Our thinning blue line

Andrew Donaldson says the police are not exactly inspiring heaps of confidence at the moment

Let's be frank. After Wednesday's parliamentary portfolio committee meeting on the South African Police Services, the all-round confidence here at the Mahogany Ridge in our thinning blue line's ability to uphold law and order has slipped a teeny, weeny bit.

The figures are grim. In the last financial year, 1 165 service weapons were lost -- yet only 300 officers have been charged for their disappearance. It also emerged that more than 20 000 of them were incompetent in handling the firearms they somehow failed to lose. 

In the last five years, more than 13 500 firearms were lost. Less than one percent of the officers responsible for this negligence have been disciplined or ordered to pay for their missing weapons. 

"Nobody is being held accountable," was how the Democratic Alliance's police spokeswoman, Dianne Kohler Barnard, put it. "Firearms are hugely expensive. I can understand if a police officer has a gun held to their head, they would not be held responsible. But there have been suspicions voiced that SAPS members are selling them to supplement their income."

It's not unreasonable to suggest that this slackness played a substantial role in the R20-billion contingent liability in the SAPS, an amount that has quadrupled in the last five years. Of that sum, about R14.8-billion is civil claims by private individuals against the police.

Deaths in police detention have increased significantly in this time, as have deaths as a result of police action and the number of assault complaints against the police. 

It is notable that this upward trend began at roughly the same time government began urging police to start shooting back at criminals, and the then safety and security minister Susan Shabangu urging SAPS members to "kill the bastards" in 2008. 

Not long after that, President Jacob Zuma appointed his chum, Bheki Cele, national police commissioner. Cele kicked off his campaign of cracking down on crime by reintroducing apartheid-era paramilitary ranks and arsing about in junta fancy dress.

It is not just weapons training the cops need. About 16 000 of them cannot drive. This, I'm reliably informed, is only a problem when they need to drive a vehicle somewhere. Responding, let's say, to an emergency crime call. 

There are, apparently, police stations where there no usable vehicles whatsoever, and others are in need of a good overhauling. 

If it wasn't for a sliding door falling off an SAPS kombi, for example, Donald Gibson -- son of Douglas Gibson, former opposition politician and former ambassador to Thailand -- would not have been stomped and beaten unconscious in the parking lot at the FNB Stadium after the Bok-All Blacks rugby clash a fortnight ago. 

And those that can drive are apparently as careless with their vehicles as they are with their firearms. An unmarked SAPS double-cab bakkie was stolen when a constable left his keys in the vehicle while he popped into a toilet at the Pretoria West police station, it was reported.

Fortunately, the vehicle was later seen on the Ben Schoeman highway and pursued. During the chase it overturned and a suspect was arrested.

Some sensitivity training would also not be a waste of time, either. Colonel McIntosh Polela, the Hawks spokesman, has now apologised on Twitter for a comment he posted about murder-convicted musician Molemo "Jub Jub" Maarohanye -- "I trust that Jub Jub's supporters gave him a jar of Vaseline to take to prison" -- and admitted that it was poor taste.

It seems unsurprising that, in the townships and the informal settlements on the Cape Flats, vigilante activities have increased dramatically. 

This week, in the 18th such instance of mob justice in the Western Cape since March, Philippi residents stoned a man to death who, they claimed, together with an accomplice, had been robbing people on their way to and from work. 

While their frustration with runaway crime was understandable, it was nevertheless chilling to read the reported comments of those who took part in the stoning. 

One man said, "They searched me and took some cash that was with me. Fortunately a car stopped and when they tried to run the driver of the car caught up with one of them. There was no time to ask questions and we started to assault him and we killed him. This year alone I have been robbed of three cellphones . . . [These] would-be criminals need to be taught a lesson that crime does not pay, instead you pay with your life."

The usual condemnations from police were forthcoming, with warnings that such activities were punishable by law. A murder docket, according to an SAPS spokesman, had been opened and investigations were continuing. There were no arrests at the time of writing. 

This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.

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