First published in Daily Maverick 168
The events of 26 October 2014 remain etched in the minds of most South Africans. Not only was a young man in his prime brutally murdered and robbed of a great footballing future, but with Senzo Meyiwa’s killing South Africans lost a much-loved national team captain.
Senzo had cemented his place in the hearts of the Orlando Pirates fans and his leadership skills had also earned him the captain’s armband in the club.
To understand his brilliance one needs to look no further than the difficult match of May 2013 between Orlando Pirates and continental soccer giants TP Mazembe in the latter’s hostile home ground in Lubumbashi in DR Congo.
Armed soldiers were everywhere. Dubious decisions by the referee followed in which Pirates’ captain Lucky Lekgwathi was red-carded.
With 10 men facing one of the strongest teams in Africa and thousands of hostile Mazembe fans, Meyiwa stepped up and showed leadership. He not only saved two controversial penalties, but he rescued Pirates from being dumped from the CAF Champions League in the early stages. Pirates lost 1-0 but proceeded to the group stages with a favourable 3-2 aggregate. Meyiwa emerged as a hero.
To do that in Lubumbashi showed the mettle and mental strength of the man who would later deservingly inherit Lekgwathi’s armband at Pirates.
A single bullet to his chest on that Sunday night snuffed out a life so valuable to millions of soccer lovers.
The meaning of the loss was succinctly captured by a soccer fan who was interviewed in Soweto on Monday, on the sixth anniversary of Meyiwa’s death.
He told a reporter that if Meyiwa’s case could remain unresolved for six years, despite all the resources that the police had thrown at it, then ordinary South Africans did not stand a chance against crime.
Interestingly, on the same day, Police Minister Bheki Cele and his national Police Commissioner Khehla Sitole called a press conference at which they announced a “breakthrough” in the Meyiwa matter. But the drama that followed the appearance of the five murder accused demonstrated a faultline in our psyche as a nation. Having applauded the belated capture of the suspects, the public sentiment soon turned to questioning the strength of the police’s case against the suspects. Some even believe that the five may have been “framed”.
This was triggered by the suspects’ protest inside the Boksburg Magistrate’s Court where they professed their innocence.
These are hardened criminals, already in jail for a litany of serious crimes, including murder. To expect them to readily admit their guilt would be foolish.
Granted, the police did not present a convincing case in court. This was just the first appearance.
What is sad about the debate is that it appears that South Africans would rather believe the denials of criminals than the police who are meant to maintain law and order. But South Africans are not to blame. We are a society ravaged by brutal and violent crime while law enforcement agencies seem unable to deal with crime in general.
Lawlessness is slowly taking root. Acts of vigilantism appear to be on the rise. Suspected stock thieves are paraded through villages and later killed by community members while police vans are overturned and torched by angry farmers. This is a recipe for disaster.
Considering the low prosecution rates for these crimes, it is understandable why South Africans are so frustrated with the police. The glaring divide between reported crimes and successful prosecutions is a cause for concern.
Delivering the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) annual report in Parliament a year ago, National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi painted a gloomy picture of the country’s state of law enforcement.
She expressed concern about the low prosecution rate of crimes and told MPs of a prevailing feeling that “the country is busy losing the fight against crime”.
To put it into perspective, while the NPA recorded a 78% conviction rate for the murder cases it prosecuted, the cases that ended up in court were only a fraction of the murders reported over the same period. This means that a majority of the crimes remain unresolved. This was the case with the Meyiwa murder – until Monday. Whether the NPA will secure a successful prosecution remains to be seen. The Boksburg Magistrate’s Court heard that the Meyiwa killing was a botched robbery. This version is in sharp contrast to what AfriForum – which represents the Meyiwa family – said they had been told by the police.
A prosecutor’s case is only as strong as the docket brought to them by the SAPS. Therefore, the role and quality of police investigations cannot be overemphasised. The 2018/19 police statistics showed that more than 22,000 people were robbed in their homes while the NPA only managed to prosecute 1,600 of such cases over the same period. That is just more than 5% of the cases.
But we cannot afford to have a public that believes that criminals are in charge. The principles of accountability, of governments and private individuals, and equality are fundamental to the rule of law. Every South African should feel that the law protects them whether they are the Meyiwa family or the relatives of murdered Free State farm manager Brendin Horner.
The functioning of any state is dependent on its ability to uphold the rule of law. The feeling that the rule of law is failing does not bode well for SA.
Among the myriad priorities that President Cyril Ramaphosa has, cleaning up and capacitating the police should be uppermost on that list. The wail of Meyiwa’s mother and the tears of Horner’s family are our collective cries for help. No one feels safe. DM168