheid, the brutal system of racist rule that ended just 20 years ago with the first democratic elections.
Many recall the era of white justice that was characterized by political trials and mass sentencings, sending many opponents of apartheid, not least Nelson Mandela, to prison as part of the broader effort to shield minority rule from dissent. Apartheid itself was buttressed by a body of law codified by the governing National Party and interpreted by judges empowered to enforce the since-abolished death sentence.
Some legal specialists argue that, in fact, the apartheid-era emphasis on political prosecutions as law enforcement officers confronted protesters in segregated townships distorted a criminal justice system that has not been rebuilt since the advent of democracy. In addition, many accuse the governing African National Congress of moving resolutely against some prosecutors and investigators targeting the new political elite, most notably a unit called the Scorpions that Parliament, dominated by the A.N.C., abolished in 2008.
Under the Constitution drawn up before the 1994 elections, South Africans were promised much broader rights. A legal aid system offers defendants representation, lawyers said. But since 1994, crime has spread and the gap between haves and have-nots has become one of the widest in the world. That gulf runs through the world of justice, too.
Each day, Mr. Pistorius arrives and departs at the North Gauteng High Court here under the glare of TV lights. He commutes to the wood-paneled Courtroom GD from a relative’s mansion in a late model S.U.V. for hearings that involve some of the land’s most prominent lawyers gathered under the unwavering gaze of Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa.
Judge Masipa, a Soweto-born former social worker and journalist, brings powerful credentials to the case. She became South Africa’s second black female judge in 1998 and has secured a reputation for toughness toward suspects in cases related to the country’s high levels of violence against women. In 2009 she convicted and sentenced a police inspector, Freddy Mashamba, for the murder of his wife. “No one is above the law,” she said. “You deserve to go to jail for life because you are not a protector, you are a killer.”
Last year, she sentenced a serial rapist and robber, Shepherd Moyo, to a series of consecutive prison sentences totaling 252 years. “The worst in my view is that he attacked and raped the victims in the sanctity of their own homes where they thought they were safe,” she said.
Neither is she fazed by the prosecutor in the Pistorius case, Gerrie Nel, who is known as one of South Africa’s most aggressive advocates. “I’m going to be rude,” Mr. Nel began a remark to a witness on Wednesday.
“Mr. Nel, please restrain yourself,” the judge said with an edge to her voice. On Thursday, she took issue with spectators at a public gallery next to her courtroom, where the trial is relayed in real time, scolding them for “jumping on benches, cheering and doing what they like.”
“It is not an entertainment place,” she said. “It is not a picnic nest.”
Under South Africa’s legal system, based on the Roman-Dutch law brought here by Dutch settlers in the 17th century, it is Judge Masipa — not a jury — who will decide whether Mr. Pistorius is guilty of murdering his girlfriend.
While his trial took more than a year to get started, opening only in early March, it is now set to conclude in mid-May. It was adjourned Thursday until May 5.
By contrast, Ms. Hopkins of the Wits Justice Project wrote, the relatively obscure Victor Nkomo, “the longest awaiting trial detainee in the country,” accused of participating in an armed robbery in 2005, has been denied bail for almost eight years of stuttering court delays. “The prosecutor has indicated the trial will most likely last another three years.”
By Alan Cowell, New York Times