Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 10 February 2014

Time for the minister of police to hand in his resignation?

The police are there to maintain law and order. But now they are the very ones who are breaking the law and creating disorder. President Zuma condemns them for their “heavy-handedness and brutality”. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, however, still defends them and says our “public order policing units are among the best in the world.”

Whatever the minister may say to defend the police, the truth is that the people of this country have lost faith in those who were meant to protect them and maintain their safety. Around the dinner tables when crime is discussed, a typical reaction is, “the police are behind it.” In the rural areas where protests and civil disorder have taken over, the police are losing the battle. They are shooting the people they are meant to protect and adding to the chaos. Who holds the police accountable?

If the minister of police is so out of touch, how can his judgement be respected? Addressing a conference of 1,500 police station commanders in Durban last week, he said that the police use a “combination of techniques from different countries as well as those learnt in South Africa”. “But”, he said “the level of dangerous weapons the police have to face is extreme.” He rationalises and justifies the police actions.

Switching tactics somewhat, Mr Zuma tries to put a word in for the police by describing the violent nature of the service delivery protests and lays the blame on the “untransformed nature of the police force…with its history of Apartheid death squads and inadequate training in public order policing”. Is such a statement not an incriminating and ridiculous shifting of blame?

Fortunately South Africa does have a kind of police ombudsman in the form of the head of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID), the recently appointed Mr Robert McBride. He is the controversial figure, remember, who was convicted of drunken driving and then interfering with the process of justice at the time when he was arrested. Overriding all the objections to his appointment and the unsavoury background of a man who is meant to be above all suspicion, the minister, presumably paying back ANC favours, appointed McBride.

How is McBride responding to all that is going on in the police, and how is IPID taking account of the increasingly wide-spread complaints against the police? There is no evidence yet of any constructive engagement.

We also have a Commissioner of Police, Ms Riah Phiyega, who has an impressive CV, but whose integrity is now being questioned and who is now herself facing a charge of “defeating the ends of justice and a breach of national security” for allegedly alerting a senior manager that he was being investigated.

With such a spectacularly flawed group of leaders associated with the police, the instinct might be that we throw up our hands and try to forget that we are all participants in this gruelling tragicomedy. But if we did, we would be complicit and guilty of serious dereliction of our duties as responsible citizens. A more focused and determined response must be to examine the chain of command in the police force and then launch an appeal for the leader of the pack to be removed. While the national buck obviously stops with the president, our chances of removing him at this stage are not great. His minister, however, presents a different opportunity.

It is the minister of police who has made the appointments of the senior officials and it is he who must take full responsibility. There are many examples in history of leaders who fail and then fall on their swords to spare their people the anguish of removing them. If our minister of police does not have the courtesy or consideration to give up the fight that he is so obviously losing, we should help him and insist that he hands in his badge.

Yes, matters are extreme at present and the culture of violence is an overwhelming threat to the country, but that is what the police are there for. In a recent statement, minister Mthethwa said “the escalation in public violence has put the police under siege” and further added: “There are protests everywhere in the world, but never have we had such a spike of public violence in the country.” His final comment is, “We are sitting on a time-bomb and we all as a nation need to do something.”

Yes, “something” must be done. But if the minister cannot get beyond this confused exclamation, how can his leadership be trusted? Civil disobedience and violent protest are not a new phenomenon. Don’t we need direction and a strategy that will give the country a measure of confidence in his leadership? His cry is not a reassuring statement from the minister, whose department is in charge of the safety and the good order of the country.

There is clear provision in our Westminster parliamentary system of individual ministerial responsibility. If ministers fail to discharge the responsibility assigned to them, then they must be removed.

Instead of throwing an outlandishly extravagant and self-congratulatory party, with all that is going on in the country right now, has the time not come for the minister of police to face the music? DM


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