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Tragedy in South Africa

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 2:22pm
Chris Asplen

When I first started working internationally, about 10 years ago, my presentations would often start with a rhetorical question that went something like this: “What is the most important factor influencing the success of forensic DNA databasing? Is it the quality of the laboratory performing the analysis? Is it the training and education of the police ensuring that they collect valuable evidence? Or perhaps the skill with which prosecutors can leverage the probative value of DNA to support their victims’ testimony?” But of course it was a loaded question, because I had my own answer. “It’s actually none of these…” I would say. “The most important factor influencing the potential effect of DNA in any criminal justice system is what the law allows you to do with it.”

Now I am a little biased here. I am a lawyer after all. But I have a pretty good argument. You can have the best, most advanced laboratory system in the world, the most rigorous quality assurance procedures, and send specialized crime scene analysts to every crime scene; but, those factors mean little if the law does not allow you leverage the full potential of the technology and the evidence.

Nowhere is that dynamic more tragically clear than in South Africa.

I first traveled to South Africa 10 years ago. I left the Department of Justice less than a year earlier and had been invited to participate in a meeting of Interpol’s DNA Expert Monitoring Group in Pretoria. It was my first trip to the continent, so to say that I was excited is an understatement. I did not, in all honesty though, harbor great expectations regarding what I would see from the standpoint of South Africa’s use of DNA technology. But when I saw what the South African Police Service (SAPS) was doing, I was nothing short of astounded. The SAPS had an automated system for DNA analysis that was unique in the world. As Johann van Newkierk toured us through the laboratory I realized that it was, at that time, the most advanced forensic DNA testing robotics system I had ever seen. I was so impressed that I literally walked out of the lab, got on my phone, and called my former colleagues at DOJ trying to convince them to bring Johann and his colleagues to the U.S. so that they could explain what they were doing. South Africa was going to be a model, not only for Africa, but perhaps for the world. They had crime statistics that proved South Africa to be one of the most sexually violent places on the planet and they had the capacity and technical sophistication to hit back hard. South Africa was going to prove the power of DNA like nowhere else.

Boy was I wrong.

I have just returned from another trip to South Africa, a trip I have made many times since my first visit. And to be clear, it is not the police that have failed, nor is it the technology, nor is it the laboratory personnel. Rather, ten years after South Africa created one of the most important laboratory infrastructures in the world, the politicians in the South African Parliament have still failed to give police the legal authority to save literally thousands upon thousands of lives with DNA. Ten years later and South Africa, in contrast with more than 50 countries around the world, still has no legislation allowing for the establishment of a forensic DNA database.

South Africa is a strikingly beautiful country from its coast line at the Cape of Good Hope to Krugar National Park to the wine regions of Stellenbosch. It is also the economic anchor for sub-Saharan Africa. It has a technology portfolio that includes a nuclear weapons program (and the wisdom to subsequently dismantle it), a 2002 Noble Prize for work in microbiology, and the first human to human heart transplant was performed in South Africa. And most importantly, it is a country which engineered one of the most significant triumphs of human spirit and potential— the non-violent elimination of apartheid.

But South Africa is also a country that, according to the United Nations, ranks second for murder and first for assaults and rapes per capita. 52 people are murdered every day there and the number of rapes reported in a year is around 55,000. It is estimated that 500,000 rapes are committed annually in South Africa. In a 2009 survey, one in four South African men admitted to raping someone. Even more insidious, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world. It is a country where the belief exists that intercourse will cure or prevent HIV/AIDS and where child rape is used as a method of retaliation against someone else for a perceived wrong. Children are murdered and body parts used for “traditional” medicinal remedies. And in a country also cursed with epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS, rape takes on an exponentially tragic dimension.

The world holds no shortage of human tragedies. But most of those tragedies persist because there are no clear, identifiable solutions. Feeding entire starving countries from overworked, infertile land or generating clean, lifesaving water from dry, parched earth are heavy lifts.Wars and the conflicts that lead to catastrophic loss of human life have been with us since the beginning of time. But when it comes to fighting back against serial rapists and pedophiles? I have examples from every corner of the planet of exactly what works and just how well. There is nothing better at getting rapists off the street, at protecting little girls and, by the way, at protecting those who would be wrongly accused and convicted of those serious crimes than DNA databases.

And what exacerbates the tragedy tenfold is the fact that, unlike many countries with the wisdom to implement DNA databases fully, South Africa already has all the other components necessary to leverage the power of DNA technology—the laboratory system, the finances, the education, and the commitment by police. There are no other excuses, nowhere else to place responsibility.

As someone who works regularly in other peoples’ countries, I don’t “call out” or criticize foreign officials easily or often. But on a scale unequaled anywhere else on earth, hundreds of thousands of children’s lives are sacrificed because of the failure to act by politicians in South Africa. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee responsible for the legislation that would give police the ability to immediately begin taking rapists off the street has avoided acting on the law for years. The legislation sits in Committee while the worst sexual violence statistics in the world continue to pile up. Except they are not really statistics: They are terrified women and little girls staring into the face of horrific violence and evil while they are likely infected with HIV—three more of them just in the time it took you to read this article.

Chris Asplen consults with local, state, and foreign governments and law enforcement agencies on the use of forensic DNA technology. Chris is also the Executive Director of DNA 4 Africa and a member of the Crime Victim Bar Association. He may be reached at casplen@gth-gov.com.

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