Ziyaad Hassam

Director of Legal Services: DEA

South Africans have no shortage of fascinating crimes to read about, but it’s not often that pollution and environmental crimes hit the headlines.

Progress is being made, though, and Ziyaad Hassam will be delighted when a company boss is actually locked up for flouting laws put in place to protect the planet.

Hassam (35) is a director of legal services at the department of environmental affairs, and believes that such crimes should be punished more severely.

One problem is that the damage is often caused by negligence rather than willful intent and, unlike a murder, sometimes there is no clear evidence to fuel the demand for justice.

“One of the main focus areas for the department is to make sure environmental crimes are taken seriously. It’s not always sensational news, but we have had a number of successful cases in respect of the illegal dumping of medical waste or facilities operating without the required permits.

“People are taking these crimes more seriously because the penalties have increased dramatically and we have had a few stiff penalties imposed,” he says.

So far no company directors have been jailed and the largest fine has been R3-million, only a fraction of the R15-million fine that the courts are able to impose. A few individuals have also been sentenced to jail, but so far the sentences have all been suspended.

Hassam thinks a jail term for an offender would be fantastic. “As with the financial penalties, it just takes one court imposing such a sentence to send shock waves through the regulated industries,” he says.

“The nature of many environmental crimes is that the effects take longer to be seen. It often takes years before you can see what the effect of air pollution or the improper disposal of waste actually is.”

Hassam currently heads a team providing legal advice to the minister of environmental affairs. He played a leading role in developing and rolling out a training course for the “Green Scorpions” or environmental management inspectors, and in the development of a training course for prosecutors and magistrates in respect of environmental crimes. — Lesley Stones