Is this the worst case of injustice since democracy?
Only then, with court dates settled and the matter about to proceed, did they cave in and admit that his arrest and detention were unlawful and that they were liable to pay damages of whatever amount a court found appropriate, as well as his legal costs. When the question of the actual damages was argued, the two parties couldn’t agree on the appropriate compensation he should be awarded and the issue had to be decided via a full-blown trial. Okonkwo was the only witness. The department, despite fiercely defending the matter, led no evidence whatsoever. Okonkwo told a sorry tale of how his life as fallen apart as a result of his unlawful detention. His wife and child are both lost to him. She left him and his child has gone, too, because he couldn’t take care of them while he was locked up. The arrest in his shop was made more humiliating as it was witnessed by his family, neighbours and others. His experience in the cells was not only humiliating, it was terrifying as well, with other prisoners attempting to rape him.
For 75 days he had no bed, he couldn’t eat the food provided, there was competition for the toilets. The whole place stank. Perhaps the most outrageous part of the whole story, however, is the two-part argument put up on behalf of the department to explain why Okonkwo should be paid far less in damages than he claimed: The court was ‘dealing with public funds’, said counsel for the department; moreover the court had to weigh up what was appropriate to award as damages considering Okonkwo’s ‘standing in society’. The implication of the second part of the argument was that he was a nobody, a mere Nigerian trader, and he should therefore be satisfied with less compensation than would be awarded to an important person. Such an argument speaks volumes about the department’s understanding of the Bill of Rights and the guarantee of equality in our Constitution. As for the first part of the argument, that public funds that would be used to pay damages to Okonkwo – there is a solution to the problem, namely that the responsible officials pay the damages out of their own pocket. In the end Judge Tshiki, who heard the case in the High Court, East London, called the way the department handled the litigation ‘reprehensible in the extreme’, awarded Okonkwo damages of R750 000 plus legal costs. There’s deep irony to the timing of judgment in this case. It was delivered 800 years, to the very month, after the signing of the Magna Carta, that charter which has so fundamentally shaped our views of human rights over the centuries, and which is one of the influences that led ultimately to such other documents as South Africa’s Constitution. Here, for example, is Chapter 39 of the Magna Carta: No man shall be taken or imprisoned, or dispossessed or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor will we go or send against him except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. For 800 years that has been a touchstone by which a government could be judged. In the case of Okonkwo, however, you see a man taken and imprisoned, dispossessed of his family not to mention his financial losses, completely without sanction by the law of the land.
It’s a damning indictment of the Department of Home Affairs, its officials and the broader government that continues to allow this department to behave as though the Constitution did not exist. Actually, since our money will pay for this atrocity, it’s also an indictment of the public.
Unless we speak up, urging that officials who flagrantly defy the law pay for their misdeeds out of their own pockets, and that legal action is taken against them where appropriate, we are unavoidably complicit in their crimes.