The levels of violent crime in South Africa are soaring. The recent horrific murder of 11 people in the Marikana informal settlement in Philippi was so brutal that it hit the front pages of newspapers, but such scenes of carnage are a daily occurrence in the poor communities in and around Cape Town, where murder has become routine and largely ignored by the media.
The growing number of murders, gun battles and rapes is a challenge to all South Africans, a problem we dare not fail to solve. It brings heartbreak and misery to the hundreds who have lost their loved ones and threatens to plunge the country into a crisis of lawlessness in which armed criminal gangs terrorise entire communities and undermine the whole of our society.
It is one of the biggest single challenges we face as a nation and most especially a challenge for the Minister of Police, Fikile Mbalula.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions was therefore shocked and sickened to see reports that at an important ceremony at the SAPS Tshwane Academy, at which he re-launched the Tactical Response Team (TRT), a unit notoriously known as “AmaBerete”, the minister treated this life-or-death struggle against crime as an opportunity to make crude jokes and empty rabble-rousing rhetoric and to fail to come up with any practical solution to the problem.
He made such vulgar and sexist remarks as that the units must “make criminals pee and drink their urine”. He told his mainly young audience of retrained TRT officers: “I want to see you everywhere, wherever criminals think they are in charge. We want to see you on the highways. We want to see you wherever criminals come together and congest… We must unsettle them. We must squeeze them. If they have balls, we must crush them.”
It was bad enough to trivialize such an important issue, with such coarse comments but worse was to come when he told the police recruits: “Even if you do not have a warrant of arrest‚ slap them, break the law progressively and let me worry about court cases.
“We must clamp down on them and today I am saying you must be merciless to dangerous criminals. Do not blink when you deal with a criminal‚ run them down if needs be and then you must return fire with fire and protect our people against them‚” he said.
He told the unit to do what they were notorious for‚ “kicking down doors and dishing out dizzying blows”‚ and assured them that he would deal with the courts… “Even if you do not have a warrant of arrest‚ slap them. Break the law progressively and let me worry about court cases‚” he said.
These frightening words sound more like what one expects from criminals talking about the police than the other way round! This Minister is sounding more like a leader of a notorious gang than a Minister leading a civilian police operating within the prescriptions of the constitution. He is sinking to the same level of morality as the violent criminals he is attacking and legitimizing the very lawlessness that he is supposed to be fighting.
If even the police can freely “break the law progressively” and “dish our dizzying blows” they become part of the problem of crime rather than the solution. He has clearly learned nothing from the Marikana massacre, the murder of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg, the recent shooting of a 14-year old boy in Hangberg, and many other instances in which police officers have been acting on the minster’s advice, and breaking the laws they are sworn to uphold.
Worst of all is what the minister did not say. All his crude bombast and empty rhetoric were a way of hiding the reality that he, his government and the SAPS have a pitiful record in crime-fighting and must take the biggest responsibility for the rising tide of violent crime.
It is worth repeating what SAFTU said in response to the Philippi atrocity: “In 2015/2016, 18,683 people were murdered which was up 4.9% from 2014/2015. This means 51 people died every day, up from 49 the previous year… Police make arrests on only half of all the crimes reported annually. Of those arrested a meager 42% eventually appear in court; the rest are released. And less than a third of the suspects who do appear in court are found guilty.
“Another grim statistic presented by the police themselves is that in 2009 the conviction rate for murder in this country was 13% and for rape it is 11.5%. But other estimates in 2014 said the conviction rate is as low as 10%.”
This atrocious record will not be solved by rabble-rousing demagogy or tactical response task teams. The problem will remain and get even worse unless we deal with the most basic problems of policing in South Africa. They are that government has been starving the SAPS of the number of staff they require, cutting back on essential resources and equipment, the widespread evidence of corrupt police officers being bought by criminals and the lamentable quality of the crime intelligence work, which allows so many cases to collapse for lack of proper evidence.
Today the SA Policing Union has rightly condemned the possible retrenchment of around 3000 police officers in a police service that is already falling short in terms of personnel.
These problems must become the top priority for the SAPS, but finding solutions to the curse of crime must not be left to the police alone. Police, communities, religious organizations, trade unions, local, provincial and national government and even the SANDF must all come together to fight a co-ordinated war against criminals and particularly organized crime involved in the drug trade, which is at the heart of so much of the violence.
Ultimately however, crime will only be eradicated when we have built a socialist society in which wealth is shared equally, when no-one is still living in poverty or in squalid shacks and when all young South Africans have the education and well-paid job opportunities so that they can escape from the clutches of drugs and the gangs which terrorize communities.