24 August 2009 -The book of Proverbs says that the value of a woman of worth is far above rubies – and hijacking-accused Prince Molefe certainly believes that this is true of his girlfriend Karen Bosman, write Masibulele Yaso and Jeremy Gordin for the Sunday Independent.

Molefe, 29, has been sitting in a dank cell for nine years waiting to be tried for robbery with aggravating circumstances – and during this period Bosman has also been waiting and waiting, like a modern South African version of Ulysses’s wife Penelope.

Molefe has been an “awaiting-trial prisoner” since August 2000 and for the last four or five years it has been mainly Bosman who has supported him with whatever help she has been able to muster.

”It’s pretty clear now – it’s been nine years, after all – that the justice system and public defenders and so on and so forth are effectively going to leave Prince locked up almost forever,” said Bosman on Friday.

”So I have now organised as best as I could – I don’t have a lot of money – for a lawyer to make a High Court application for bail.”

There are approximately 164 000 prisoners in South African prisons, of whom about 50 000 are awaiting trial. Molefe is just one of the 50 000.

Molefe and four others were arrested in August 2000 and charged with robbery with aggravating circumstances.

They are being held in New Lock – a group of single and communal cells in the middle of Pretoria Central Prison complex, officially known as a “local remand detention centre”. 

New Lock is where thousands of awaiting-trial prisoners are held, sometimes for up to a decade. Designed to hold about 2 400 prisoners, there are close to 5 000 prisoners incarcerated there.

Molefe and those arrested with him – Michael Mokwena, Steve Phalane, Kabelo Mokone and Peter Mogapi – have been in and out of the same regional court in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court about 100 times and for nine years.

Their trial has been postponed many times because witnesses have been missing and for reasons such as one of the men pleading guilty and being sentenced and another escaping and being re-arrested.

 On June 11, Kallie Bosch, the regional magistrate, finally told prosecutor Abel Koalepe that if three missing state witnesses do not appear in September, he would close the state’s case forever. But neither Molefe nor Bosman is holding his or her breath. 

”We, Prince and I, have been friends since childhood, and, well, you have to hang in with your friends,” said Bosman, who was born in Joburg but grew up in the Pretoria area, as did Molefe.

”His mother and granny have been supportive too, of course. But people get weary after a while and this is why I suppose those family members who were supportive early on have maybe withdrawn into the shadows.”

Bosman points out that Molefe has been on trial since he was 20 years old – “and he doesn’t always cope so well. Often those guys are treated like dogs. And often he talks about death – or he just cries when I take him food. I asked the area commissioner that he be visited by a counsellor but nothing seemed to come of the visit,” she said.

Molefe is locked in a communal cell – which is “locked down” at about 3.30pm every day – with up to 60 prisoners, though the cell was designed to house only 20. The cell has one shower and two toilets.

Molefe has applied to study but has been told that, since he is not a convicted prisoner, he must pay for his own tuition. 

He is not allowed contact visits and there are no rehabilitation programmes in place for prisoners such as him.

“Sitting in prison is not like sitting in a house,” said Serge Christiano [read his story], who was held in New Lock for eight years. 

”It is seriously depressing, it destroys your brain,” said the Angolan refugee who was acquitted on all charges after eight years, and who is now working with the Julia Mashele Project, which is trying, without funding, to assist awaiting-trial prisoners.

”You are allowed no visits, lice are rife, there is one toilet for 56 men, many have HIV, other infections are rife, rape is common – and you have not even been convicted,” said Christiano.

Caught in 1999, Christiano was charged with robbery, rape, assault, malicious damage to property, and kidnapping. 

This followed an attack by a group of men on a house near Pretoria. 

None of the people in the house could identify Christiano, except one witness, a former girlfriend.

Christiano said that he had been framed and eventually acquitted because his fingerprints were not found at the scene of the crime and there were “discrepancies” in the evidence of his ex-girlfriend. 

”What happened to me and what’s still happening to Prince – this awaiting trial business – this is a travesty of justice,” said Christiano.

Additional reporting by Jacques Pauw. Yaso and Gordin are members of the Justice Project of Wits Journalism. The Justice Project investigates the plight of those unfairly/unjustly locked up in South Africa’s prisons. The project can be contacted by e-mailing justiceproject.journalism@wits.ac.za

This article was originally published on page 3 of The Sunday Independent on August 23, 2009