Give the Cat in the Hat the Boot

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the fantastic failures of our minister of no-policing


Public disapproval is often kindled to the boil over trivial issues. Critical ones are meanwhile ignored, maybe because they seem to be too big and complex to influence.

A wily leader, like President Cyril Ramaphosa, can play this score like a maestro. Show some humility on the inconsequential; remain resolute in pursuit of the cataclysmic.

The monumental flagpole that would have cost R20m is one example. The sneaky rule change which would allow Cabinet ministers, at the cost of an extra R87m annually, unlimited free electricity and water on bills previously capped at R5,000 a month is another.

For all the fuss, the amounts involved are negligible. But the stupidity and arrogance behind them left the public apoplectic.

So when it became clear that the fuss wasn’t going to die down, Ramaphosa quickly capitulated. And with its trademark chutzpah, the African National Congress trumpeted the U-turn as evidence of him being “a listening president”.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

On the issues that matter, however, Ramaphosa is as deaf as a post and equally unbudging. No amount of reasoned argument has produced the slightest shift on the increasingly stark consequences of crux policies like expropriation without compensation; cadre deployment; demographic employment quotas; road and rail infrastructure; crime and state-owned entities, to name but a few.

This lack of urgency (or courage) is demonstrated by the immunity that even the most useless of his ministers has from being fired. The names of Fikile Mbalula (Transport), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs), Gwede Mantashe (Mineral Resources and Energy), and Lindiwe Sisulu (Social Development), spring immediately to mind, although the full list encompasses virtually everyone in his Cabinet.

Perhaps the most baffling survivor is Bheki Cele, whose benign Cat-in-the-Hat nickname belies his troubling reputation and ominous history. That he still holds one of the most important ministerial portfolios, despite a dangerously dismal performance, is evidence of Ramaphosa’s vulnerability. He obviously believes that he cannot dump Cele without grave consequences to his own political future.

Given the tribal antipathies that Ramaphosa’s Venda ancestry triggers among some in the ANC, it helps that Cele is from KwaZulu-Natal and was close to deposed former president Jacob Zuma. However, like that other sinister and malevolent presence in Ramaphosa’s inner circle, Deputy President David Mabuza, Cele had the survival smarts to jump ship and switch his support from the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma faction to CR, during the 2017 leadership contest.

By then, the taint of corruption and maladministration that in 2011 had led to him being fired as National Commissioner, had long been waved aside. His dismissal had followed upon a board of inquiry finding that he was “dishonest and unfit for office” because of his role in a R1.5bn leasing deal for the new police headquarters.

The upside of Cele’s involuntary exit was that he escaped any criticism when, a year later, ill-trained and ill-disciplined police shot dead 34 miners at Marikana. And the board’s finding, which was reversed on appeal in 2019, had a minimal effect on his career.

In 2014, Zuma made Cele the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, a nifty move in that it kept him at hand but largely out of public view. It was Ramaphosa, however, who brought Cele back to power and prominence. In 2018, as a reward for his support in the leadership contest, Ramaphosa appointed him to the Police portfolio.

It was during the Covid crackdowns of 2020 that Cele’s bullying personality came to full flowering. He revelled in the “hard lockdown”, encouraging his goons to act forcefully. According to an Institute for Security Studies analysis of SA Police Service statistics, during the first 40 days of the lockdown, the cops killed 32 people, as well as allegedly tortured 25 and assaulted 589. About 230,000 people were arrested and charged for infringements of petty Covid regulations.

In response to the killing of a Sowetan man, Collins Khosa, beaten to death in his backyard by soldiers working alongside the police in a lockdown operation, his family brought an urgent application asking the courts to rule that the security forces should abide by the laws and the provisions of the Bill of Rights.

Finding in the family’s favour, Judge Hans Fabricius presciently warned that the police and military were sowing distrust and eroding the social contract between the government and the governed. Unless the citizenry took responsibility to protect their rights, “a wasteland and social unrest await us all”, he wrote.

