Three men have been convicted of murdering popular Johannesburg police reservist Ishlove and will be sentenced next week. While the killers face life behind bars and balance has been restored in the fight between good and evil, ALEX ELISEEV argues that the loss of the reservist’s life should force us to look harder at the nightmare that has engulfed the police service.
Somewhere in the bowels of the South Gauteng High Court, the air conditioner clanked like a slow, dull metronome as judge Naren Pandya read out his judgment.
His head was slumped and his words floated out lazily, sailing around an almost empty room. In the dock sat three men, soon to be convicted of gunning down police reservist Marc Ishlove, a hero cop who died with over 30 years’ service.
In the public gallery, scattered across the rows of benches, perched a couple of journalists and a few family members of the accused.
Despite the drama that swirled around Ishlove’s death, the final chapter of his story was being written and read out in a dim and tired-looking courtroom, with the public’s gaze fixed firmly elsewhere.
Ishlove’s memorial service last year was held at a massive church in Fairland. Its state-of-the-art auditorium could seat 3,000 people and hundreds of people streamed in to pay their respects – friends, colleagues, and his two daughters who had emigrated to Australia.
Bheki Cele, then still national commissioner, was in top form, waxing lyrical about fighting fire with fire and squeezing the oxygen that criminals needed to breathe.
“Anybody who kills a member of the South African police must have a sleepless night,” he boomed. “You (criminals) go and brush your teeth in the morning, your toothbrush must say: ‘police, police, police’.”
One of the younger reservists who Ishlove had taken under his wing, Clifford Bond, spoke about how they were trained to go in together and come out together.
“We’re not trained to leave men behind,” he said. “But on that day I left a man. I left a great man.”
A few days earlier, on 15 June 2011, a gang of five robbers crashed their getaway car along a narrow Northcliff street and shot out like shrapnel across various properties. As they jumped over walls and sprinted through gardens, the bullets flew. One officer was wounded, Ishlove was struck and fell, one of the robbers was killed and a second shot himself after being cornered. The gun battle raged just meters away from a primary school. Eventually the remaining three robbers were captured.
Ishlove, 60, was a master marksman and a firearms instructor. In 2007, while off duty, he witnessed a hijacking and shot dead two robbers as they tried to force a woman to surrender her Porsche. At his state funeral she called him her “guardian angel”.
During the three decades Ishlove gave to the police, he had worked with the flying squad and the dog unit, partnering with his dog, Rambo. He earned medals, taught and managed reservists and became an expert in various laws.
During the trial, the three killers tried to pin the crime on their dead accomplices who, conveniently, could not contest the allegations. In the end, they were found guilty of murder, attempted murder and being in possession of unlicensed firearms.
During sentencing, Ishlove’s former colleagues came to testify and described him as a “fiercely protective and loving father” to his daughters, Marcia and Juliette. They said not a day goes by when they don’t think about him and try to emulate his life. Fellow reservist and family friend, Kevin Hacker, called him an awe-inspiring role model.
To anyone sitting in that courtroom, the lines were crystal clear. The plot was tragic, but simple. There were good guys and bad guys. The hero and the villains. The policeman who died doing what he loved: protecting people – and his killers now facing what is likely to be life behind bars.
Ishlove’s daughters couldn’t be there but spoke from Australia, describing a difficult year of pain and uncertainty, followed by the relief of the convictions. They said while it was cold comfort, at least their father can finally rest in peace.
But can he?
Over the past few years a dark poison has spread through the veins of the organization for which Ishlove gave his life.
Former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi is serving time for corruption. His successor, Cele, is suspended for allegedly the same crime. Gauteng’s top cop, Mzwandile Petros, last week announced that 600 officers had been arrested and charged for various crimes since April last year.
But the biggest threat – the deadliest poison – is the saga surrounding crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. Week after week the details emerge, like corpses floating to the surface. An unsolved murder investigation, millions of rands plundered from a secret slush fund and, just this weekend, City Press’ report of Mdluli’s letter to President Jacob Zuma in which he swears his allegiance to the politician.
“In the event that I come back to work, I will assist the President to succeed next year (at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung),” the letter allegedly reads.
These words should make your blood run cold. A man tipped to be the country’s next national commissioner – the man who authorises all interceptions used to gather intelligence – selling his soul in return for his job, from which he was suspended.
If that’s not enough, consider the various charges against Mdluli that were dropped in the face of what appears to be overwhelming evidence: the links between crime intelligence and police minister Nathi Mthethwa (who has remained silent). Think about the prosecutor, Glynnis Breytenbach, who went after Mdluli and has since been suspended, shot at and nearly driven off the road in what was clearly an attempt to intimidate her. Breytenbach did not open a police case because she probably feared that the people who would investigate the attacks would be the same people who orchestrated them (though this has yet to be proved).
Mdluli is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful policemen in South Africa, looking after the most sensitive unit as well as the officers who guard the country’s top politicians. His return from suspension has brought with it a climate of fear and paralysis.
The acting national police commissioner, Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, has been on the verge of resigning, but has since come out with guns blazing, promising to clean up the service. Cabinet has condemned what it calls an ongoing spat between senior police officers, saying it damages the police’s image and prevents it from combating crime. While investigations continue into the Mdluli matter, there is little to show for them at the moment.
Day after day the shadows grow darker, the truth gets murkier and the lines grow more blurred. And those officers fighting in the streets – the Marc Ishloves of South Africa – find it increasingly difficult to justify the risks they are forced to take.
Some police officers are apparently embarrassed to wear their uniforms – never mind jumping into action while they are off-duty to rescue a woman in the clutches of hijackers. It’s not hard to see where this slope leads, when the protectors run out of faith and hang up their weapons.
In the wake of the court judgment to stop e-tolling, questions were asked whether South Africa was seeing the start of a new consciousness. Never before had so many civic groups joined forces in pursuit of a common goal. Could the Mdluli saga, and the terrible damage it's caused to the country, prove to be the next such goal? Could enough pressure be exerted to shake Zuma into taking action, despite the threat to his political career? Will we finally know the truth about the policeman who holds all the dirty secrets?
What’s at stake here is the country’s rule of law. It’s that simple. Soon there could be too many bodies floating in the waves for anyone to enjoy the sea. And if there isn’t a powerful and independent investigation into this mess, heroes like Ishlove will become more and more difficult to find. If the web remains tangled, Ishlove and others like him will never be able to rest in peace. DM
Photo: Police keep watch as a South African state worker seeking higher wages looks on during in a strike in Johannesburg, August 26, 2010. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko.