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From the Inside: Confronting the Rule of Lawlessness

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape. See her Wikipedia profile.

We need a “whole-of-society” response to lawlessness and innovative thinking in finding solutions to societal problems.

A few years ago, I worked with a man who had serious problems on the home front in Khayelitsha.

Mike* had a neighbour who regularly threatened to kill his wife. He would receive frantic phone calls at work and rush home to protect his wife from his neighbour. The neighbour, in turn, was accusing Mike’s wife of bewitching his wife, making her infertile.

Mike’s life became fraught with anxiety and daily trepidation.

I did my best to facilitate a resolution, leading to Mike laying a criminal charge against his neighbour, who was duly arrested.

After a few weeks of seeming calm, I enquired how the case was proceeding.

Fine,” he responded.

Then after a brief pause, he added: “I killed him”.

The incredulous look on my face prompted Mike to explain that the arrest hadn’t worked. Soon afterwards, his wife’s tormentor was out on bail.

It was time for plan B. With the help of a friend, Mike captured his wife’s assailant and stabbed him to death.

I then went straight to the police and explained what I had done. They charged me with murder,” he said matter-of-factly.

His relaxed demeanour showed that he felt more comfortable facing a murder rap than living with the daily terror of a neighbour threatening his wife.

A few months later, the magistrate rejected the police’s third request for a trial postponement and struck the case off the court roll. Mike was free to go, and his family could get on with their lives again as if nothing had happened.

Mike’s case may be an extreme example, but it is not uncommon: Over three years, there were some 78 unsolved vigilante killings in Khayelitsha, where residents took the law into their own hands, unwilling to wait for the slow-grinding wheels of justice to turn full circle (if they turned at all).

For the police, these murders remain unsolved. For many in the community, these murders solved an immediate problem. And herein lies an enormous dilemma for a constitutional democracy. It cannot function without an engrained culture of respect for the law, and public confidence that offenders will be held to account through the law, without fear or favour.

This culture is called the rule of law. It is to a functional democracy what a reliable electricity supply is to a modern economy: it cannot work without it. Yet the immediate advantages of breaking the law outweigh the wider considerations for so many people.

Take the major liquor suppliers, who find every possible way to circumvent the law so that limitless amounts of alcohol can reach illegal outlets in residential communities, causing immeasurable damage to the social fabric; or the bakkie builders who dump rubble in any open field in poor communities. Cumulatively these individual acts contribute to a dysfunctional, anarchic society.

Unlike an electricity blackout, where the impact is immediate, it takes time to recognise the implications of the steady erosion of the rule of law.

It is trite to say that a constitutional democracy requires citizens not only to exercise their rights, but to live by its rules and fulfil their responsibilities; and to change laws they dislike through legal processes.

We are slowly beginning to realise the risk to society as a whole (and especially its poorest members) posed by people who violate these core assumptions, especially when they use the fig leaf of “transformation” to justify their impunity.

Contempt for the law, starting at the top, seeps into society, like poison running through a drip-irrigation system.

This was brought home last week by the unanticipated announcement that state prosecutor Gerrie Nel had resigned from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to head up Afriforum’s private prosecution unit.

Nel believes he can advance the rule of law more effectively outside the politically-captured NPA than inside it.

He is going to use a small legal loophole that allows for private prosecutions. It remains to be seen whether Nel’s strategy will work, and whether he can ensure greater constitutional accountability from the NPA while avoiding alternative political pressures.

In the provincial government, we are also always on the lookout for innovative ways to deal with the major systemic challenges posed by growing lawlessness.

Solutions are difficult to find. Take the announcement this week of the suspension of our night-time emergency medical services to 11 “red zones” in Cape Town unless they are accompanied by a police escort.

I understand why, given the constraints on our over-stretched police service, they cannot accompany every service delivery team into all red zones; but the implications of curtailing our 24-hour emergency health services are potentially dire. What happens, for example, if a mother or baby dies (or faces life-long disability) because we cannot provide a rapid response during a complicated birth?

Less dramatic, but equally devastating in the long term, is the constant vandalism of our e-learning platform to poor schools, installed at a cost of billions of rand, so that all learners can get the advantages of internet connectivity that middle-class children take for granted.

Increasingly our installation and repair teams are refusing to work in certain areas without police protection, because they have been robbed at gunpoint once too often.

There are those who argue that we will never turn the tide of lawlessness unless we first deal with poverty and inequality. While I understand this argument, and have some sympathy with it, history tells us it works the other way around. We cannot tackle the crisis of poverty and unemployment in the absence of a safe and secure environment.

The vast majority of people (from every political persuasion) understand that we need sustained economic growth to beat pervasive poverty. This requires investment which depends on public confidence, which in turn depends on the consistent application of the rule of law.

There is no single silver bullet to solve this problem. It is only through the collective effort of innovative individuals harnessing their circle of influence that we can turn things around. Like the principals, officials and school governing bodies who move mountains to restore a school’s water supply overnight, when the pipes are ripped out; or the parents and community activists who form “walking buses” so that children can move to and from school safely. Or the Neighbourhood Watches who have registered with us to access resources, training and support to make the best contribution they can. And the new police management (in both Western Cape and Khayelitsha) who are taking great strides in reversing the legacy of disengaged policing.

Our challenge in government is to provide the right catalytic support for these efforts, so that they evolve into a “whole-of-society” response to lawlessness. School governing bodies, with the support of our “Safer Schools” unit, need to compile school safety plans involving staff, parents, learners, neighbourhood watches, and others, who all understand their complementary roles and are committed to fulfilling them, in partnership with the police.

There must also be ways of mobilising communities to help us restore our 24-hour medical emergency services to all areas. Using the most innovative thinkers available, we need to devise strategies for a “whole-of-society” partnership to turn this crisis into an opportunity.

Law abiding citizens outnumber law breakers, by far. It would really transform our society if we organised and aligned our efforts to demonstrate this. DM

Not his real name.

Helen Zille is Premier of the Western Cape.


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