It’s rare in South Africa to come across a police chief who is held in high esteem. So when one of them leaves office, it’s time to reflect on what made him good, and to ask why that person is leaving. Mzwandile Petros, the Gauteng Provincial Police Commissioner, is about to leave his office, and, it seems at this point, will not return. The circumstances around his departure tell us much about our police service/force at the moment, and why we should really start to worry. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
In the mid-2000’s, Gauteng number plates indicated that its cars lived in a Gangster’s Paradise. Some of those cars didn’t live there for long, their owners were hijacked, and the vehicles ended up all around the country, and in some cases, far and wide across the continent. It was a bitter time. The start of the Christmas shopping season was marked by the start of cash-in-transit heists. Radio newsrooms at the time knew to expect one just before the nine o-clock bulletin, because the highways were busy, but not too busy. In several cases, bullets flew across the N1 in the middle of rush hour.
Slowly things started to change. Violent crime as a whole went down, cash in transit heists were replaced by ATM bombings. They resulted in the same amount of money being stolen, but were generally less dangerous. However, there was still a climate of fear. It’s the old problem with crime, the number of violent crimes every year was going down (if you believed the now “annual” statistics), but the number of people affected by violent crime continued to rise. More and more people had terrible stories to tell.
In 2010, Petros was asked to leave his position in the Western Cape, and come up to Gauteng. He came with an already strong reputation for crime fighting, along with reports he would not stand any corruption. Considering he was taking over from Perumal Naidoo, whose final leaving do was hosted by a brothel owner, it was a welcome change.
Petros immediately started to make the kind of impact in the public debate that only a properly legitimate voice can make. He held press conferences, attended the odd policing seminar, and generally made himself available. He admitted early on that half of South Africa’s violent crime occurred in Gauteng, and gave the impression that fighting crime in Gauteng would go a long way to making the entire country safe. Remember, the most well-known crime fighting official in the country at that point was Jackie Selebi. So Petros was certainly a breath of fresh air.
One of the first things he did was to park disused police Nyalas at the on-ramps to the major highways, and at shopping centres. Inside each one was a couple of officers. The vehicles couldn’t move. But the presence mattered. If you got onto a highway, you saw police officers. If you went shopping, you felt safer. At the same time the number of police officers started to peak, as part of a trend that started under Thabo Mbeki.
The lessons learnt from visible policing are strong, and are finally being learnt. Civilians feel safer, criminals feel scared. And Petros was among the first to make it a proper conscious policy throughout the province.
So when news broke two weeks ago that he was going to leave, there was, quite naturally, a public outcry. The problem of crime is so bad, and affects so many interests in society, that there is now a collection of organisations with public legitimacy who are listened to on the subject. Organisations like CrimeLine or the Gauteng Community Policing Forum are loud voices in Gauteng society. There are also plenty of academics, some of them at the Institute for Security Studies, who closely study crime and policing.
As a result, the reasons given for Petros’ departure were always going to be carefully scrutinised. And immediately shown to be what they are, nonsense.
The first claim was that the reason he was leaving was because it would have been breaking the law for him to continue. It took a while for this to be explained. But the idea was, that the Police Act said once a commissioner’s term was up, they were no longer commissioner. And because he’d been a commissioner for ten years, seven in Cape Town, three in Gauteng, it was time to move on. Of course, that’s not what the law says. The law says that your term is over when it’s over. It was written by lawyers, after all. It says nothing about whether or not that contract can be renewed, or if a whole new contract can be signed.
So someone, somewhere in the National Police Commissioner’s office, was telling fibs. And don’t forget, the National Police Commissioner at the moment of course grew up in the police. When she wasn’t being an advocate and working in government. So it’s not like there’s no one there who can’t interpret law.
No, what was happening here was that his contract was up, and someone doesn’t want to renew it. They don’t want to sign another contract. Why?
On the face of it, according to the facts in the public domain, it’s overwhelming opinion that Petros should stay. Crime has come down during his tenure. His strategies are part of the reason for that. The public like him. There have been no major scandals in his personal office. And in fact, there have been very few, by our standards, corruption scandals in the Gauteng police as a whole. In fact, there are some who believe that if we appointed our National Police Commissioners on merit, Petros would be the front-runner.
Oh. Hold on just a second there. The clouds are beginning to part just a little. So if Petros stayed on, he would be a rival to Phiyega? Hmmm. That might be it.
But if this is South Africa, surely, as Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief for this publication, we can do a little better than that. What if it’s the fact that there have been no corruption scandals on his watch? Which means he must be pretty tough on corruption… Ah. That could be it. The problem here is not that he’s corrupt. It’s that he’s not corrupt.
This somehow makes more sense. After all, it’s not like we have a tradition of appointing our best and brightest to the National Prosecuting Authority (when we appointed them at all), or to other key jobs in the justice system. And the entire system that’s been built up around that will come crashing down if you do have someone, who is not corrupt, involved. Especially someone who is popular, they might get too big for their boots and want to do the right thing or something like that.
The real problem here is not that any of these reasons may be true. It’s that we have so little faith in the police, and in the criminal justice system generally, because of the people running it, that it’s so easy to believe they are true. And the buck for that stops with the people at the very top. DM
Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.
Photo: Mzwandile Petros.
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