The mood in Parliament’s police committee on Wednesday was one of shock and disbelief, even for a group of MPs accustomed to hearing of the failures of the South African Police Service. An audit of criminality within SAPS, announced late last month, found that 1,448 members have criminal offences, some of which include murder and rape. But this week the committee heard that the majority of the implicated SAPS members are from the police’s top brass, and most of them gained their criminal conviction while in the employ of SAPS, yet kept their jobs. By REBECCA DAVIS.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: to be a police man or woman in South Africa at the moment is not an enviable task. In addition to battling the public perception of a corrupt and trigger-happy police force, the job comes with significant personal risks. No less than seven members of the SAPS have been killed in the Western Cape in the past weeks.
But the problem is that the SAPS keeps generating and sustaining its own bad PR. Addressing the parliamentary police committee, ANC MP Annelize van Wyk put it bluntly: “SAPS has a severe credibility problem,” she said, but no commensurate sense of urgency to rid itself of this stigma. Van Wyk suggested, too, that the bad apples of the police service make the job of policing harder for the rest of them: “Corrupt police officers endanger the lives of those not involved in crime,” she said.
We now know that there are almost 1,500 bad apples in the SAPS, if you’ll accept for your definition of bad apple a police man or woman who has a criminal conviction. This leaves out another 7,500 SAPS members who were excluded from the criminality audit because their crimes were in the league of “petty offences”, such as traffic violations.
1,500 SAPS members is a drop in the ocean compared to the total number of police officers (157,518, according to SAPS figures as of April 2013). But there are more than a few things to be concerned about here.
The first is the type of SAPS member convicted of these crimes, because we’re not talking about dish-washers and coffee-makers. If you’re unfamiliar with the SAPS ranking system, ushered in by generalissimo Bheki Cele in 2010, the lowest officer rung is for the non-commissioned officers: constables, sergeants, warrant officers. The next rung is the commissioned officers: colonels, captains, lieutenants and so on, and the top dogs are the generals, the major generals, etc. (The full list is available here.)
Almost all the convicted criminals in the audit were drawn from the officer corps, with the majority – over 700 – being warrant officers. But there were also 163 captains, 42 lieutenant colonels, 10 majors, 21 colonels, 10 brigadiers, and 1 major general. In other words, SAPS management.
The second alarming thing is that it should be a prerequisite that in order to be a police officer, you cannot have a criminal record. But fully 306 of these “criminal cops”, as Twitter dubbed them, had criminal records before they joined the SAPS. When asked how this could possibly have happened, lieutenant general Nkayishane Mazibuko, head of HR for SAPS, said that some members could have side-stepped the vetting process by using “other people’s hands” to give their fingerprints. Mazibuko also gave some hint as to the chaotic record-keeping process of the SAPS when he suggested that a criminal record accumulated in a different province might not be picked up in another province.
The third alarming thing is that 1,142 of the criminal cops committed their crimes after being employed by the SAPS, and yet none of them has been fired. “How is it possible that SAPS doesn’t know when a member is appearing in court for rape?” MP van Wyk asked, echoing the disbelief of those present. Mazibuko’s responses revealed that there is no automatic dismissal within SAPS resulting from a criminal conviction.
There is, instead, some form of labyrinthine internal disciplinary process where a suspended sentence, for instance, might keep you in employment. Those who are thrown in jail, Mazibuko said, are fired. Scant consolation, since presumably it’s quite hard to be a serving SAPS member while actually in prison.
The fourth alarming thing is the audit of criminality in the SAPS only covered to January 2010, so there are likely to be more criminally convicted police officers now. And when MPs asked by which point they could reasonably hope for the problem of criminality in the SAPS to be fixed, or at least for convicted criminals to be dismissed, they were given a date almost a year from now: June 2014.
That is a long time to wait, especially given that last week a Western Cape police captain became the fifth police officer to be arrested for rape in that province alone since 10 July of this year. He is accused of raping a sex worker, a group frequently targeted by SAPS members. In August last year, the Women’s Legal Centre and sex worker rights group SWEAT published a report which found “police officers in South Africa are the main violators of sex workers’ human rights”, with 70% of the 308 interviewed sex workers having experienced abuse at the hands of SAPS members.
After the release of the report last August, followed by the requisite expressions of shock from SAPS management, sensitivity classes were announced for SAPS officers. We asked the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) if anything had changed since then.
“In the time period that I have been at the Centre, the number of sex worker assaults have not at all decreased since the publishing of the report last year August,” the WLC’s Sithuthukile Mkhize replied. “It’s actually very sad to say that exactly a year later, sex workers continue being victims of sexual assaults especially by suspects who are members of the South African Police Service.”
SWEAT’s Ntokozo Yingwana told Daily Maverick that although they hadn’t conducted any formal follow-up research, the number of calls they receive on their telephone helpline had actually increased since the report. “However, these calls are not only to report abuse – sex workers also call us for advice or counselling,” Yingwana said. “So sex workers are becoming aware of their rights, and are reaching out more. But I wouldn’t say that is an indication that police have stopped abusing them.”
A secondary issue is that when SAPS members are charged with crimes in the public eye in the course of their work, it seems that we rarely hear of a firm resolution. Moses Dlamini, spokesperson for the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), told Daily Maverick that IPID investigators “have a maximum of 90 days to complete investigations but generally complete them well ahead of that”.
It sure doesn’t feel that way. For instance, there have appeared to be no reports forthcoming about the case of Michael Daniels, the Wolseley farm worker shot dead by police in the course of Boland farm protests last November. But Dlamini says progress has indeed been made. “The investigation was completed and the docket sent to the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] for a decision,” he said. “The DPP took a decision that one policeman be charged. The case was in court on 5 August 2013 and it was postponed to 25 September 2013 for a regional court date.” We now know with reasonable certainty that this policeman will remain on the SAPS payroll up until (and if) he’s led off to a jail cell.
Part of the reason police criminality seems so shocking is that, to state the obvious, it seems like a total breach of trust, a rupturing of the agreed-upon arrangement between society and its protectors. “The police should be held to a higher standard,” said the DA’s Dianne Kohler-Barnard in a statement after the parliamentary meeting. “Wearing the blue uniform you are also given a firearm and entrusted with more power than anyone,” the ANC’s van Wyk said in a tweet.
Closing the meeting on Wednesday, van Wyk summed up the dominant sentiment in the air. “I think we are all sharing a feeling of…”
“Despair?” an MP suggested.
“Despair,” van Wyk agreed.
In whom shall we trust, after all, when the bad guys and the good guys wear the same uniform? DM
Photo: Police vehicles parked outside the local police station in crime-ridden Muldersdrift in western Johannesburg, Wednesday, 27 February 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA
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