Opinionista Alex Eliseev 11 September 2014

When it comes to policing, accountability is what matters

If you thought the whole ‘Thuli Madonsela is a spy’ thing was weird, imagine two police officers standing on the steps of a court, apologising to a rapper for shooting him in a case of mistaken identity, on the same day their boss, Riah Phiyega, was trying to avoid explaining the Marikana bloodbath. It’s almost funny. Except it isn’t.

With the world feasting on the final bite of the great Oscar Pistorius tragedy, the Khuli Chana story is likely to be all but lost today. On any other day, two police officers having to publicly apologise for shooting and wounding a civilian would – and should – be a scandal of the highest order.

Chana was wounded while driving his BMW in October last year. The officers opened fire on his car with R-5 rifles. Eight bullets hit the car and Chana was lucky to escape alive, given that the rounds sliced across the cabin as he ducked for cover. Chana was hit by the shrapnel but was not seriously injured.

Initially, the police opened a case against the musician, claiming he was somehow at fault. This was abandoned before he could be formally charged.

Instead, the charges he laid against the two constables, Mduduzi Nzuza and Sam Baloyi, went all the way with the officers facing several counts including attempted murder and being reckless with their firearms.

On Wednesday, after much behind-the-scenes negotiation and on the morning their trial was due to begin, the two policemen walked out of court, hugged Chana and made a public apology (which was part of the deal).

“We are apologising to Khuli Chana,” they said. “We’re sorry he was injured in a case of mistaken identity.”

As a result of the settlement, taxpayers will likely pay over a million rand towards Chana’s medical and legal costs (which he is entitled to) while the cops will have to go for re-training (to learn how not to fire wildly at cars just because they fit a certain description).

We don’t know exactly why the police lawyers threw their cards on the table and folded but rest assured it’s because Chana’s defence gave them a sneak preview of their hand, which must have revealed a royal flush. In other words, the police knew they had no chance in court and wanted to avoid further public embarrassment.

The trial, had it run its course, would not have been a trial of two junior policemen but of the police service itself. So in many ways, it’s a pity it never resumed.

Chana was gracious in accepting the apology while his lawyer, Cliff Alexander, said the settlement should have come a year ago, and the police wasted a great deal of time and money.

The two officers, Nzuza and Baloyi, are exceptionally lucky. They could have just as easily found themselves facing a murder charge and the possibility of the jail sentence to go with it. They made their apology in less than 10 seconds, but what they were really apologising for was letting their rifles rip in a shooting which could have left an innocent man dead.

They probably won’t make the same mistake again. And what they did is not an indictment on every other officer out there. But it does speak to the fundamental problems the police service faces: poor training, reckless violence and the loss of public trust and respect.

What’s really worrying, however, is the silence from police bosses.

National commissioner Riah Phiyega has been hit by so many scandals, you seldom hear her speak in public unless it’s a set-piece event like a commemoration of fallen officers or a statement to praise some or other successful operation. She should come out with a strong statement about what happened here and make sure her officers know that apologising for shooting the people you are supposed to protect is not just another day at the office. She needs to lead and send a strong message. She needs to assure the public that the police can still be trusted.

Just last week, a serving policeman was amongst a gang of robbers caught in a shootout with real officers. At the same time, a Cape Town court awarded R300,000 to a blind busker who was beaten and dragged off by local metro police officers.

When last did you hear from the chief of the Johannesburg Metro Police? In fact… do you even know who the JMPD chief is?

The new Gauteng police commissioner, Lesetja Mothiba, is yet to show us what he’s made of. So far, he has spent too much time making politically-correct speeches and not enough time sharing his vision with the province. Where was he when his officers were grovelling on the court steps? What message was being sent to the public? To the Community Policing Forums? To potential informers or crime whistleblowers? To reservists?

It’s too early to pass judgment on Mothiba, but he needs to start inspiring confidence. He needs to be more present in the everyday life of the province, sharing successes and taking a punch when his officers mess up (and they will). He needs to start showing a policeman’s heart and mind, rather than a politician’s tongue. (More Mzwandile Petros, without the recklessness and drama of Bheki Cele.)

The worst thing the police can do is pretend the Khuli Chana debacle never happened and continue to preach police-community partnerships. Accountability is what matters. Silence is the enemy. This country already has far too many leaders who don’t take responsibility. DM

Alex Eliseev is an EWN reporter. Follow him at: @alexeliseev

Gallery

While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.


Newsflash

Zondo deals Lynne Brown a sucker punch: ‘Does she deny working with the Guptas?’

By Jessica Bezuidenhout

Towns near Fukushima are now being plagued by hordes of rampaging radioactive wild boars. Where are Asterix and Obelix when you need them?