Opinionista Gushwell Brooks 22 May 2015

Operation Fiela: No success but for spin

Operation Fiela is a fiasco. Policing should be a continuous effort, not a desperate scramble solely aimed at creating the impression that government is taking criminality seriously following the international embarrassment that followed the recent xenophobic violence.

The continued evolution of Operation Fiela, both in intent and form, attests to how dubious it was from the very beginning. In fact, the trouble started with its name, Fiela, referring to the act of sweeping, as in sweeping out the dirt. Who or what is the dirt, and if we are talking about people – whether illegal immigrants, criminals or those suspected of initiating xenophobic violence – is it okay for a government to refer to people under its care as dirt?

It is distasteful, of that there is no doubt, but the subjects of Operation Fiela occupy the periphery of society. There is no society that appreciates their criminal element, and very few countries in the world appreciate their foreign national migrant population. As tough as it may be to accept, these peripheral, less appreciated demographics within society need their basic human rights protected, usually much to the rest of society’s disdain, but because they are prone to greater vulnerability, government should not play to the tune of populism. There is a moral imperative to go against the majority and protect the disliked minority.

That said, waning popularity from a populace that feels its government has not effectively dealt with crime and negative sentiment toward migrants – as well as the underlying causes thereof – gave government the perfect opportunity to salvage its reputation. Government’s solution? Act and act fast, never mind the long term consequences. For production value, garnish police in full riot gear with sprinklings of military backup could be seen marauding through hostels, churches and townships.

It has been a month since the operation began, kicking off with a raid on Jeppestown hostel and reassurance from National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega that the police are “taking back the streets”. Then the operation was aimed at tracking down those that were behind the xenophobic violence, and by a week ago Operation Fiela tactically combatted xenophobia by storming into the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, arresting and detaining foreign nationals before their documented status was determined, all whilst attorneys had to obtain court orders to see these people. This week it evolved to South Africa’s most effective crime fighting initiative ever, arresting over 12,000 in KwaZulu-Natal within a month!

Of the 12,171 suspects that have been arrested during Operation Fiela, 223 were arrested for murder, 169 were arrested for rape, whilst illegal firearms and goods including drugs were also seized during the operations.

“Great! Government is finally doing something about crime!” many would think, but are they?

The most obvious issue with this report out of KwaZulu-Natal is the fact that up until Operation Fiela, 12,000 criminals seemed to be running rampant in KwaZulu-Natal. What were the police doing all along, allowing hundreds of rapists and murderers to melt into society and continue their crime sprees? No society will ever feel protected if criminals are given free reign and only swooped upon once in a blue moon when the people need a bit of distraction.

The next issue is what the KwaZulu-Natal police and provincial government officials define as a success. The number of arrests by a police department, force or service should not be a measure of success. Arrest is simple enough; anyone could be the subject of arrest; from a drunken driver, to someone that is nicked for suspicion of a grave crime such as murder. But if arrest is the sole or primary measure of policing success, then surely all the police would ever have to do is go about arresting as many people as possible, including those that have given police no probable cause or suspicion for their detention.

That is exactly why real crime fighting and its efficacy is measured through convictions and whether society sees crime decreasing within their communities. To use an actual example, KwaZulu-Natal Community Safety MEC Willies Mchunu made an announcement that 349 suspects had been arrested for sex related crimes in April. Of the 349, 51 had been convicted, and a total of 412 years of imprisonment along with six life sentences had been handed down. Great, right? In reality, that is a 14% success rate, which even by matric standards is still a fail.

Okay, so it has been little more than a month, so we are still to see many more cases wrap up and the total number of convictions is yet to be determined. However, some of these accused would have been released on bail – as tough as it is to obtain bail for certain sexual offences. Even so, of those that obtained bail, some would disappear, and the report also fails to mention how many of the 51 convicts pleaded guilty and thus not only shortened court processes but made the prosecutor and the police’s job so much simpler. The remainder, who are either still in custody or will actually return to court, might be acquitted.

This leads us to the criminal justice process. This is the process that any accused, including anyone reading this piece, would most likely have to go through, if and when placed under arrest. This process needs to be multiplied by 12,171, as that is the number of arrests being boasted about. After arrest, an accused is officially charged and processed at a police station and placed in a holding cell. That accused is then entitled to appear in front of a judicial officer, usually a magistrate, within 48 hours, in accordance with Criminal Procedure and our Constitution. At said court appearance, assuming the accused has legal representation, the accused could plead and then lodge a bail application, which could be a lengthy enquiry.

With endless reports of prosecutors, judicial officers and police being stretched and therefore being unable to secure the required number of convictions through our court systems, how the hell do we expect effective policing through investigations that actually provide conviction-worthy evidence, when 12,000 new accused have been parachuted into one province’s criminal justice system? Simultaneously, these 12,000 new accused need to be tried by fatigued and overworked prosecutors and have their cases heard by equally fatigued and overworked judicial officers. How many of these cases will not simply end in one big stuff up or thrown out of court?

Criminality in South Africa is a serious problem; that is why we hurl ourselves out of bed and peer fear-stricken through our windows at the barking of our dogs in the middle of the night. This is exactly why it is in our interest that the police work in such a way that if someone enters the criminal justice system, they go through the criminal justice system with a thorough enquiry as to whether the accused is guilty of the crime or not. In other words, if they walk, they walk because they really didn’t commit the crime they have been accused of, and not as a result of the system’s inefficiencies. An already broken system is most certainly not aided when you break it further by throwing 12,000 accused into the mix and stall the system further.

Policing should be a continuous effort, not a desperate scramble solely aimed at creating the impression that government is taking criminality seriously following the international embarrassment that followed the recent xenophobic violence. The gangs of the Cape Flats have been a blight on the Western Cape for decades and now Operation Fiela has finally reached its shores. Sadly, the communities that feel safer after these massive clampdowns cannot sleep peacefully for much longer. An overloaded system will be further burdened and one can only anticipate that the vast majority of the 12,000 will return to society.

If one were to assume that most of them were in fact criminals and they returned to society after getting away with their crimes, yet angry at the inconvenience of their brief run-in with the law, one has to but pity the communities that will be target of their vented anger. Crime prevention should not be the stuff of spin, it should be aimed at getting real criminals off our streets all of the time, not just when society needs a bit of a distraction. DM

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