Despite the release of the latest, very depressing, crime stats (that once again showed an increase in GBVF and violent crimes), there has also been some positive news related to the pursuit of justice and the conviction of criminals in South Africa.
According to reports, the DNA backlog hampering investigations and leading to cases being struck off court rolls has decreased. In addition to this, on 3 March 2023, the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 2022 (also known as the DNA Act) became operational. Both are essential to achieve justice for survivors of sexual violence and their families.
Decrease in the DNA backlog
According to Police Minister Bheki Cele, the DNA backlog has been reduced from 241 000 to 1600, which is a 99.3% reduction. Phelisa Nkomo, CEO of the Commission for Gender Equality, explained that this reduction in the backlog is the result of a concerted effort by the Government, an increase in funding for DNA profiling, and assistance provided by private laboratories.
It is important to note that the 1600 samples mentioned above are from the initial backlog and do not represent the new samples received. This means, on top of those 1600 samples, around 18 000 new samples are received each month, which still need to be profiled.
This means there is currently an actual backlog of approximately 60 000 samples. However, Dr Vanessa Lynch, regional leader of DNA For Africa, states that some backlog is usual and that she is doubtful that there will be such an outrageous backlog again.
The importance of DNA
The reduction in the DNA backlog is crucial as this helps to provide evidence that can be used to prosecute and convict offenders.
DNA is present in every human body cell (except red blood cells), and it is usually collected through cheek swabs. DNA is collected from people who have been arrested and those already convicted of an offence. At crime scenes, various types of bodily materials can be collected that will contain DNA. These include semen, saliva, blood, skin cells, and hair.
For sexual offences, DNA can be a vital form of evidence. It is one of the reasons that rape survivors are encouraged to have a forensic medical examination performed as soon as possible after the assault. During this examination, DNA is collected from the body and clothes of the survivor. The evidence is preserved in a rape kit, which will be given to the police if the survivor chooses to report the rape to the police.
RAINN states that “preserving DNA evidence is a key tool for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence.” However, the survivor can choose whether to undergo this examination. They can also decline any or all parts of the examination at any point.
While DNA does not always, or necessarily, prove that someone committed a crime, it is one of the most effective forms of evidence to prove that an offender was at the scene of a crime. Once proven that a person was at the crime scene, prosecutors can build a much stronger case against suspected offenders. As such, DNA is a powerful tool that can bring people to trial and hopefully have them convicted.
The DNA ACT
The long-awaited DNA Act came into operation on 3 March 2023. This law allows DNA samples of those arrested or convicted of, Schedule 8 offences to be collected and added to the National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD).
Schedule 8 offences include murder, rape, serious assault, theft, kidnapping, public violence, and other serious crimes.
Once the DNA of an offender/arrestee has been analysed, and a DNA profile has been developed, it will be stored on South Africa’s National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD). All individuals arrested on suspicion of committing a Schedule 8 offence and those already convicted will, thus, have their DNA profiles stored on the database. DNA found at crime scenes will also be stored in the database, even if it is unknown to whom that DNA belongs.
How will the DNA ACT help in the fight against violence?
The DNA Act is essential because DNA found at a crime scene or collected during an examination will be added to the database to determine if it matches anyone whose DNA is already in the database. That would be someone who is already a convicted offender or has been arrested. It will help identify serial or repeat offenders or link individuals to unsolved crimes. In other words, if unknown DNA is stored in the database and at a later stage, an arrestee or offender’s DNA is added that matches that DNA, a previously unsolved case, could be solved.
Analysing and profiling DNA and storing it in the NFDD can be a powerful tool for solving crimes, identifying offenders, and securing justice for survivors and/or victims’ families. Identifying repeat or serial offenders also helps the National Prosecuting Authority ensure longer sentences for such offenders.
Concerns about the DNA ACT
Of course, we must remember that the DNA Act is part of an inefficient and corrupt criminal justice system. So, while it is promising news that this Act is now operational, only time will tell how effective it will be in assisting with the prosecution of offenders and in helping to decrease violence against women.
For it to be effective, there needs to be a much greater emphasis on good police work, including collecting DNA from crime scenes, forensic examinations, and from offenders. There also needs to be a timely analysis of the DNA profiles to store them in the database. None of that can happen if the police do not investigate cases adequately or apprehend perpetrators in the first place. It has also taken over six years for the DNA Act to become operational since it expired, thus showing how slowly the processes and procedures to address violence are developed and/or implemented.
Therefore, while the decrease in the DNA backlog and the DNA Act are welcome steps in addressing violence, they need to form part of a more all-inclusive approach to improving the criminal justice system. However, when we generally have nothing to celebrate concerning the fight against GBVF, we should celebrate these small achievements.
You can read more here for a more detailed explanation of DNA, the collection of DNA, the NFDD and the DNA Act.