Retha Meintjes, the senior prosecutor who brought down some of the country’s worst women and child abusers and killers, has never backed down from a fight, and has no plans of going quietly into the night after her retirement – although she would appreciate more sleep.
In a time when women were expected to stay home, or at best become teachers or nurses, Meintjes was one of only two women in her final LLB year at the University of Pretoria.
Undaunted by being relegated to the role of typist or librarian while the male students were allowed to prosecute, and later seeing all the big and challenging cases go to her male colleagues, Meintjes simply gathered her female colleagues and complained to the director of public prosecutions, laying the basis for the equal treatment of female prosecutors.
Meintjes said that first fight and receiving more challenging work eventually culminated in her appointment as one of SA’s first female deputy directors of public prosecutions.
“Early on in my career I learnt to fight. My battle was to get interesting, challenging cases. But as a mother of three children, I think my biggest challenge was time. I always took work home – even when we were on holidays. Every little opportunity when the children were sleeping in the car, I would be reading.
“For a successful prosecution you must be absolutely, thoroughly prepared, and must anticipate what legal challenges there might be. If I was involved in a case it would be weekend work, and it would often be not sleeping at all … I’m going to sleep when I retire,” she said.
In her career spanning 47 years, Meintjes took on all types of cases, but eventually specialised in cases involving women and children and arguing in several groundbreaking cases involving the rights of child witnesses.
She also helped to set up the SA Professional Society on the Abuse of Children to bring together all professionals who deal with abused children. They now have annual conferences, aimed at training at a multi-disciplinary level involving the police, education, social work, psychology and psychiatry, medical professionals, criminologists and the media.
Her role in securing a 2 100-year prison sentence for one of the country’s worst serial killers and rapists, Moses Sithole, and a life sentence for “Modimolle monster” Johan Kotzé for the rape, kidnapping and assault of his former wife Ina Bonnette and murder of her son Conrad, earned her the title of “Monster Slayer”.
Asked what the most satisfying aspect of her career was, Meintjes said: “Hopefully making prosecutors think a little bit differently about sexual abuse and the victims thereof, because if you start with believing what the child says, if you start with believing what the victim says, you’re halfway there.”
Asked about the less satisfying aspects, she said: “I have not yet succeeded in having the state’s limited right of appeal extended. We are only able to appeal on a legal question, and cannot appeal wrong factual findings, which is ridiculous because the SA Law Reform Commission recommended that we should have a right of appeal similar to that of the accused.
“I had a matter which was prosecuted in the regional court, where a father who raped his daughter was acquitted – and it made me totally furious. The magistrate, in my view, made some serious factually wrong findings, and I just decided we will appeal this.
“I drafted all the papers and argued that it’s unconstitutional for the prosecution not to have such a right. The Department of Justice had to be involved because it’s a constitutional issue, and they said they’re looking at legislation in this regard – but then the accused died, so the matter never went further, and the department never actually looked at it at all,” she said.
Another bee in her bonnet is the competency requirement for child witnesses, which “should be done away with”.
The law requires an inquiry into the child’s ability to distinguish between telling the truth and a lie, but in practice this often excludes children from testifying, because magistrates are not trained in asking children in a manner they will understand.
One of the strangest anomalies in SA law Meintjes would still like to see changed, is the way it deals with an accused who has a hearing disability but has not received training in sign language, and cannot communicate with an interpreter. “When an accused cannot communicate, we cannot prosecute. So, we’ve got an accused who raped a child but is running around somewhere,” she said.
Although Meintjes would like to make more time for art classes, reading, and working in her garden, she would remain involved with the SA Law Reform Commission’s project to investigate children and pornography.
“Why are people able to access child pornography, why can it not be totally blocked? Our children are in effect unprotected when it gets to material that can harm them,” she said.
Fighter for better pay
As a former president of the SA Society of State Advocates, Meintjes, who also gained international recognition as a founding member of the International Society of State Advocates, had in the past fought and won a hard battle to have the salaries of prosecutors improved.
She is still at the forefront of a new battle to get the salaries and benefits of deputy directors of public prosecutions and chief prosecutors on par with their more junior peers.
The problem arose when prosecutors were “translated” into a new salary dispensation for professionals within the civil service, but deputy directors and chief prosecutors were left out in the cold.
When the new National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams reversed an undertaking by his predecessor Mxolisi Nxasana to improve their salaries, the Public Servants Association, along with Meintjes and 57 of her colleagues, launched legal challenges in the Labour Court and the High Court which are both still pending.