South Africa

Time for Operation Damage Control, SAPS edition

By Ranjeni Munusamy 7 March 2013

Had eight police officers not been facing murder charges in connection with the death of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia, the statistics the Ministry of Police presented to Parliament on Wednesday on training, resourcing of detectives and successes could have sounded pretty impressive. But these have all been drowned out by widespread negative sentiment towards the police, as was displayed at Macia’s memorial service in Daveyton. Government has a huge PR war to fight – and clearly has no clue how to go about it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There was nothing that evoked more fear in townships around the country during the 1980’s than the unmistakable rumble or sight of the yellow police vans coming down the road. Young men would slink away between the houses, women would pick up their babies and children would stop their games and stare as the policemen would roll by, scanning the streets. If the van stopped, trouble was on it way.

It took a long time for the South African Police Service (SAPS) to shed the image of Apartheid’s enforcer and become civilian-friendly, with a presence that was welcomed in communities. “Visible policing” makes up a significant portion of the SAPS crime fighting strategy, as a deterrent for crime and to ensure community support in the work of the police. In Gauteng, for example, the provincial commissioner Mzwandile Petros’s strategy to post police vehicles and personnel at crime hotspots and highway exits has registered a marked decline in crime figures and has helped to dissipate anxiety about crime.

However, incidents of excessive violence, such as the massacre of mineworkers at Marikana, the shooting of protestor Andries Tatane at Ficksburg and the public torture and subsequent killing of Mozambican taxi driver Mido Macia at Daveyton, have cast the police as the aggressor, to be feared and resisted. These are just a few high-profile incidents amid a sea of criminal and misconduct allegations against the police, including for rape, serious assault and torture while in custody.

Macia’s death – following a bizarre form of torture that involved dragging him through the streets tied to the back of a police van – has been a tipping point in terms of negative sentiment towards the SAPS. Public hostility towards the police has been prevalent but low level, due to the general conduct of officers towards civilians, including bullying, extorting bribes, corruption and sexual harassment. Most of these go unreported, for reasons ranging from fear of the police to assumptions that civilians have no recourse.

But as was evident at a memorial service held for Macia at Daveyton on Wednesday, public hostility towards the police can boil over. Police were chased away from the stadium as mourners refused to proceed with the service until the police left. The MEC for Community Safety in Gauteng, Faith Mazibuko, was also booed by the community. Taxi bosses addressing the service issued a warning to the police that they should “stop declaring a war against the people”.

Macia’s death has lifted the lid on the massively high number of complaints against the police, which up to now had been papered over. According to the Democratic Alliance’s spokeswoman on police Dianne Kohler Barnard, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid) received 4,923 complaints in relation to the actions by SAPS members in the 2011/2012 year. Of these, 720 were deaths (232 of these were deaths in custody), 88 were domestic violence cases, 2,320 were allegations of criminal offences and 1,795 were misconduct cases. Just this past month, Ipid reported that three constables had been arrested for rape, Kohler Barnard said.

Despite the alarm around Macia’s death, there has been no real effort as yet from government to counter the negative sentiment against the police. While National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega announced that the eight police officers allegedly involved in the dragging incident which culminated in Macia’s death would be disarmed and suspended, and the incident has been condemned by President Jacob Zuma, there is yet no visible strategy to repair the damage as a result.

Kohler Barnard lashed out at Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa and his deputy Maggie Sotyu for not taking the crisis in the police seriously. Both were absent from Parliament on Wednesday during an oral question session to ministers in the justice and security departments. Mthethwa, who got married in mid-February, is on honeymoon until 12 March, and Sotyu is on a trip to New York, accompanying the Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana.

A number of questions from MPs directed to the police ministry had to be answered by State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, who is acting police minister. Kohler Barnard said this was an indication that the political heads of the police had “completely misplaced priorities”.

“The SAPS is without leadership at a time when the public is losing faith in its ability to protect us. In any other country experiencing such a crisis, the Minister of Police would be back at home and in the House answering questions. Minister Mthethwa has once again lived up to his title as an Empty Suit,” Kohler Barnard said.

