30 August 2016

He slipped in his cell: Death in detention in 2015

Not every request for information has national importance and yet, while of great personal significance, one person’s search for information speaks of  the state of access to information more generally – something of great national significance. SAHA was recently reminded, when we submitted a request for records related to the death of an offender in prison, of how a request for specific records containing information related to one individual can matter a great deal to the person on whose behalf it is submitted.                     

We became aware of Mabuti Shabalala and his attempt to uncover the truth behind his grandson’s death through an article published by the Wits Justice Project. Mr Shabalala had spent months and a lot of money travelling from Tembisa to the Sandton SAPS every week trying to get a hold of records that would tell him more about the death of his grandson, Mmeli Shabalala, at the Leeuwkop Prison in August 2015. As of February 2016, Mr Shabala had not received any official explanation, except for a statement that his grandson “slipped and fell” while he was in his cell.

Mr Shabalala was not satisfied with the explanation offered by the Department of Correctional Services and was trying to gain access to more information about what really happened to his grandson, which is why we reached out to him to ask if he would like to submit a Promotion of Access to Information (PAIA) request for  records related to his grandson’s death. After attending our offices, Mr Shabalala enlisted SAHA’s help and we duly submitted a request to the Department of Correctional Services on his behalf, for all of the records held by them, in connection with the passing of his late grandson.

We submitted the request to the Department of Corrections on the 07th March 2016, but, PAIA requiring the provision of a decision within 30 days of the submission of a request, we only received the decision on the 30th May 2016 indicating that we could now make payment for copies of the record to be provided to us. On the 23rd of June 2016 after many emails, telephone calls, an internal appeal against the department's failure to provide a timeous decision, and an agonising 10 months after his grandsons death we finally received the records requested on behalf of Mr Shabalala.

We have subsequently provided Mr Shabalala with the records we received and, hopefully, armed with this information, he and his family can begin the process of uncovering the truth and finding some peace after this long and emotionally draining process. Whilst this instance of using PAIA may have brought results, one wonders just how many people have similar questions which remain unanswered as a result of the failure to provide information of this nature proactively, that is, without the need for a formal PAIA request, to grieving families. Even with the full force of the law and a dedicated team behind him, it still took nearly a year for Mr Shabalala to receive a single official document explaining why his grandson died. While great strides have been made there is still much to bemoan about the state of access to information in our country and no example is more illustrative of this than a man’s struggle to get official documentation explaining his grandson’s death, instead of simply being told, as so many people were in our history, that he “slipped and fell” in prison. It is, quite simply, not good enough.