SA is 'gatvol'

2008-12-16 00:00

“We must shoot these criminals,” urges a man. The packed meeting erupts in enthusiastic applause. “We must castrate these rapists,” demands a woman at another big meeting. Huge cheers. “We must chop off people’s hands if they steal,” suggests a woman at the same meeting. Resounding applause. “We must bring back the death penalty,” insists a woman at yet another meeting. Vociferous support.

The glaring message to emerge from the parliamentary public hearings on the new proposed integrated criminal justice system (CJS), attended by over 15 000 people in eight provinces over two weeks recently, is that people are utterly fed up with crime, have little faith in the South African Police Service and courts, and want the state to take much tougher action against criminals.

People seem to be edging towards a threshold. If they still want the state to play a role in reducing crime, it’s not clear for how long they’ll wait for results. They seem to be willing to take the law into their own hands. They increasingly are.

For now, many people say that they want to see more effective community policing forums (CPFs). People active in CPFs complained about a lack of resources. Many people said that CPF members should be paid for their contribution. Some people complained that the police were not interested in making CPFs work. Others said that the police expect CPF members to do police work. Some felt that CPFs should be more independent of the police.

There were the predictable complaints about the police being incompetent, uncaring and corrupt. Several victims of crime said that the police had asked them to find the perpetrators. But others recognised that there are hard-working, honest police who contend with limited resources and threats to their lives.

There is, clearly, considerable bewilderment at the way that the justice system works and, predictably, little understanding of the Constitution. People are enraged that those they know to be criminals roam freely because charges against them are dropped or they get bail or receive lenient sentences.

Several people complained that criminals have threatened them for laying criminal charges against them. Those accused should not get free legal aid, many said. Criminals, people kept saying, have an easy life in prison. Why does the government give so many rights to criminals and why are the victims ignored, many asked.

“There is too much freedom in the country now. Freedom to do whatever you want,” a person complained. “Children have too many rights. They don’t listen to us,” said another. “When we punish our children they go to the police and open a case against us,” said a parent. “Children have no respect for their elders,” said several people. Many people complained about crime that is committed by youths.

In rural areas we were constantly told that the police and courts don’t act against white farmers. Women complained that protection orders sometimes made them more vulnerable to partner abuse, especially as the police were not available to protect them and often considered the abuse to be a “domestic matter”.

Interestingly, traditional healers were active in the hearings — almost as a lobby group with common concerns. They complained that when they are accused of witchcraft the police often fail to protect them. Yet they are often used by the police to trace criminals, they said, and should be recognised as part of the policing system. It’s not true, they said, that they help criminals to escape detection.

“Those are traditional healers from Zimbabwe and other countries. They don’t have to register, like us. So they can do whatever they want,” said a healer.

In some respects, much of what emerged in the public hearings was predictable. But it was the depth of frustration and the closeness of the people to the edge that was striking. We can’t just wave our human rights principles at people. But we can’t just succumb to people’s frustrations either. We need to connect with where people are and engage them about the need for a constitutionally sound balance between the rights of the victims of crime and the accused. The government’s proposed Victims’ Charter, which sets out the rights of victims and the state’s obligations to them, should be processed energetically.

More immediately, there has to be a swift, simple, effective message to people that the state genuinely cares for them and is serious about crime. The government’s new seven-point CJS has to be improved, have certain aspects prioritised and be expeditiously implemented.

We need to restore urgently confidence in the police. This includes through immediate symbolic messages and concrete action as part of a clear, decisive, consultative, phased, strategic overhaul of the SAPS, “transformation fatigue” notwithstanding. The proposed new CJS addresses elements of this (including an increase in forensic experts, more detectives and performance-related salary increases), but we need more elements.

Other specific issues that need to be addressed are:

• strengthening the Independent Complaints Directorate to deal

with police inefficiency and corruption;

• dealing with challenges in implementing the Domestic Violence Act. Protection orders need to be accompanied by effective programmes to reduce the potential for violence of male partners where possible and more monitoring by the state;

• increasing the use of indigenous languages in the CJS; and

• educating people about the CJS and the key values of the Constitution.

Obviously, we will not be able to reduce crime significantly unless we improve socio-economic conditions, including economic growth, creating jobs and delivering services. But we will also not be able to improve socio-economic conditions significantly unless we reduce crime. The global financial and economic crisis means slower economic growth rates and a reduction in jobs in our country in the immediate period. So reducing crime will be even more challenging — but crucial to doing so will be the active involvement of ordinary people.

There has to be a clear policy framework for an expanded role for CPFs. The issues raised in the public hearings about CPFs need to be urgently addressed. The Gauteng CPF system seems most advanced. We need to improve on it and extend CPFs throughout the country. Within budgetary constraints, we need to consider paying CPF members a stipend. Street committees, neighbourhood watches, ward committees and school governing bodies can also be used to mobilise people against crime.

It’s also important that we have strong, stable families with parents taking greater responsibility for their children, despite the socio-economic challenges. In the hearings it was almost as though some parents were pleading that the state take over their parenting responsibilities. Of course, the state must create better conditions for viable families — but parents have to parent. Traditional leaders and traditional healers can also play important roles in reducing crime. Religious institutions are crucial. The private sector, trade unions and NGOs have a role to play.

We all do. We need a popular, massive, sustained onslaught on crime. The state must play its role. But so too must ordinary people. Together we can defeat crime. We have to.

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