South Africa needs – no, it demands – much more than army ranks, shoot-to-kill imperatives and flamboyant top cops to ensure the police themselves don’t become the “thug blue line-up”.
It would seem there is a new thug in town. A different kind of thug who will either offer you a helping hand or impose his authority and, once you have shown your trust, violate you in the worst possible way. There was a time when the sight of a police car made you feel safe, or is that presumptuous? Should the question be, has there ever been a time when the sight of a police car made anyone feel safe?
A while back police chief General Bheki Cele gave the directive to his boys and girls in blue (and grey) to shoot-to-kill when the situation warranted it. To justify this move police minister Nathi Mthethwa and the ever-flamboyant Bheki Cele took great pains to inform us about the serious levels of crime the police to deal with in this country. A number of people welcomed this stance, but equal numbers were severely opposed. I am one of those that felt this was a bad idea and recent events have re-affirmed our opposition.
On the surface shoot-to-kill might seem like a brilliant and long overdue plan of action in a country where the crime is unusually violent and the perpetrators dangerously bold, where principled policemen and women on duty place themselves in the line of fire and in many cases lose their lives. But on the other hand this is also a country plagued by numerous accounts of the actions of what seem like barely emotionally stable police officers, and one has to wonder about the wisdom of giving these very people license to kill.
Sadly, our police force has been in the news one time too many for being the perpetrators of crimes against those they are supposed to protect. These criminals include the former chief of police Jackie Selebi recently found guilty of corruption. Others fitting the bill include the officers who gunned down 23-year-old Nathi Ntuli after they stopped him in the middle of the night in an unmarked car for allegedly driving on the wrong side of the road. He was unarmed and yet they riddled his car with bullets (clearly they didn’t think to shoot at the tyres) and to add insult to injury, three of them left the scene of the accident during the investigation.
Murder and corruption are not the only crimes being committed. In 2007, a 16-year-old girl was arrested for shoplifting in a sweet store, while she was in police custody a Sergeant Motlhafi went into her cell and raped the teenager. Hers is not the only story. Another shocking account is the story of a young woman who had gone out to celebrate her birthday in Knysna and had an argument with her family. She walked to a nearby shop to calm down and was approached by two policemen who offered her a lift home. When she got into the car, they held her down and raped her. Fortunately she was able to escape, but not before being subjected to a traumatic two-hour game of hide-and-seek with the cops and their friends who wanted to make sure she didn’t live to tell her story. They even went hunting for her at the rape crisis centre. Closer to home a male friend was stopped on Grayston Drive in Sandton while driving home from an evening function. The four policemen roughly frisked him and searched his car. While they were at it they stole his wallet.
Reprobate cops are not a new phenomenon. In 1998 three unidentified black men were used by police for “training” their special unit dogs. These men were driven to a mine dump and repeatedly mauled by the dogs while they screamed in agony. Policemen stood by. They watched. They laughed.
Every other newspaper, every other day has accounts of police officers hijacking motorists, stealing from citizens and evidence rooms, dealing in drugs and selling firearms to those looking to commit cash heists – breaking the laws they are paid to uphold.
So General Cele, while we have full appreciation that you are caught in the fight of your life against crime in a country with one of the highest crime levels in the world, and are working towards protecting us from rapists, murderers and hijackers, the truth of the matter is some of the very people you have entrusted with the duty of shielding us are in more instances than not, the ones also causing us harm. Surely the fact that members of your police force are accused of rape and murder should be a serious concern for you, because it most certainly is a very serious concern for us.
As I see it, the fight against crime will not be won until you root out the criminals on their payroll. You want to fight crime, start with getting rid of the filth that has given the police force such a bad name and cast a shadow of doubt on those cops who are dedicated with principles and morals, and who are genuinely working to make the streets safer for us. It’s not enough to lash out against the rotten elements giving them the option “to choose whether they want to be heroes or gangsters”. It’s unacceptable that police officers who have been charged and, in some instances actually convicted of crime, are still allowed to stay in their jobs without some form of justice being meted out. They should feel the full brunt of the law (maybe even more so) and not be allowed to return to work or find employment in any service department again.
It’s also time that those who recruit realise that being a policeman is a calling more than a job (just as is being a teacher or a nurse). And it’s become glaringly obvious in all these disciplines that there should be stricter criteria regarding character when deciding who should be allowed to take up these positions. Too much abuse occurs at the hands of these people. Simply needing a job is just not good enough.
How long can we retain our sanity when we have to be frightened of not only the law-breakers, but the law-enforcers too?
Brendah works for a management consultancy during the day, you know, one of those companies that no-one really knows what they do. Before she defected and went uber-corporate she worked for UpperCase Media and the Mail & Guardian and now does her writing on a freelance basis. She has dreams of being the change Zimbabwe needs. And did we mention she is female? Black female?