Is the SAPS going to start fighting crime again?

William Saunderson-Meyer asks whether govt is tackling the problem with a renewed seriousness


A poignant Day of Reconciliation in SA’s war zone

Ah, spring in South Africa! Up-country, it’s the first rains. Down-country, it's the annual lamentations in Parliament that greet the release of our crime statistics.

On the one set of statistics that matters the most to the average citizen, murder, the figures have been particularly grim. In the year to March, 20,336 people were murdered, a rise of 6.9% over the previous year. It’s the sixth consecutive annual increase, and one of the sharpest accelerations since the end of apartheid 24 years ago.

Last year there were 57 murders a day, up from 51. Compare that to the 38 people that die each day on the roads and it makes SA perhaps the only country in the world where more people are murdered than killed in traffic accidents.

To my surprise, Gareth Newham, director of the Institute of Security Studies’s crime and justice programme, tells me that he is, however, cautiously upbeat. “For the first time in years, there was no attempt at spin. Murder is always the most reliable statistic — the most accurately recorded — but in the past the minister always tried to gloss over how bad things are, by highlighting slight and sometimes dubiously accurate improvements elsewhere.” 

It is true that Police Minister Bheki Cele freely admits that the figures “scare” him, that SA is “close to a war zone” and that the police had “dropped the ball” in the crime fighting efforts. “South Africans must not take it as a norm that they can be hijacked, robbed and killed every day.”

But, sadly, it is the norm. In the past 10 years, the Financial Mail points out, more than 175,000 people have been killed. That’s more than in the Afghanistan war (about 144,000) or in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (about 135,000).

Between the beginning of April 1994 and the end of March this year, 485,177 people were murdered. By my back-of-an-envelope arithmetic, that means on approximately December 16 — the public holiday we celebrate as Day of Reconciliation — some poor, as yet unknown, person will have the unhappy distinction of becoming the half-millionth South African murdered since the dawn of our democracy.

While the problem of crime in SA society is obviously multifaceted, research shows that economic inequality is a key aspect. But despite the intractability of social inequality, and the utter failure of the government to address it, this does not mean that we should passively resign ourselves to enduring criminal violence into the foreseeable future.

Newham points out that 50% of murders took place in 13% of police precincts. Just 30 precincts accounted for a fifth of all murders. It does not take a brilliant tactician to deploy police resources more effectively than they are being used at present.

As much as being a social problem, crime is a political problem. For at least a decade, the primary task of the SA Police Service’s has not, at the highest level, been to fight crime. Ever since Jacob Zuma took the presidential reins in 2008, the SAPS leadership has rotated among those SAPS officers Zuma and his corrupt cohorts thought were best able to guard their backs.

There have been six national police commissioners, as corruption, incompetence and changes in the political wind took their toll. One step down at senior management level — the men and women who ensure that the day-to-day business of SAPS is carried out efficiently — it’s similarly rotten. 

Newham says that during the Zuma years, extravagant use was made of Section 45 appointments in order to deploy cadres and cronies to key posts.

Section 45 of SAPS regulations allows the immediate appointment of an officer, circumventing civil service rules on qualifications, experience, and years of service. The intention was to allow for flexibility in exceptional circumstances, when, say, a cyber-specialist needs urgently to be brought from the commercial world into the SAPS hierarchy. 

There are roughly 900 officers of the rank of brigadier or above, who make up the top management of SAPS. In 2016/17 alone, 55 Section 45 appointments were made to these top echelon positions. 

In this context, of what has been happening for at least the past decade, Newham’s warm and empathetic words about a change in SAPS approach, start looking like something different. They start looking like the kind of desperate encouragement that one hears from a psychotherapist trying to dissuade a habitual self-harmer from committing suicide. 

The reality is that SAPS, along with the National Prosecuting Authority and the elite investigative units like the Hawks, was just another target of state capture, and before that the victim of years of managerial incompetence. It will take years to loosen that death grip.

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