College of Law

College of Law unpacks high-profile inmates in South Africa in riveting webinar

The College of Law's Department of Corrections Management recently held a webinar titled "High-profile inmates in South Africa". The webinar explored the definition and significance of high-profile inmates, their impact on organisations and the role of influential figures in shaping prison conditions. It investigated corruption within the correctional environment, analysed various categories of high-profile inmates and examined the complexities of high-profile criminal cases.

High-profile inmates defined

Opening the webinar, Prof Phumudzo Muthaphuli, the Corrections Management Chair of Department (COD), unravelled the definition of high-profile inmates in South Africa. "Although many references to the term high-profile inmate exist, it is evident that there is no generally accepted definition," he said.

"What can be accepted is that a reference is made to someone or something with a high profile that is well-regarded and attracts much more interest than other inmates," he continued. He further said irrespective of a definitional clutter, the incarceration of high-profile inmates raised significant concerns amongst international organisations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International and the United Nations.

Muthaphuli also emphasised the need to differentiate between a high-risk and a high-profile inmate, acknowledging that sometimes a high-risk inmate can be a high-profile individual. He explained that high-risk inmates are those who may have a higher-than-usual likelihood of escaping and, if they escape, may cause harm to the public or others. In contrast, high-profile inmates are those whose crimes have made major news and who everyone has seen. This can be due to their crime or social status in the community.

Speaker contributions

Presenters at the webinar included Prof Dirk van Zyl Smit (University of Cape Town), Julian Knight (Knight and Associates), Tania Koen (Tania Koen Attorneys & Conveyancers), Prof Anni Hesselink (University of Limpopo) and Prof Lincoln Fitz (Unisa).


From left: Prof Dirk van Zyl Smit, Julian Knight and Tania Koen

Fitz raised a significant issue regarding victims' rights within the parole system, highlighting discrepancies between the rights granted to victims and their practical implementation.

Koen's presentation further explored this gap, emphasising its potential impact on procedural justice. This disparity between the parole framework's intended support and its actual effect on victim rights raises critical questions about the fairness and efficacy of the parole process.


Prof Lincoln Fitz

Knight underscored the importance of considering inmates' identities during parole evaluations. This perspective stresses the need for a nuanced understanding of each offender's background, circumstances and potential for rehabilitation. However, concerns have been raised regarding the independence of the judiciary, particularly in high-profile cases, which may compromise the integrity of parole decisions.

Hesselink advocated for a holistic approach to offenders, arguing that parole decisions should account for their humanity, including mental health, social factors and personal growth potential. This approach aims to ensure fairness and recognise all individuals' worth and potential for rehabilitation.

Van Zyl Smit focused on the case of Janusz Walus, released on parole after serving 29 years for the assassination of Chris Hani, underscoring significant challenges within South Africa's parole system. Walus's release, ordered by the Constitutional Court, sparked widespread public opposition, particularly from Hani's widow and political parties, sparking broader debates on the parole process for life-sentenced prisoners.

Historically, the release of life-sentenced prisoners was at the discretion of the executive until the transition to democratic rule in 1990. Challenges arose with the abolishment of the death penalty and the rapid increase in life-sentenced prisoners post-1994. Despite legal reforms and attempts at prison law reform, challenges persisted, leading to protests and riots by prisoners. Courts interpreted transitional provisions to prioritise prisoners' liberty interests, but structural shortcomings remained, affecting the legitimacy of the parole system.

Systematic deficiencies in the parole system


Prof Anni Hesselink

The controversy surrounding court decisions on the release of life-sentenced prisoners, particularly exemplified by the Walus judgment in South Africa, stems from a combination of political emotions, structural deficiencies in the legal system and failures in the administration of justice.

  • Political emotions: The release of prisoners, especially those involved in high-profile cases like the assassination of Chris Hani, evokes strong feelings among the public. The decision to release such individuals can lead to attacks on the institutions responsible for the decision, fuelled by punitive sentiments and a lack of closure for victims' families.
  • Structural deficiencies: The current system places the release decisions in the hands of the minister of justice, thus creating a potential clash between branches of government and raising questions of legitimacy. Had the original legislation been implemented, with judges making release decisions based on precedent, the process might have been smoother and less controversial.
  • Failure of ideas: The introduction of mandatory life sentences without considering the variability of offences and appropriate minimum release periods reflects a failure in designing a fair and effective release system. There's a need to re-evaluate whether release decisions should be based on individualised sentencing or fixed legislative periods, balancing the seriousness of the offence with the prisoner's rehabilitation and risk to society.
  • Administration failures: Administrative shortcomings, such as delays in providing accurate information, further complicate release decisions and undermine the legal system's legitimacy. A fair release system requires impartial decision-makers and adequate resources to support them.

Final analysis

South Africa's parole system faces significant challenges concerning victims' rights. Discrepancies between granted rights and their implementation, alongside concerns about judicial independence, underscore the need for reform. The recent controversial parole release of Janusz Walus highlights broader debates on parole processes for life-sentenced prisoners. Structural deficiencies, emotional reactions to high-profile cases and administrative failures further complicate the system. Urgent political, structural and administrative reforms are needed to ensure fairness and legitimacy in South Africa's parole system.

* By Ngwako Mokgotho, Communications and Marketing Specialist, CLAW and Willie Clack, Senior Lecturer, Corrections Management, Unisa

Publish date: 2024/03/14

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