The Gauteng police boss finally showed some face on Wednesday when he addressed the National Press Club. He talked about what he and his blue army were doing to combat crime in South Africa’s most populous province. He also spoke about the small matters of corruption and political interference. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros is an extremely busy man. He is in charge of 41,000 police officers who are servicing South Africa’s most densely populated province of about 13 million people, which accounts for half the crime reports in the country. By his own account, he almost never has a full night’s rest without his phone ringing.
Petros was moved to Gauteng from the Western Cape. When he was still stationed in Cape Town, he would call regular press conferences to keep the public updated. This has been impossible since 2010, when he was transferred. But he has undertaken to end the media silence on his part by holding quarterly press conferences. The first was on Wednesday morning in Pretoria.
The point of this particular conference was not to trot out a list of facts, but to show face, so to speak, and speak very generally about what was being done to deal with the issues cops were facing.
Inevitably, the small matter of extreme corruption among cops and the public’s resulting distrust of the police came up.
Petros said when he first arrived in Gauteng, he spent his first three months travelling and meeting all the police officers to tell them people were sick of police corruption.
“We have not been shy in saying that we are arresting our own and we dismiss our own,” he said. “This is not a boast but it was a commitment which we made to the community to deal with wrong-doers from within our ranks.”
According to Petros, about 600 cops were arrested in Gauteng in the last financial year, mostly thanks to tip-offs from the public.
However, the problem is not that simple. According to Corruption Watch, a watchdog organisation formed by Cosatu, corruption is systemic among the police, and remains woefully ignored by the authorities.
Speaking at the launch of an anti-bribery campaign, Corruption Watch executive director David Lewis said: “Corruption has become so ingrained among the (traffic) police that citizens now have an interest in maintaining the status quo.”
In other words, South Africans have become so used to this state of affairs that it has come to replace the relationship the law-enforcement arm of the government is meant to have with the public. Lewis gave the example of the Bryanston area, where residents are happy to pay bribes to have patrol cars scouring the streets, knowing that the higher police visibility means there are less break-ins and thefts.
But the police leadership is beginning to see signs of increased public trust, Petros reassured us. There has been an increase in the number of reports of what could be thought of as pettier crimes by police, such as intoxication while on duty and the abuse of state property (like using official vehicles for private purposes), which shows the public thinks someone will do something about it.
He also said he is not disheartened by the increase in the number of arrested cops. It meant someone, somewhere is finally doing their job.
The other thing Petros had to deal with was politics. Beleaguered crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli allegedly wrote a letter to President Jacob Zuma, claiming the top brass was conspiring against him because he’s a “Zuma man”. According to the Sunday Independent, Mdluli said suspended national police commissioner Bheki Cele, Petros, head of crime detection Godfrey Lebeya and Hawks head Anwa Dramat were the conspirators against him.
At the press conference, Petros declined to address the rumours, saying it might jeopardise the investigation. He hinted strongly that he was too busy doing his job to conspire against anyone, in any case.
What lends this story juice is the other rumour about Mdluli and Petros – apparently they are both in line to take over should Cele be permanently sacked as national police commissioner. He said: “There is too much crime in Gauteng. When you get involved in a conspiracy, you need time... I have my hands full.”
He also declined to comment in general on Mdluli’s continuing legal troubles, suspension and reinstatement, saying it wasn’t his place as a man of uniform to have an opinion. The controversial appointment of the Tshwane head of metro police, Steven Ngobeni, was also not dwelt upon. Metro police are not the jurisdiction of the SAPS police commissioner – that must be dealt with by whichever local authority appointed Ngobeni, Petros said.
According to EyeWitness News, Ngobeni was appointed even though he was never interviewed for the position.
Petros did agree that the issue of competent police leaders needed to be addressed, adding that due to the controversies dogging the very top cops, the focus tended to be there. Actually, we should be talking about good leadership at station level, he said, because that is where public interaction happens.
On the whole, Petros said he was happy about the progress the police were making. Many types of crimes were on a downward trend and he was happy that the targets he’d set were being met.
“I don’t have figures in front of me right now, but from where I am sitting I can tell you that there has been an improvement from when I arrived here in 2010,” Petros said. “I can definitely say that I sleep better at night.” DM
Photo: Gauteng police commissioner Mzwandile Petros addresses the National Press Club in Pretoria. DAILY MAVERICK/Sipho Hlongwane.