A police force in ruins

2009-10-15 00:00

MEDIA reports that President Jacob Zuma met with more than 1 000 police­ station commanders to find out why crime is out of control, should be welcomed. What he heard from the station commanders made his hair stand on end. Some of our most notorious offenders are police officers and the list of complaints against them is shocking — murder, robbery, assault, theft, bribery, fraud, kidnapping, rape, drunken driving, even assisting prisoner escapes. Palpably shocked at these reports, the president is exploring solutions to the worrying state of affairs.

To ordinary citizens, this comes as no surprise. Unlike politicians who enjoy 24-hour security, we are all victims of crime and we all have our stories of rape, robbery, theft, murder and unsolved crime, exacerbated by gross police incompetence. Just about six weeks ago my neighbour was murdered, when she returned home from grocery shopping. As she entered her house with her shopping bags, a man followed her into the house and killed her, adding to the litany of senseless murders in exchange for cellphones and money.

The most disheartening aspect of police incompetence is the failure to do the basics. The ability to provide forensic evidence, improve detection skills and increase conviction rates has eluded our police force since 1999 when Thabo Mbeki took over, simply because he chose to politicise and racialise crime instead of exerting his authority over the criminals with power and conviction.

The chronic lack of basic resources has paralysed the police from doing their work effectively. Under such circumstances, police officers, except for a few, are tempted to act with impunity and many have become a law unto themselves, using their powers to empower themselves. No wonder South Africa has slipped several notches down the Index of African Governance, in line with the deterioration in the Human Development Index. Harvard Professor Robert Rotberg puts the slippage down to “the crime rate, the severe decline in the physical integrity rights of South Africans and growing disregard for the rule of law”, especially corruption. Wanton crime has infected the body politic of South Africa and its effects are visible everywhere.

City Press’s overly bold headlines asking why we are losing the war on crime, paints a picture of a police force that is so endemically corrupt that cleaning it up will be a futile exercise. The recent Economist (October 3) lists a range of causes: the apartheid legacy, high unem­ployment, poverty, inequality, absence of fathers, alcohol and drug abuse, and lack of education. While all these causes need long-term and sustained socio-political and economic interventions, one reason is most often overlooked — that our lawmakers in Parliament are the worst law breakers. Rotten to the core, they are to blame for the state of crime in this country, and no one is more articulate about this than prisoners, gangsters and drug lords.

Nyami Booi, the fall guy for all those members of Parliament protected in the travel scandal, epitomises what I am talking about. Covering up for the great and the good who were implicated in the scandal, he must, of course, be rewarded, his reward being to retain his seat in Parliament and chair the Portfolio Committee of Defence. The African National Congress has closed ranks around this saga, and the ramifications of covering up the crime of the ruling elite, are already haunting us and will do so for generations to come.

The police are acting out their frustrations with a Parliament that fails to be exemplary; with a government that is rotten to the core; and with an unscrupulous Judicial Service Commission that is willing to be the handmaiden of the ruling party. Our elected officials fail to lead by example and corruption has bec­ome endemic. Their adherents follow suit, and beat them at their own game. The result is that we are reaping the harvest sown by former police commissioner Jackie Selebi. His was the worst political appointment to a job that needed someone with integrity, moral stature and police competence of the highest order. That he became the head of Interpol was an indication of how far that supposedly august body has sunk. Under his command, crime within the police force escalated while he was busy with his nefarious activities, openly declaring that Agliotti was his friend “finish and klaar”. When he should have been demonstrating leadership, Selebi was allegedly involved in all manner of intrigues and alleged criminal activity as revealed in cross-examination. Worse, he politicised the police force to such an extent that the lines between the National Prosecuting Authority, intelligence and police became horribly blurred.

When Zuma decreed that police shoot to kill, the gangs responded with revenge shootings in Cape Town and Johannesburg, just to let the government know that they are in control. While his efforts to get to grips with issues that trouble our society should be lauded, Zuma’s double speak is troubling. One cannot speak about honour but condone dishonour. One cannot speak about accountability and endorse the lack of accountability of party officials. One cannot condemn corruption but reward the corrupt. While this happens, we will continue to slip on the international indices that measure good governance, societal health and democratic wellbeing.

• Rhoda Kadalie is a human rights activist based in Cape Town.

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