A gospel music tune blares from a cellphone, interrupting sentencing arguments for a Mozambican man caught trying to poach rhino in the Kruger National Park. “Advocate Sibiya!” Magistrate W Baloyi growls from her bench. She leans forward, scowling. The rotund lawyer fumbles in his suit jacket to switch his cellphone off. There are beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Apology your worship,” Sipho Sibiya mumbles.
It’s Wednesday morning in the Skukuza Periodical Court. Sibiya is late. He came in during the last case of the morning, sweating and breathing heavily, and sat down in the front row of the public gallery. In his lap he held a red diary with his name, cellphone number, and the words “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse” embossed on the front.
About two hours earlier, prosecutor Ansie Venter was unable to proceed with a case against two men because their lawyers, including Sibiya, were not there.
“The State has received an SMS from an unknown number just saying ‘I cannot make it to court’. I don’t know whether it’s coming from advocate Sibiya,” she told Baloyi.
Another lawyer, a Mr Sithole, had called Venter earlier to say he would be late. But Sibiya and a Mr Ngomane were not in court.
Baloyi stood the matter down.
Absent lawyers are but one of the frustrations of Venter’s job. Then there are the missing or incomplete charge sheets. The first accused of the day to have his case called was Carlos Mathebula. Venter had to ask for it to stand down because his charge sheet had not arrived.
It arrives later that morning, but there’s another problem.
“Now they have only faxed through half of the charge sheet. Jissie tog!” she exclaims after getting it during an adjournment, her face wrinkled in frustration.
The court sits every Wednesday in a bare-brick room next to the Skukuza police station, which is outside the rest camp. There is no wood panelling or the hard wooden benches one finds in courts in metropolitan areas. Two green chequered squares of fabric have been hung over the windows to filter out the harsh light. Three rows of chairs make up the public gallery.
The only concession to security are the three narrow windows with bulletproof glass and bars that face the adjoining room, from where the accused that are kept in custody enter. There are no metal detectors, there is no police officer guarding the door.
The dock is a wooden frame open on one side with a microphone attached to it. Next to it is a tatty, faded office chair.
In front of the magistrate’s bench, the prosecutor, one or two defence lawyers, the stenographer, and a police officer share a table.
At Venter’s prompting, the police officer gets up, goes into the next room and shouts the accused’s name. It echoes through the passages. There is the clanking of keys and slamming of steel doors. The ones in custody wait in a long brick passage with a gate at one end and a grille for a roof high overhead.
The accused are mainly young, in their late teens and early 20s, and all men. They enter silently. When they speak the translator has to lean in to hear them. They smell of sweat and dirt and look nervous, lost, and hungry. When there is more than one, they squat against the wall behind the dock or sit in the front row of the public gallery.
Vusi Ngono wears grey trousers, sandals and socks. He’s the most eye-catching poacher of the day in his red jacket with reflector strips and the logo of construction firm WBHO on it. It looks brand new.
Some of the accused wear brand name clothing such as Nike and Adidas tracksuit pants, takkies, or sandals. Those with shoes have had the laces removed.
Most of them are poor and uneducated, recruited by extremely organised bosses, Venter says.
On a busy day there can be between 24 and 27 cases, with between one and four people in each case, meaning about 50 or 60 accused.
“Ninety-nine percent of those are rhino-related. Some days 100 percent,” Venter says.
And on this particular Wednesday, it’s no different. Venter is pleased that no fresh rhino carcasses have been found over the past few days. And it’s a quiet day.
All the accused face what Venter calls the “standard charge sheet”: illegal possession of a firearm, illegal possession of ammunition, trespassing, and possession of a firearm with the intention to commit a crime. The latter carries a maximum jail sentence of 25 years.
The prescribed sentence for the poaching of one rhino is 10 years. Fifteen years for illegal possession of a firearm. Five years for trespassing.
Before 13:00 that day the court hears 11 cases. The cases against Carlos Mathebula, case number SK34 of 2015, and Sergio Ngobeni all have to be postponed as they’re still in hospital after being shot by rangers.
Ngono has his case withdrawn as his co-accused no longer want to testify against him. He walks out of court a free man.
The only case on the court roll that morning not directly related to poaching is Frank Muyeni’s. He is accused of stealing two-way radios, binoculars, night-vision equipment, and camouflage netting from his former employer, the Sabi Sands game reserve. He is out in bail of R1 500 and has to wait until after lunch for his case to be called.
The other six are all postponed, mainly because they still need to find lawyers or because the lawyers did not show up in court.
Lawrence Ndlovu, Isaac Ndlovu, and Amerigo Selimao are all Mozambicans illegally in South Africa. Their Legal Aid lawyer is Petunia Ngobeni. She intends to apply for bail.
“The State will place on record again that bail is opposed. The State is not going to grant them bail. They are all illegal in South Africa,” Venter says, shaking her head and smiling, like she knows she will get her way.
The matter is then postponed.