He’s been in the top job for less than a year, but National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole’s head is already “on the block”.
At the release of the country’s dismal crime statistics this week, Police Minister Bheki Cele placed Sitole and his department heads on notice that, if they fail to bring crime under control, their jobs are on the line.
This did not appear to faze Sitole too much. He said in the 10 months he had been in charge of the SA Police Service, officers had already “klapped” cash-in-transit heists, made a dent in the Western Cape’s ganglands and begun a stabilisation operation in Gauteng.
He had also begun turning around the police’s notorious crime intelligence division, bringing it, he said, “from zero to average”.
“For South Africa I will put my head on the block because I love my country,” he said.
This week’s statistics, which reflect crimes committed between April last year and March, showed that 1 320 more people were murdered compared with the previous year, bringing the total to 20 336 killings, a rise of almost 7%.
The murder rate is widely regarded as an accurate indicator of the prevalence of crime, because murders are almost always reported. Asked what crime keeps him up at night, Sitole fired back: “Murder.”
He said: “It used to be cash-in-transit heists, but I got my sleep back. It is murder now, but I am also going to reclaim my sleep.”
Sitole was speaking on the sidelines of the two-day National Summit on Crime and Violence Prevention.
He said police could not be the only ones fighting the scourge. “When everyone else’s jobs are not done, it ends up with the SAPS [SA Police Service]. If a water problem is unattended to, it ends up with the police and with angry communities and protests.”
If other departments did not plan properly, such as municipalities and property developers who did not involve the SAPS in the layout of a shopping mall, for instance, those failures become a problem for the police, he said.
Murder, particularly, was a “multidisciplinary” task.
“Many murders take place within families. As the police, we have few areas that require a combat approach, such as gangs, cash-in-transit heists and taxi violence.
“Now we want to come together with communities to say, ‘can we please clear both spaces. We will clear the combat space but can you also clear the home space’. There are root causes of murder and the strategy requires serious transformation of our communities.”
South Africans, Sitole said, had to take charge of their own security.
“I think the time for South Africans to break their chains has come. Get involved. Let us all stand up and the police will take the front line. But be with us so you can also take charge of your own safety,” he said.
The police had now begun a three-month “stabilisation” campaign in Gauteng which involved “high-density integrated operational policing”. After that will come the “normalisation” campaign, involving the “community in blue” project which the police will launch in two weeks.
“This involves a massive mobilisation of the neighbourhood watch and community patrollers. We will recruit and support communities to join the patrol group. This is part of empowering communities. We will tell them that, because we have stabilised criminals, taking them head-on, it is now time for citizens to take charge of their safety. We will support them to become involved,” he said.
Sitole rattled off recent successes, such as the arrest of the top 20 most wanted cash-in-transit heisters, bringing taxi violence under control in areas including Mthatha, the arrest of scores of corrupt police officers and the deployment of 295 police officers to the Cape Flats to “stabilise” gang showdowns. He said many communities had thanked the police, saying their children are “now able to go to school”.
Initiatives included the 72-hour action plan, which involves gathering “all the resources that are around … and we make sure we don’t sleep for 72 hours until we get the suspect.”
Another initiative is the modus operandi analysis centre, which would be used by analysts to develop a data base and analyse crime patterns. It was hoped this would enable the police to pick up perpetrators and identify syndicates faster.
“My belief is that the only way to beat a criminal is to come up with something that the criminal does not know and is not aware of,” he said.
The improvement of the crime intelligence division, used extensively to settle political scores under the administration of former president Jacob Zuma, was starting to pay off.
“When I came into office, crime intelligence was my number one priority, simply because there wasn’t a foundation for fighting crime. I appointed a new head,” he said. “The turnaround strategy is gradually correcting crime intelligence. We have gone from zero to average.”
Crime intelligence was also behind busting a drug syndicate operating from a farm in Harding, KwaZulu-Natal, which had two machines that could each produce 16 Mandrax tablets a second.
Police found R38m worth of stock that was destined for export around the world.
But, Sitole said, there were social problems that no amount of policing could fix. He has come up with a “moral fibre investment strategy” that might prove to be his toughest plan.
“People have lost their consciences. They don’t feel wrong in whatever they do,” he said, adding that religious leaders were central to his new “spiritual crime-prevention concept” designed to repair “injured human and spiritual values”.
“Parenting needs to improve. Then there are children who are skipping the moral development stages because many are forced to become adults prematurely, because they are brought up by other children. Our young offender profile is growing and very rapidly so,” he said.
“All our cash-in-transit heist arrests were of young people. The minimum age was 17 and the eldest was 36.”
To get residents onside, Sitole said he would first need to gain their trust in the police, which he admitted would happen “only if we are corruption free”.
We hope next year’s crime statistics will be better. The police officer of 32 years may even survive Cele’s chopping block.
“I believe God doesn’t want untested material. I was tried and tested for this job. It is a calling."