Defend Truth


Cowboy cops and crooks


Chris Vick is chairperson of Mobilize, which launched the Energy Comms campaign earlier this year to build public understanding of the energy crisis. Mobilize did similar work in 2020-2022 around Covid-19 under the name COVID Comms.

The new police ethos is clear: We're here to serve and protect - but if you mess with us, we'll probably mess with you. Criminals have learnt this. Now the Public Protector and the Sunday Times have too.

Cabinet ministers I know (and I know more than one, before you start jumping to conclusions) like to reflect on how Bheki Cele symbolises the compromises the ANC and government have had to make in recent years to “get the job done”.

The compromises — and the contradictions that go with them — take place on two levels: the personal and the political.

On the one hand, the police commissioner is seemingly sensitive to public abhorrence of crime and doesn’t hesitate to speak about, and implement, new strategies to deal with violent crime in particular. He talks tough seven days a week and has driven a new ethos in the police force – and, in the process, seemingly made an impact on police morale and performance.

On the other hand, he cavorts with criminal suspects as if he’s immune to public opinion.

Jackie Selebi had Glenn Agliotti, who will go down in history for his ability to literally get away with murder. Bheki Cele has two known “Agliottis” so far: Sbu Mpisane, the millionaire metro cop, allegedly evading taxes, building shoddy RDP houses and setting new benchmarks in bad taste. And Roux Shabangu who, according to both the Public Protector and the Sunday Times, has been involved in some seemingly dodgy deals around the rental of police buildings.

The head of police also embodies some of the fundamental political contradictions that exist between the human rights culture we fought for, and the challenges of implementing a culture of equal rights in an unequal society.

As a result, the same ANC leaders who acknowledge the significant difference Cele has made to law enforcement also grudgingly acknowledge that this has not happened without sacrifices. And they are well aware that this contradiction will continue to challenge our democracy and erode our national commitment to a human rights culture.

Under Cele’s watch, the police have built on the Selebi doctrine of executing bank heist members and mall robbers in full view of the public – sending a signal to the gangs they mean business, and ensuring they’ll ply their business elsewhere.

By fire by force, as the saying goes. And it works.

But therein lies the nub – in the same way that a few human rights rules have to get bent along the way to ensure success, so do a few other rules too.

Or, as one senior ANC leader put it to me recently: “Maybe we have to accept that Bheki is 90% good, 100% effective, but maybe only 80% honest. But at least he’s 100% effective.”

This may help us understand the current “Cowboy Cops and Crooks” doctrine:

  1. Be the tough guy when it comes to dealing with crime. Shoot to kill, literally, if it brings down crime. Bang your fist at public meetings, stress that you won’t tolerate attacks on police personnel and maintain your tough guy image. Wear a leather jacket. And pimp your rank at every opportunity.
  2. If the consequence of this shoot-to-kill strategy is that a few innocent victims take a bullet along the way, wring your hands and write it off as collateral damage. A small price to pay for your return on investment.
  3. If anyone criticises your strategy, or picks up on the fact that you’ve meandered away from our proud Constitution and the great and the good, come down on them like a ton of bricks. This includes, obviously, institutions like the Public Protector and the media. You’re either for us or against us, right?

So, in the case of the Sunday Times investigative team, the good guys abduct one of their journalists for a day or so, and when that fails, they let it be known they’re tapping their calls and sending a message that they’re not  to be messed with.

In the case of the Public Protector, the good guys get a few lowly officers to raid her offices just to blow some smoke up her nose. And then, a few weeks later, they conveniently leak to the media that she’s under investigation for fraud – the same day she’s due to shine a torch on allegations of corruption. Sure we burst your bubble, but it serves you right for bursting ours.

It’s a bit naïve to be shocked or surprised by what we are witnessing. Politics is increasingly militarised, and the military, which includes the police, is increasingly politicised. The fight against crime is increasingly a political one and crime continues to feature as a key issue in national and local elections.

At the same time, it would be naïve not to expect a state under pressure to start adopting a more aggressive approach against organisations or structures which criticise its actions when it comes to dealing with crime – a.k.a. the Public Protector and the private media.

The best defence, after all, is attack.

A government which is succeeding in meeting its targets and in addressing the expectations of the electorate will shrug off the criticism of Public Protectors and investigative journalists. Or, at the very least, try to contextualise their criticism. It will fight facts with facts, rather than with fire.

But when you’re on the rack and under pressure for failing to deliver, you don’t take kindly to criticism. You swat at your critics, intimidate and harass them, rather than engage with them. You blame them for highlighting the problem, rather than find out how they can help you solve it. You hide behind process and distance yourself from their point of view. You smear them rather than debate their findings. Rather than shooting holes in their argument, you shoot holes in them.

In the midst of this, a new icon emerges: Bheki Cele, Good Cop and Bad Cop all rolled into one. Mess with me, and I’ll mess with you. By whatever means necessary. DM


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