Cele says aim not to criminalise South Africans, despite nearly 300 000 lockdown arrests

Minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS

The nearly 300 000 people arrested so far under the disaster management regulations would probably emerge with criminal records, Police Minister General Bheki Cele said yesterday – but there may be a clean slate ahead for everyone with convictions when the lockdown ended.

The Citizen reports, it was not the police’s aim to criminalise South Africans, Cele said yesterday while presenting the first quarter crime stats for 2019/2020.

“This is why the minister of justice and correctional services is looking at this issue (the mass criminalisation of South Africans),” Cele said.

Criminal defence attorney Ulrich Roux noted an infringement of the Disaster Management Act was regarded as a criminal offence and for a conviction and criminal record to be expunged, at least 10 years would have to have passed.

“The only way to decriminalise a South African is if an amendment is made either to the [disaster management] Act, or if the constitution is amended to say the infringements are no longer considered an offence and people can now apply for an expungement,” Roux said.

“But there will be difficulty in doing that – and to be honest I think Mr Cele made a comment before really thinking it through.”

Roux said there was mass confusion in the courts. “We have represented more than 40 people in court and have not had one person convicted, not one matter properly enrolled in court, and it is simply my opinion there is great confusion as to what is seen as a criminal offence in terms of this Act,” said Roux.

With the regulations being changed on a constant basis, it was Roux’s opinion there was a “massive” amount of confusion over what was an arrestable offence and what was an offence for which
people could be prosecuted.

“A big problem people are being faced with is they are being forced to sign an admission of guilt fine, which will leave you with a criminal record,” Roux cautioned.

Cele stated yesterday 298 252 people had been arrested and charged with contraventions of the Disaster Management Act, of which 181 579 had been released on warning to appear before a court and those arrested were found guilty of violations ranging from liquor, gathering, transport, business and cross border related offences.

Cele said the remaining 88 336 cases had yet to be finalised.

Speaking about the stats, Cele said they showed “a never-seen-before rosy picture of a peaceful South Africa experiencing a “crime holiday”.

“These official figures also show a reduction in crimes committed against women and children during Levels 4 and 5 of the lockdown,” Cele said.

He noted it was important to acknowledge that the unavailability of alcohol had also played a role, which saw a 37.4% decrease in contact crime.

“This means there were 53 891 less cases of murder, attempted murder, assault GBH, common robbery and common assault reported compared to the same reporting period,” Cele said.

“The drop in crime cases is also demonstrated by a 29.4% decline in contact-related crimes made up of arson and malicious damage to property.”

The police had also recorded a 39.7% drop in rape and sexual assault crimes, and a 40.4% decrease in the number of rape cases during the first quarter.

“Ladies and gentlemen, yes, indeed the first quarter of the 2020/2021 period was a much safer time to live in in this country,” Cele said.

Amanda Watson / The Citizen