The Presidential Years

Chief casualties of the conflict between the correctional services minister and ANC MP Carl Niehaus are prisoners, prison staff and prison reform, reports Gaye Davis

AMID signs that South Africa’s jails are lurching further into crisis, President Nelson Mandela is yet again to intervene to bring together the Inkatha Freedom Party minister and the African National Congress MP who, between them, hold the key to an urgently needed overhaul of the prisons system.

The new rupture between Correctional Services Minister Dr Sipo Mzimela and ANC MP Carl Niehaus has effectively put on hold efforts to defuse—- through sweeping penal reform—- the time-bomb ticking away in the country’s overcrowded, run-down jails.

Relations hit rock-bottom after Mzimela unilaterally ended his department’s involvement in the transformation forum—- comprising his department, unions and other players—- that was created to advise him.

Niehaus, who chairs both Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Correctional Services and the forum, met Mandela this week after repeatedly being told Mzimela was “too busy” to meet him. Mandela, who was unable to meet Mzimela as planned on Tuesday as he was at his divorce hearing, stepped in early last year when Mzimela was refusing to meet the portfolio committee.

In a letter to Mzimela this week, Niehaus again appealed to him to meet a delegation from the forum. “We must stop our squabbles, roll up our sleeves and get the work done,” he said. “It is not a question of who gets the praise, it is a matter of urgently addressing the crisis in your department.”

Niehaus told the Mail & Guardian reasons for the rift lay in Mzimela’s “personal antipathy towards me” and in fears that the forum’s work meant he would no longer be seen to be taking the initiative in bringing about change.

Mzimela’s antagonism was evident when he described as “racist” and “anti-black child” the private member’s Bill Niehaus brought to overturn Mzimela’s earlier amendment of prisons legslation prohibiting children from being held in prison or police cells. Its promulgation last year saw droves of serious juvenile offenders escaping from ill-prepared places of safety and sparking a public outcry.

“My amendment would not have been necessary if the minister had phased the new provision in over time, as and when accommodation for such children became available,” Niehaus said.

Broader tensions between the IFP and ANC in the Government of National Unity could also be a factor. IFP leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi has complained about his home affairs portfolio being stripped of most of its functions, leaving him with little more to preside over than revamped passports and new identity cards. Buthelezi is especially bitter about Cabinet deciding to allow qualifying illegal immigrants permanent residence which, he says, will cost his department R80-million.

When he intervenes, Mandela will be doing so with one eye on the need to keep the IFP happy within the GNU and another on the possibility of the party returning to the Constitutional Assembly.

At stake, though, is the worsening situation in the country’s jails, reflected by jail riots and staff work-stoppages. South African prisons can accommodate 95 000 prisoners, yet the average daily prison population is more than 113 000. At the end of February, Pollsmoor prison, the Western Cape’s biggest, was more than 201% full. At current rates, it is estimated the prison population could hit 130 000 by year-end.

In a letter to Mzimela this week, Niehaus said overcrowding—- made worse by about 27 000 prisoners awaiting trial—- had bred speculation that thousands of prisoners would have to be released in a “bursting exercise”.

The department is short of 1 338 staff, and absenteeism, ascribed to low staff morale, is causing problems. When four right-wing awaiting trial prisoners escaped from Diepkloof prison recently, only seven of 17 warders had reported for duty. When Niehaus visited Barberton prison, he was told staff were absent the night five prisoners died in a gang fight.

Niehaus said absenteeism appeared to be happening regularly. Measuring its extent is difficult, however: when the Mail & Guardian tried this week, it was told statistics were not “freely available”.

It seems the department itself does not have a clear picture: spokesman Brigadier Chris Olckers said each of the country’s 227 prisons would have to be approached for details in a “costly and time-consuming” exercise. Absenteeism, where it was a problem, was dealt with as a “high priority” at command area level, he said.

l Mzimela refused a Mail & Guardian request for an interview. His spokesman, Major Bert Slabbert, said he first wanted to discuss the issue with Mandela and would then release a statement.

Gaye Davis