No will to enforce

2008-10-15 00:00

On Monday, Witness readers would have been shocked by the story of a local farmer who, having caught metal thieves “red handed” on private property, was told by the police at Alexandra Road police station that it was no use laying a charge because she could not prove ownership of the rusted and unmarked metal, including fence posts. As her property was not adequately fenced, she was told that she also couldn’t lay a charge of trespassing. She was forced to return the metal to the three men who were in possession of it. The worst aspect of the incident was the lacklustre attitude of the police, compounded by one officer who went so far as to tell her that she had “the wrong attitude” and that she was likely to “end up getting shot” if she were to persist with laying a charge.

Should the public be surprised by this? Apparently not, according to Jonny Steinberg’s new book, reviewed yesterday. Thin Blue: the unwritten rules of policing South Africa paints a picture of an SAPS almost completely without moral authority. The public distrust of the police generated during the apartheid decades has persisted, even though the racial composition and, supposedly, the ethos, of the SAPS has changed. This might have been prevented, or at least mitigated, by transparent, energetic and far-sighted leadership, but now, under the suspended Jackie Selebi, South Africa has a police service that lacks the will to stamp its authority.

Police spokesman Senior Superintendent Henry Budhram said it was “unacceptable” for the police to decline to register a case and outlined the mandate of the SAPS: to investigate and identify culprits. He said that the scrap metal incident will be investigated and if necessary “departmental steps will be taken”. Which is fine — but will not go far in turning the SAPS as a whole into an asset in South Africa’s fight against crime.

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