‘Skiet en donder'

2007-12-14 00:00

Many South Africans, weary of violent crime, will have applauded the news that 11 would-be cash van hijackers were shot dead by police in a single incident in Limpopo this week. An official spokesperson described it as “splendid work”.

This is rough justice in action. The public rightly expects a tough response from the police against those who set off with criminal intent brandishing lethal weapons and threatening lives and possessions. Many people might go further and see in such punitive reaction an informal version of the capital punishment they support, but which is disallowed by the national Constitution.

However, there is ample reason to pause and reflect. The scale of casualties is akin to low-level war. When police and criminals exchange fire so freely, the chances are high that innocent passers-by will be caught in the middle. In the case of the recent incident, it is relevant to ask why one fleeing suspect half-a-kilometre away in a mealie field was killed rather than disabled.

Shoot-outs are inevitable in some circumstances, but could become the easy option. A great deal of time, paperwork and cost is saved when the police deal with a corpse rather than an alleged criminal. But this is a Wild West scenario. The task of the police is to maintain law and order, a process more sophisticated than a simple body count. What, for instance, are the chances of detective work when potential informants are in the mortuary?

If firefights become a popular method of controlling crime, there is the danger that this could encourage nocturnal police vigilantism. This was last seen in South Africa in the years of officially inspired lawlessness during the state of emergency. The possibility of a rerun, albeit under different political circumstances, is grim indeed.

Satisfaction can be derived from the bravery and success of the police in thwarting another major robbery. But the government and people of South Africa must never lose sight of the fact that justice, not retribution, is the hallmark of a civilised society. This is measured in terms of an efficient and fair judicial system; not pictures of bodies in the media.

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