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Fixing the criminal justice system starts by rooting out corruption at the top

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

Fraud-prevention experts say the fight against corruption starts at the top. In the South African criminal justice system - where several high-ranking officials have been accused or found guilty of maladministration, fraud and corruption - the lack of a comprehensive response continues to undermine public trust in the system, despite decreasing instances of crime. By OSIAME MOLEFE.

Since taking office in 2009, President Jacob Zuma’s Cabinet has done much to reduce crime. In fact, reducing crime is one of the too few areas in which the administration has made progress. According to the latest statistics, overall serious crime has come down since 2009/10, from over 3,800 to about 3,600 per 100,000 of the population currently. Murders, attempted murders, carjackings and house robberies, continuing the trend since 1994, have also come down under Zuma’s watch.

Briefing the media on Monday on the fourth-quarter outputs of the criminal justice system, justice and constitutional development minister Jeff Radebe said the reduction in crime statistics was the result of the government’s directed strategic interventions in this regard.

“The overall serious crime went down by 0.5% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period last year. During the period under review (January to March 2012), contact crimes were reduced by 1.2% to 307.8 per 100,000 of the population,” Radebe said.

The minister also said prosecutions of so-called trio crime (house robberies, vehicle hijackings and business robberies) were up in 2011/12 compared to the previous year, and in excess of R540-million in criminal assets had been frozen this financial year alone.

Despite the downward trends in most crime statistics and increases in prosecutions, indications exist that the public lacks faith in the criminal justice system due to perceptions of corruption. 

According to a report released earlier this month by consumer insights firm Pondering Panda, 62% of the over 4,000 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed believed the police were becoming more corrupt and 57% said they believed the government had not put the right people in charge of the police. 

Another survey, by the Human Sciences Research Council – the 2011 South African Social Attitudes Survey – said 66% of the approximately 3,000 respondents believed bribery and corruption were endemic in the South African police service. That was almost twice the percentage who believed number-two ranked home affairs was corrupt. 

A more comprehensive study, the 2011 victims of crime survey conducted by StatsSA, said since 2007, policing, particularly in the Western Cape, had become second on the list of government services where bribe solicitation was perceived to be pervasive. This is further shown in the breakdown in relations between the communities and police in Nyanga and Khayelitsha on the Cape Flats, which has seen residents impart a particularly brutal brand of vigilante justice. Over the past three months, nine young men suspected of house breaking and theft were burned alive by members of the community.

“When we try to report crimes to seek justice, we are turned away from police stations or treated very poorly by officers. When crimes occur and we report them, police often don’t arrive at the scene at all. If a case makes it into the courtroom, it can drag on for years or be thrown out due to bungled investigation or corruption,” Khayelitsha residents said in an open letter handed to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille two weeks ago. 

These perceptions of corruption are not helped by several high-profile fraud and corruption investigations and convictions of senior members of the criminal justice system. It could even be argued that the lower echelons of the criminal justice system just mirror the top. So if the police minister is thought to be abusing the crime intelligence slush fund, an ordinary police officer at the coal face could more easily justify why he or she would solicit payment for performing a service they’d been hired to do.

The rot at the top of the criminal justice system has been laid bare in recent years. Within the span of five years, two consecutive national police commissioners, Jackie Selebi and Bheki Cele, have been fired, with the former prosecuted and convicted of corruption and the latter found guilty of maladministration. Richard Mdluli, the several-times suspended chief of crime intelligence, faces murder and kidnapping charges and a swarm of allegations, including nepotism, misuse of public funds and using the country’s intelligence apparatus in internal ANC battles. Allegations were that Mdluli has, as a talisman, dirt on top government officials, including Zuma and police minister Nathi Mthethwa.

The decay in the police service appears to be spreading laterally to other justice structures, in light of suspended prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach’s claims that acting national director of public prosecutions Nomgcobo Jiba was acting to protect Mdluli. Question marks also hang over the series of actions that saw prosecutors drop the kidnapping and murder charges against Mdluli in December last year.

Radebe on Monday gave only cursory mention of the progress on initiatives to combat corruption within the justice, crime prevention and security sectors. This is one of the outputs the Zuma administration set out to measure its performance against in 2009. Radebe said in 2011/12, 107 officials from the cluster were convicted for corruption and related charges. According to Radebe, this was evidence of the success of anti-corruption initiatives in the cluster as the number of convictions had increased from the previous year.

However, within the SA Police Service, successive anti-corruption initiatives put in place since Selebi closed the anti-corruption unit in 2002 have failed to take hold due to lack of buy-in from the organisation’s management  and executives, according to the Institute of Security Studies. SAPS is currently implementing yet another anti-corruption strategy, which was presented to Parliament late last year. 

Built on pillars of prevention, detection, investigation and resolution, the strategy focuses on rooting out corruption within the SAPS rank and file, which is important, but the strategy gives too little attention to the effects of what is happening at the top. So even if the strategy is implemented effectively, the rot from the top could just seep down and soil the lower ranks again. DM

Read more:

  • Something very rotten: Political shenanigans to do with the police look worse and worse, in The Economist
  • Why a South African anti-corruption agency must be independent of the police to be effective (video), from PolitySA 
  • Protector or predator, tackling police corruption in South Africa (pdf), from the Institute of Security Studies 

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