But as a full bench of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) highlighted in a judgment last week, sometimes those who act in the law’s name make complete baboons of themselves.
That is made clear in a delightfully sardonic judgment written by Judge Malcolm Wallis. It concludes an expensive and protracted battle around a baboon called Warren – and one couple’s stubborn determination not to be bullied.
Wallis puts it succinctly: “This is a case about a baboon. By all accounts, until it apparently met an untimely end, the baboon behaved impeccably.”
He excoriates Gauteng Directorate Nature Conservation (GDNC) officials and the South African Police Service for a “classic instance of bureaucratic overreach” and their, at times, unlawful actions. Wallis writes: “The saga has involved a trial in the district court over four days, an appeal to the full court of the North Gauteng High Court, a petition to this court and then this appeal.
The expenditure of time and effort and the costs to the public purse and the appellants, Dr Colin and Mrs Theony MacRae, have been considerable.
“Those include emotional costs, because for seven-and-a-half years the trial and their convictions for defeating or obstructing the administration of justice and theft of the baboon have hung over their heads. The irony of the situation is that … after the baboon was handed to these officials … it was placed in a shelter, where it appears to have burned to death in a fire.” The MacRaes run a horseback safari operation outside Cullinan. In 2006 GDNC officials confiscated an adult male baboon from a cage on a local farm. Since none of the zoos they approached was willing to accept the semi-domesticated, castrated and defanged animal, GDNC asked the MacRaes, who hold a zoo licence, to take him. Unfortunately, as is the wont of officialdom, GDNC did a flip-flop. It was all a mistake, they decided, and the donation of the baboon was a contravention of some obscure and unspecified Treasury regulation.
GDNC wanted Warren back – and when the MacRaes refused, they decided to seize him. To the bemusement of the overseas tourists staying at the farm, half-a-dozen official vehicles, including two from the Flying Squad, screeched into the forecourt and disgorged gun-toting officials, determined to retrieve Warren.
During the ensuing altercation the MacRaes were arrested and jailed. The SCA makes clear in its judgment that the MacRaes never got a fair trial in the Magistrate’s Court – a fact later conceded by the advocate appearing for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
It now remains to be seen whether the GDNC officers who manhandled the MacRaes will be disciplined, or whether the prosecuting authority and the GDNC will apologise to the MacRaes.
Dr MacRae doesn’t seem to give a damn, one way or the other. There is only one thing that exercises him: the faint hope that Warren is still alive. “The shelter in the far north burnt down, but I’ve heard that Warren might have survived. No one can or will tell me for sure.”
The GDNC official this columnist spoke to couldn’t say: “It’s all a long time ago and in any case we are not allowed to speak to the press…”