But Mthethwa’s office hit back, saying his leave was official and “does not represent any dereliction of his duties”. Police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi said some of the issues raised by Kohler Barnard, which she termed as a “crisis”, were “sensational and generalising”.

“In relation to police brutality, what is important is to ensure that we act against any allegation of police brutality no matter who is involved. For the DA to paint a misleading depiction as though all 200,000-plus SAPS members are brutal, is tarnishing and unfair to some of the hardworking police. Almost on a daily basis, police officers face some of the heartless criminals who would not hesitate to kill or harm them. These are the real heroes, not people who are always negatively critiquing even the good work that is done by our officers,” Mnisi said.

There is no indication from government, however, that they plan to do anything to repair the police’s battered image and restore relations with communities. This is desperately needed to tone down the hostility towards the police and to prevent them being feared in the way their predecessors were during the Apartheid era.

Once Mthethwa returns from honeymoon, he and Phiyega are going to have to lead the police on a long and massive makeover exercise. It would in fact be unfair to judge the 200,000 strong service on the basis of the incidents at Marikana, Ficksburg and Daveyton, as well as the behaviour of rotten cops abusing their powers against civilians. There is also the knock to the SAPS’s image internationally as a result of the ham-fistedness of the investigating officer in the Oscar Pistorius murder investigation. 

According to answers provided by the police ministry to Parliament on Wednesday, there is substantial training being done and additional resources deployed to strengthen the detective services.

These include:

  • 479 detectives who were performing duties at other units within the SAPS were placed back to the detective service;
  • 1,842 officers attended the Resolving of Crime Programme; 
  • 871 officers attended the Basic Investigation Practice;
  • 1,702 were trained in specialised areas including basic fraud, firearm investigation, organised crime investigation, vehicles crime, serious and violent crimes, counter terrorism, psychologically motivated crime and sexual offences;
  • 21,786 laptops were purchased and distributed to the provinces for allocation to members of the detective service;
  • 338 new vehicles were purchased for the Detective Service Centers to be utilised for crime scene investigations;
  • 96 new vehicles were purchased for the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) and Stock Theft Units;
  • 810 fridges were purchased and distributed to the Detective Units at station level and FCS units to preserve exhibits;
  • 1,350 cooler boxes were purchased and distributed to transport these exhibits to the laboratories;
  • 473 digital cameras were purchased and distributed to Stock Theft and Vehicle Crime Investigative Units, and a further 176 digital cameras were purchased and distributed to all FCS units.

Some of the successes recorded as a result of increased focus on detective work includes that the number of wanted persons has decreased 23,650 (from 28,000) by the end of December 2012, and 573 life sentences have been recorded up to the same period. Showing the impact of co-operation between ordinary citizens and the police, 3,185 arrests were effected through information provided to Crime Stop and 177 arrests through information provided to Crime Line.

But despite these positive indicators, serious work needs to be done to reorientate the police towards service to the community, to instil a human rights culture, to teach respect for the law and the Constitution and to root out thuggery from the service. There also needs to be footwork by the political heads and police management to restore the trust and confidence of the citizens of the country in the police service.

The impression that South Africa is on a slippery slide towards a police state cannot be undone by simply waiting for the storm to pass. It won’t. More storms are on the horizon if there is not a deliberate attempt to change the culture of the police.

Mthethwa and Phiyega need to realise that the honeymoon is no more and start getting their hands dirty. Or they need to be replaced with people who are capable of doing so. The last thing South Africa needs is for mass rebellion against the police and more blood on the streets as a result. DM

Read more:

  • Licence to kill: A bloody combo of politics and policing in Daily Maverick

Photo: Police had running battles with residents of Nkaneng shantytown after they disarmed about 100 miners. Burning tires and rock barricades were then set up in the township and police shot at, teargassed and also arrested some 14 residents. Many of the injured were women. Nkaneng, Marikana. (Greg Marinovich)

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