Oscar Pistorius: South Africa police under spotlight

South African Detective Hilton Botha in court during the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing, 21 February Detective Hilton Botha was forced to admit mistakes in the investigation

It's been the quiet, rather overlooked subtext to the drama and detail emerging from Courtroom C over the past few days: the shambolic state of South Africa's police force.

Exhibit A is, of course, Detective Hilton Botha, newly dismissed from his role as lead investigator in the Reeva Steenkamp murder case.

It was almost painful to watch his testimony to the court - selective, speculative, and clearly loyal to the prosecution - being picked apart by a highly paid defence lawyer until the detective was forced to concede that all his bold assumptions about Oscar Pistorius's guilt were, on the current evidence, unsustainable.

But between those uncomfortable admissions lay another story, of an underpaid policeman arriving for an important job without the necessary equipment - shoe covers - to avoid contaminating the murder scene, and without enough "connections" - his word - or colleagues, to ensure that the most basic evidence could be processed in time for the bail hearing.


He had no records yet of Reeva Steenkamp's mobile phone calls, no information about the post-mortem, no forensic or ballistic information beyond a few informal conversations with experts at the scene.

Other evidence about alleged "testosterone" proved wrong and the defence said its own investigators had found a bullet cartridge clumsily overlooked by the police.

Given that this is perhaps the most high-profile murder investigation that South Africa has seen in years, it makes you wonder what happens in other, more ordinary, cases.

It also makes you begin to understand why, for instance, the conviction rate for alleged rapists is pitifully low, and why so many police dockets are reported to "disappear" from the files, allowing suspects to walk free.

The suspiciously timed announcement that attempted murder charges have been reinstated against Detective Botha lends itself to speculation, both about the politicised power struggles within the state prosecutors' office, and about a national police force scrambling to save face under the glare of the international media.

But to me it also speaks to South Africa's notorious wealth gap, and to a culture where lavishly paid senior officials - be they politicians, police bureaucrats or defence attorneys - appear to live in a very different world from the underfunded, underequipped foot soldiers struggling to get a grip on this country's enduring crime problem.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • Comment number 53.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 52.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Incredible that a policeman with pending attempted murder charges was investigating such a high profile case in the first place. Read some interesting analysis of the Oscar trial on http://goo.gl/HmaZN which I agree with - at the very least Pistorius is guilty of recklessness and stupidity... a case for stronger gun control laws if ever there was one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Lived in Soth Africa for 20 years, most just shrug their shoulders and say :"thats Africa", the violence, and murders make people who think they are under threat to "shoot first and ask questions later"

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    The report above is so true, my husband returned home from SA today with a copy of The Citizen newspaper. At least 3 reports in there of young girls being raped and murdered, farm murders under investigated. Crime rate in SA is phenomenal, the govt has to invest in law and order. Botha is as much a victim of the system as Reeva.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    I was only saying earlier today, if this case wasn't so high profile and being beamed around the world, would Botha still be in charge, makes you put things in perspective a bit and thank god you live where you live

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    A great bit of writing. To the point and just illustrates the huge issues facing many developing nations. We may rail about our systems in UK - but should never forget just how lucky we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    45. fridayspost
    This comment is awaiting moderation. Explain.
    You have been waiting a very long time.

  • Comment number 45.

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    Comment number 44.

    Ah I see because the police are under the spotlight, no pre moderation is needed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    One subject that a number of people I knew in SA mentioned in regard to incidents they were involved in (mainly off duty policemen) that struck me was a common thread of firing blind over walls, into gardens etc when burglars were believed present. Of course pre-emptive self defence can be a legal defence and there are a lot of home invasions-murders and rape-murders in SA compared to the UK

  • Comment number 42.

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    Comment number 41.

    interesting to hear the Magistrate comment that normally all that defendants supply is a flimsy affidavit saying ''I didn't do it' but in this case the Defendant has reached out to challenge the state's case. A big element of that is down to resources of course at OP's disposal, but one still wonders if that is really what a bail app is about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    having worked in law enforcement training in Africa, I think its fair to say across the continent standards of training, honesty and professionalism are an issue. I feel sorry for WO Botha who seems to have been dropped in it -the very fact that they replace a Warrant Officer (a rank just above a Sgt) with a Lieutenant General who was formerly in charge of the whole Detective Branch tells a story

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    What a charade. The prosecutions evidence, so far, is speculative, inept and incompetent. What concerns me; is that the victim was removed from the crime scene and the defendants legal advisor was at the scene prior to the police arriving. How convenient for the defendant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Sorry just wanted to add.

    Many criminal cases have had repeat murderers in SA walk out of court with R500 bail (about 40 GBP). SA is farcical in this regard. I personally know of a guy who had already been convicted of attempted murder stabbing a another person to death and walking off trial with R500 bail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Horatio Caine would have sorted this out in a few hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Undoubtedly the state of the police in SA is very bad. About 18000 Murders occur in SA every year. 8% are brought to trial. Foreign journalists should be sure to point out to their overseas viewers and readership that the country is pretty bizarre. Very much the wild west. Many government officials have criminal convictions - so do many of the police.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    @31 stuart

    OP didn't say an intruder did it, he said that he THOUGHT there was an intruder, mistaking his girlfriend in the bathroom for someone who'd broken in.

    I just find the wayt the SAPS is acting suspicious and think the political attitude is: "OP has to be found guilty, whatever the truth, or we look bad". They don't care about destroying someone who's given RSA a good name to do this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    The rich hire the best defence attorneys, generally walk with a slap on the wrist sort of fine; the poor are convicted & sent to rot in jail.
    suppose it depends on which rich - there are a lot of pretty rich drug dealers in prison for very long periods of time. In terms of fraud and tax evasion etc - well both of those are pretty difficult to prosecute in jury trials


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