Some women have come forward with claims of being victimised by maintenance officers in the Knysna Magistrate Court (above) as well as in Plettenberg Bay, after complaining about a specific maintenance officer last year. Photo: Nwabisa Pondoyi
KNYSNA NEWS - When a top-level investigation was launched against a maintenance officer within the Knysna Magistrate’s Court after women and members of the legal fraternity complained about their dissatisfaction with the officer last year, it bode well for change.
Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be the case as these women have since been victimised for coming forward, they claim.
After a series of articles highlighting the issues at the maintenance office was published, there was a reshuffling of staff, but it has since been reported that the status quo remains the same.
Visiting advocate gave hope
Some of the complainants wanted their identities to remain anonymous because they felt it would compromise their applications, but it was after advocate Owen Kleinhans, a legal administrative officer from the regional office of the Department of Justice, arrived in town to investigate the allegations published in the Knysna-Plett Herald, that they were willing to meet him as per the advocate’s request.
A top-level investigation was subsequently launched and Kleinhans confirmed on August 2 , 2016 that the investigation was complete.
On September 1, 2016 Kleinhans arrived in town for a disciplinary process against the maintenance officer. It was chaired by Royden Boonzaaier, Oudtshoorn’s area court manager, with Kleinhans leading evidence against the said officer.
Kleinhans requested the presence of witnesses to strengthen his case, while the said officer was represented by his union.
"A plea was made and we entered into an agreement that no longer needed the witnesses to testify," said Kleinhans. "It takes 10 working days to conclude this process, seven days to submit evidence and three days for the chairperson to make a decision based on the evidence presented to them.”
Even though the women didn’t testify that day, their identities were now revealed in trust to Kleinhans.
Women victimised even more
On October 14, 2016 one of the women told the Knysna-Plett Herald that nobody from the maintenance office wants to be involved in her case since her meeting with Kleinhans.
“The court manager, Buyiswa Mayekiso, told me that she doesn’t want anything to do with the case because I am one of those women. She asked if the other maintenance officer wanted to assist me, but he said no and asked the maintenance officer I was complaining about and he also said no," said this woman.
She was then told that somebody from the George Maintenance Court would help her. "I don’t understand, was I supposed to not complain?” she asked in exasperation.
Still no solution for women
Mayekiso and Kleinhans were told about the above the incident on October 14, 2016 but none of them replied to the email.
A few days later another woman came forward and said, “When I went to ask the court manager about the status of my application she said: ‘You are one of the ladies, I’m afraid I can’t help you – because of you I no longer have an office’."
Another woman said, “Advocate Kleinhans gave us all his contact details, I called him a number of times and the last time I called him he was rude. When I told him he was rude, he replied by giving me the contact details of their head of department in Pretoria and said I must report him.”
She said when Kleinhans was in town for the investigation he promised that the said officer would apologise to the women, but that never materialised.
"I have met so many women who are unhappy with the maintenance office, but who unfortunately cannot fight for themselves. My struggles with this office have been going on for 14 years and I refuse to let them think it's acceptable to treat us like this. I for one will take this as far as it needs to go. If Kleinhans can't help us then I'll go to the minister of justice," she said.
No response from Kleinhans
When Kleinhans was contacted to enquire about the status of the investigation and about the women's claims of victimisation, on November 21, 2016 he said that he would be in town on November 24 and would meet with this reporter.
He did not show up, his phone went unanswered and he wasn't replying to text messages.
When he was finally reached on November 28, he apologised for missing the appointment and said that his trip had been cancelled, but promised, "I will call the court, find out what is happening then revert back to you on December 2, but please encourage them to file their complaints under gender equality."
Referred elsewhere again
On December 5, Kleinhans said he spoke to the court and they denied victimising the women. Kleinhans said, "I will refer you to my area court manager Mohammed Cerfontein based in George. He will need specific instances that prove that these women were further sidelined by coming forward with their grievances, and take action," adding, "I can't take care of the court in Knysna, so they need to trust him [Cerfontein in George] to take care of it on my behalf."
Cerfontein's response was, "I am aware of the series of articles published about the maintenance office. I, however, cannot do anything about it if you can't give me specifics – names and dates, because for all we know the people they are complaining about might not even be the in the maintenance office and I might also be accused of victimising my staff if I just rock up and start asking questions."
He then requested for time to investigate the matter.
Desperate for help
Jacqueline Rankin, a concerned resident, wrote to the paper and said the plight and future of divorced and single mothers and their children, are being utterly destroyed by the total lack, or nonexistent service from maintenance officials who are meant to protect them.
“The maintenance office in Knysna/Pletternberg Bay is a prime example of how the staff have learnt to delay and postpone cases for the sole purpose of concealing their inefficiencies and/or making cases drag out for as long as they can and for absolutely no reason, other than to further frustrate and dampen an already fragile situation for these struggling mothers,” Rankin said.
She asked, “How much longer, do those who are supposed to be protected, have to endure untold hardships because of staff members who are the wrong type of people in the wrong job?”
The letter, signed by Rankin, was forwarded to Kleinhans on March 29 with a list of questions about the status of the investigation.
The final verdict
On April 3, Rodney Isaacs, the Department of Justice's acting regional heard for the Western Cape, said, “We have addressed the concerns of the person mentioned in the article. We have also instituted misconduct proceedings against him as the allegations were of such a nature that sufficient supporting evidence existed to take formal disciplinary action.”
He said the outcome was a final written warning, issued to him on October 11, 2016. “In addition, the Knysna Magistrate’s Office will keep my office fully abreast of the continued status and outcome of the affected matters.”
In the meantime, Rankin and some of the women who came forward with their grievances are still complaining about the service of this office or lack thereof. "It is time we all stand together and demand what the Maintenance Act and the Constitution promised within printed pages of the Acts," said Rankin. "Mothers, let our voices be heard and tell the readers what is happening to the rights of our children."
Adding to this she asked anyone who might have the knowledge or power, to correct this matter. "Do the right thing, and do something about it," Rankin pleaded.