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HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Motorcycles and the wheels of justice

OPINION

Jan Elsenaar builds organs. The man from Brandfort has spent the past couple of years building them for a variety of Lutheran and Anglican churches.

Last week, Elsenaar received his own headline on Afrikaans news website Netwerk24: “Elsenaar bou ‘grootse orrel’ in SA”- (Elsenaar builds ‘biggest organ’ in SA). The news report goes on to mention Elsenaar’s lengthy list of accolades, it tells the reader about his studies at the University of Pretoria and the Free State. It also mentions his many appearances in the world of organ music. The piece is a living, breathing timeline of Elsenaar’s achievements, but it fails to mention one thing: the organ maker from Brandfort is responsible for the death of Grant Barker, a motorcyclist in Pretoria.

In July 2016 Elsenaar made a U-turn in his Mercedes-Benz SUV at the Brooklyn Circle in Pretoria. Elsenaar’s U-turn was illegal and in his reckless haste, he ended up crashing into motorcyclist Barker.

The case took three years and over ten postponements to reach an outcome. Then, finally, in April of this year, Elsenaar was found guilty of culpable homicide in the Hatfield Community Court. He was handed a five-year suspended sentence for making the illegal U-turn.

His license was not revoked, he did not have to pay a fine and the suspension of the sentence implies that Elsenaar will serve no jail time: his criminal record exists, but with no real consequence.

Legal experts in South Africa have long argued that the suspended sentence is treated far too lightly. Perpetrators see it as a mere slap on the wrist when, in fact, the Appeals Court makes clear that these kinds of sentences are a warning, “calculated to induce the offender to watch his steps in treading life’s pathway – to the benefit of society”. Elsenaar has done no such thing.

We cannot speak to the guilt that he carries around every day after taking Barker’s life. After pleading guilty in court earlier this year, we have no way of knowing what Elsenaar carries around with him every day. Does he ever think about Barker or the family he faced in court? Or does he ever consider the multitudes of motorcyclists out there who are subject to hazardous road accidents because of irresponsible drivers like himself?

We can speak to the fact that Elsenaar has boldly gone on with his life in full public view, he has followed his life’s pathway with zero consideration about how his actions after his sentence, may and do in fact affect the family – who are members of the very society he is supposed to be benefiting.

One can only imagine that it’s not easy to admit that you have been found guilty of killing someone – even if the homicide was unintentional – maybe that’s why his interview with N24 reads like an ode to Elsenaar as opposed to a well-rounded, objective portrayal of a man with his faults as much as his achievements.

In the interview, Elsenaar failed to mention other facts of his life, like how he was working through the guilt of what he had done, how he was remorseful and how as a man of the church he felt a need to be honest about his shortcomings, about how he was making a point of exercising self-correction.

His interview has offered absolutely no benefit to society – least of all the family Barker left behind. Instead they have had to face Barker’s killer, front and centre, featured on a news article praising him, while they remember that three years later, no apology has been received, no form of remorse, no statement of accountability. Barker’s sister Anthea says Elsenaar has still not issued an apology. Which society does Elsenaar’s path benefit?

Is it beneficial to the organ societies of South Africa? The much larger church societies those organ makers serve? I can’t think how, surely the art of remorse is preached in the pulpit every Sunday? Does it benefit Barker’s family and the families of many, many other motorcyclists who have seen perpetrators get on with their lives because the justice system has failed them? Or does it only benefit Elsenaar himself? Who can somehow… somehow, go on with his life, issuing lengthy interviews with national news websites in the face of the family who has still not been on the receiving end of two words: “I’m sorry”.

Motorcyclists deaths, involving other motorcars, continue to be among the most recorded in the country and also the most unresolved - with many cases falling through the cracks and many families left screaming for justice to courts and police departments who often treat these incidents with negligence.

In Barker’s case, for example, investigators were sure Elsenaar was intoxicated at the time of the crash, but officers on the scene failed to obtain a breathalyser test.

Between 1 August 2017 and 31 August 2018, 726 motorcycle accidents occurred in which 187 motorcyclists were killed. In 72% of these accidents, other vehicles were involved, this according to Hein Jonker, the founder and chief instructor of the Motorcycle Safety Institute of South Africa.

Bikers have a responsibility on the roads as well. In many cases, bikers wear the wrong gear, drive between lanes and speed too closely to trucks on highways or other congested areas – creating unsafe environments for all road users. But there are huge misconceptions that bikers are a danger to themselves and the only cause for fatalities – when, in fact, motorists are just as responsible for the deaths of bikers because of inattentive behaviour, refusing to see motorcyclists as equal road users and like in Elsenaar’s case, taking liberties and feeling entitled to break the rules of the road as and when they see fit.

Bikers Lives Matter, an initiative formed after pleas from the biker community, state that to their knowledge, in 2018 alone, 189 bikers deaths were reported but not one of these cases were brought before the court for a variety of shortcomings in the justice system. For example: lack of proper investigation, contamination of crime scenes, lack of interest and delays in blood results. As a result, dead bikers aren’t treated as citizens, caregivers and breadwinners. Instead, they’re just another road statistic in some throwaway file on a police station desk.

Barker’s case was one of the few to reach judgment – even though it did take three years. But Elsenaar’s lack of remorse and light punishment speaks to a system that is unwilling to change. If a suspended sentence and a feature article in a national news website are the products of killing a motorcyclist, what chance does the system stand of changing for the better? What chance do other motorcyclists have of receiving due process?

Elsenaar is a walking, organ-playing example of how the justice system fails citizens and loved ones when the wheels turn too slowly and when the punishment does not fit the crime. How long do motorcyclists and their families have to sing the same song before something is done?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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