Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 7 November 2013

Violence begets violence

It is fitting that during a week in which the residents of Khutsong have taken matters into their own hands, a week during which Johannes Kana looked at the criminal system through jaded and unimpressed eyes, the police chief was also under fire for “defeating the ends of justice.” In other words, just like the residents of Khutsong, just like Johannes Kana, the commissioner stands accused of taking the law into her own hands. We know she won't go. But she should.

“Oppression doesn’t make people saintly, it makes them potential killers; all victims are dangerous.” – Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s words eloquently paraphrase VS Naipul, whose contempt for black and brown people is infamous. But there is something elegant in the simplicity of the statement. It is a way of saying what we all know all too well, that violence begets violence. It is also a polite way of pathologising the oppressed, a way to pretend that those who oppress, those who are the originators of violence, are not also culpable.

This week the nation convulsed with an energy that suggested that victims have had enough, that indeed they are dangerous. Firstly, in Khutsong, where six suspected gangsters were killed in a frenzy of self-righteous community indignation. Secondly, in Swellendam, where a judge showed Johannes Kana no mercy for killing Anene Booysens.

Judge Patricia Goliath lashed Kana with scorn, berated him with breath-taking piety, suggesting, “The extremely unfeeling and barbaric manner in which you attacked the deceased, the lack of remorse, and your calculated lies to try and hide your complicity, completely outweigh, in the court’s view, any mitigating circumstances.”

In both instances, the responses of those who hold state power were worth paying attention to. In Khutsong, the police promised to track down and prosecute those who had instigated the killings, those who had dealt the final blows. Given the conduct of the boys in blue over the last few years, it must have been hard for Khutsong residents to take the police’s admonishments seriously.

After all, this is the same police service that is responsible for the death of Andries Tatane. The same police who shot and killed scores of miners in Marikana in broad daylight, on national television.  They would be right in asking what the police behavior has been, if not vigilantism.

The community violence that engulfed parts of Khutsong this past week was an indication that the system is thoroughly broken.  It should have sent a strong message to the police that they have very little authority in this and many other communities, to exercise the rule of law.

In Kana’s case, the win felt hollow. As he sat in the courthouse, the young monster that poverty and Apartheid pathology created stared blankly ahead. He looked as though he wasn’t listening, as though he didn’t actually care. The judge had tough words for him, but he would also have known that the police did not investigate the case against Anene thoroughly enough to find and prosecute all of those who were responsible for her rape and murder.

He was in a sense both above and beyond the law, unreachable and therefore untouchable, precisely because the contradictions in the system, in the very conduct of those who are supposed to uphold the law is questionable itself.

These questions cut to the very core of the legitimacy of the police and indeed of the ability of the state to maintain ‘law and order.’  But they also raise even more fundamental questions about the suitability of the police commissioner, for her office.

It is fitting then, that during a week in which the residents of Khutsong have taken matters into their own hands, a week during which Johannes Kana looked at the criminal system through jaded and unimpressed eyes, the police chief was also under fire for “defeating the ends of justice.” In other words, just like the residents of Khutsong, just like Johannes Kana, the commissioner stands accused of taking the law into her own hands.

Phiyega has been protected through many storms. It is unlikely that she will step down now. She should, because she is guilty of presiding over a force that has taken matters into its own hands too many times to be able to legitimately call for others to exercise restraint.

Of course this is precisely why she will stay put. Being morally and professionally compromised is increasingly becoming a pre-requisite for staying in office in our country, especially for those who run our law enforcement agencies. DM


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