Barely a year later, Fabricius' warning was borne out. The police, previously so gung-ho when brutalising individuals who had broken minor Covid regulations, tucked its head in and cowered when political riots and looting, orchestrated as a response to the jailing of Zuma, wracked KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

Not only was SAPS caught unawares but its leadership, from Cele down, was frozen in the headlights. For four days neither the minister nor the police commissioner issued a squeak, while at least 350 people were killed and at least R50bn of economic damage was done.

In some cases, the police couldn’t move out of their stations because they had no ammunition, except for the rounds in their service pistols. In response to panicked WhatsApp calls, the local citizenry — the people that Cele has sworn to disarm by legislating against the ownership of firearms for self-defence — rallied around and delivered their spare ammo to the cop shops.

Behind all the aggressive bluster, Cele has proved to be the worst Police minister of all time. Following his appointment, the previous steady decline in serious crime for almost a dozen years was reversed. The statistics have worsened every year since, except for a momentary dip during the 2020 lockdown.

Serious, violent crimes — murder, attempted murder, rape, hijacking, kidnapping, and home invasions — are at their highest levels in five years. Murder, measured per 100,000 of the population, is at its highest since 2005.

And the reality is far worse than the published statistics suggest. Only the homicide numbers are remotely accurate. In a population where less than a quarter of those polled have any trust in SAPS, an enormous amount of crime doesn’t show up in the official figures.

Research further shows that only one in nine rapes is reported. Only two-thirds of car hijackings are reported.

As anyone who has tried will attest, it’s almost impossible to report “minor” crimes like theft, burglary, assault not resulting in hospitalisation, or poaching. SAPS charge office personnel actively discourage the opening of a docket. Why would they? Since it’s never going to be solved, to do so merely screws up their performance statistics.

Those performance statistics are abysmal. According to an analysis by Rapport of the 2019 SAPS report, only 3% of reported hijackings, 7% of reported home robberies, and under 20% of reported murders ever reach the courts. An even tinier and ever-shrinking percentage are convicted.

The lack of professional skills in SAPS is staggering. Last week, uniformed officers, detectives and forensic technicians attended a Johannesburg business premises where a sex worker had been found murdered. After the scene had been processed, the crime tape rolled up, and the police withdrawn, workers discovered another five corpses that hadn’t been noticed by the cops, despite some of the victims reeking of decomposition and cursorily concealed.

There is massive systemic corruption and a lack of accountability. Cele recently told Parliament that in the past decade approximately 7,331 SAPS firearms were stolen or lost, of which a third was never recovered. In the same period, 10m rounds of ammunition were stolen, of which three-quarters were never recovered. According to Action Society’s Ian Cameron, between 2005 and 2017, 26,025 firearms that were issued to police officers were stolen or could simply not be accounted for.

The police cannot protect themselves, never mind the public.  Ten police stations have been robbed this year, two of them in the past month. At Devon, the night-shift officers were disarmed of three rifles and seven pistols. In Mpumalanga, two robbers tied up the charge office staff and made off with three pistols, an R5 rifle, a shotgun, and ammunition.

But why acquire when you can hire? It’s common knowledge that some SAPS officers do a brisk weekend trade in renting out to criminals one of the scores of thousands of firearms they hold that have been surrendered by the public for destruction or to be kept safe during the sluggish process of licence renewal.

Public anger is useless unless it’s focused and sustained. Immeasurably more important than flagpoles and ministerial perks — and more threatening in the long run than rolling power cuts and water shortages — is the collapse of law enforcement.

South Africa simply cannot afford a Police minister as useless as Cele. However, since Ramaphosa apparently doesn’t consider this to be a matter of much importance, he should be prodded until he reacts.

As Judge Fabricius said in his judgment, it’s up to individual South Africans to force the government to meet its social compact obligations.

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