NEWS & ANALYSIS

SA’s criminally incompetent police

William Saunderson-Meyer says it now often takes a court order to get the SAPS to act against criminality

JAUNDICED EYE

It’s no secret that the criminal justice system in South Africa is in a disastrous plight. Serious crime is booming, convictions are down.

The expectations raised by the appointment of the well regarded Shamila Batohi to head the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), have not been met. As yet, not a single prosecution has taken place of those involved in the brazen looting of the national fiscus during the Zuma years.

After all, how difficult can it be? The investigative journalists released voluminous dossiers of damning evidence of corruption, detailing the criminal behaviour of some of the most prominent figures in the African National Congress. They named these people with impunity — despite much blustering, not a single defamation action has been brought.

But Batohi does deserve some sympathy. It is unlikely that she could have imagined how dysfunctional the NPA is. 

The NPA got a R1.3bn injection in the recent mid-term budget but has been direly underfunded for at least a decade. After 2015, there was no staff recruitment, leaving 700 vacant prosecutor posts. 

Batohi describes the NPA’s performance as “abysmal” and blames a range of issues, most importantly, the deliberate weakening of state institutions to allow unchecked corruption. In a recent public lecture, she described the picture as “bleak”. 

This week we got a further glimpse of how widespread the rot is. Lieutenant General Godfrey Lebeya, head of the Directorate Priority Crimes Investigation (DPCI) unit, popularly know as the Hawks, in an interview with News24’s Mandy Wiener, said that his unit had been “badly crippled by staff shortages and competency challenges” and was operating at less than 50% capacity. 

Lebeya, however, denied that there was a fight-back campaign against him from staff remnants of state capture era. The Hawks had now “moved out of ICU” and arrests were coming, he assured Wiener.

It’s not only at the elite level of the ambitiously named Hawks that law enforcement is in chaos. The SA Police Service (SAPS) has, under the influence of relentless political interference, steadily decreased in crime-fighting efficiency, even while growing substantially in size, both of payroll and in the girth of its notoriously obese officers.

Again, the statistics are dismal. In answer to questions from Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler Barnard in 2013, it was revealed that the police had 1,500 officers with criminal convictions, including for serious offences such as murder, kidnapping, and assault. 

Nothing was done about this. The SAPS leadership lacked the courage to get rid of the officers concerned and hoped that natural attrition through retirement and staff churn would solve the problem. It hasn’t. Following further probing this year by the dogged Kohler Barnard, SAPS admitted there are now 4,000 officers with criminal convictions in the force, of whom 32 are at the highest levels of SAPS management.

With a leadership that has been infiltrated by card-carrying criminals, it should come as no surprise that ordinary cops appear to be uncertain as to which side to take. This week, the Judge President of Mpumalanga, Frans Legodi, was sternly critical of police behaviour, following applications by two transport companies for urgent court intervention compelling SAPS to do its job.

The applicants said that SAPS officers had on several occasions refused to intervene when their trucks were being attacked by local drivers wanting foreigners banned from employment in SA. The illegal activities of the local drivers included assault, robbery, hijacking, intimidation, malicious damage to property, unlawful detention, the blockage of public roads, and incitement to violence.

The police, said the applicants, just stood by, watching. They were clearly “reluctant or unwilling” to enforce the law, each time refusing to act unless the victims of the crimes obtained a court order directing them to do so.

Legal analyst Carmel Rickard, writing in Legalbrief, notes that Legodi said in his judgment that the problem raised by these cases was “far from unusual” and the SAPS attitude was “wrong and would encourage lawlessness”. 

It had become a feature of the weekly urgent motion roll, said Legodi, that urgent applications were made accusing the police of refusing to intervene even when faced by “clear criminal activity”, unless they were given a court order directing them to act.

Legodi said it was not the responsibility of the courts to “prevent, combat and investigate crimes”. Nor was it the function of the courts to “maintain public order, secure the inhabitants and their property. The Constitution gave this power to the police.”

The Judge President asked that his judgment be brought to the attention of the Mpumalanga police commissioner to “consider an inquiry”. That's not enough. The problem is far bigger than just two hauliers in one province.

In the past year, around 1,300 truck-and-trailer rigs have been attacked, damaged and destroyed countrywide, with direct economic costs of about R1.3bn. There have been more than 200 deaths and Police Minister Bheki Cele was sufficiently moved to say “it is clear that we are now in crisis”.

That was in July. As with deaths from xenophobic violence, prosecutions are still not happening, never mind convictions.

The crisis continues. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye