Mind the reality gap

William Saunderson-Meyer on Bheki Cele and SA's drift to the status of a mafia state


With his thuggish swagger, thunderous face and 1930s Mafia-style headgear, Bheki Cele looks and behaves more like the archetypal gangster than a Minister of Police.

So he will be chuffed — even as the dismal law enforcement statistics mount up — at last week getting a medal honouring his achievements. The Great Wall Commemorative Medal is awarded by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to officers “who have made outstanding contributions to protecting the safety of Chinese citizens”.  

Cele’s medal specifically recognises the “high standard of security” that President Xi Jinping enjoyed during four state visits to South Africa, most recently in August for the BRICS summit. China was, said their security minister, “very appreciative” of the work of the SA Police Service (SAPS) under Cele’s admirable leadership.

No matter how inconsequential this latest bottle-top and bunting, Cele will be delighted to be able to add to the impressive chest full of medals he boasted — despite never having served as a police officer — during his short stint from 2009 to 2011 as National Police Commissioner. It will serve to confirm his high opinion of himself, a stratospheric level of vanity that appears immune to cold realities. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

For the truth is that Cele, lately, has been having a bit of a rough time.

On Monday, in reply to a parliamentary question, he reported that in the past five years, more than 7,000 police officers had been arrested for serious crimes, including 110 for rape and 220 for murder. In total, only 686 had been successfully prosecuted.

Then, on Tuesday, the second Global Organised Crime Index was released, scoring South Africa as the 7th worst of the United Nations’s 193 member countries for gangsterism and criminal syndicates. Myanmar is the worst, joined on the podium by Colombia and Mexico. Then follow Paraguay, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and South Africa.

It’s another dismal marker of accelerating decline. In 2021, South Africa was “only” the 19th worst in the world. In the space of only two years, it has overtaken Venezuela, Panama, Paraguay, Lebanon, Syria, Philippines, Turkey, Kenya, Honduras, Central African Republic, Iraq and Afghanistan in the criminality stakes.

The compilers of the Index, the Swiss-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), write that South Africa’s overall trend over recent years has been one of “worsening instability” and economic crisis, which have “shaken the foundations” of the country’s system of governance. Crime networks, often fuelled by corrupt relationships, have entrenched the criminal economy deeply within the country, leading to a “crisis of trust in government and law enforcement”.

The country is a “hotbed” for organised crime and a haven for money laundering. Mafia-style groups are increasingly prominent, with some allegedly acting as surrogates for certain politicians, engaging in the violent disruption of construction sites and extorting protection fees from businesses.  

Foreign criminals, particularly from West Africa, South America, China, Pakistan, Israel, and southern and eastern European nations, have a strong presence, specially in the major cities. These criminals, rather than controlling specific markets, act as “interfaces”, exerting moderate to substantial degrees of economic and financial power. 

South Africa has high levels of public sector corruption, with maladministration, procurement corruption, and abuse of authority being the most common forms. While South Africa has comprehensive anti-corruption laws and agencies, “enforcement has historically been inadequate, with many current and former government officials avoiding prosecution”. 

“The ruling party has used its majority in parliament to block crucial legislative oversight investigations, protecting its representatives from corruption inquiries,” the report states. “Scandals that have recently come to light have resulted in decreasing the credibility and reputation of President Cyril Ramaphosa.”

While South Africa has ratified all relevant international instruments and standards for combating organised crime and has extradition treaties in place with several countries, implementation of these and domestic anti-crime measures have been “hindered by a lack of political will and state capacities”. While anti-corruption, money laundering and anti-cybercrime laws have been introduced, “their effective implementation has been hindered by the weakening of state institutions forming part of the criminal justice system”.

South Africa’s police service faces issues around corruption, internal tensions between senior management, brutality and a lack of capacity to deal with high-level organised crime figures and bring them to trial successfully. Law enforcement officials are often implicated in organised crime on many levels, in particular in trafficking activities.

South Africa is “one of the largest heroin consumer markets on the continent”. It has also become "a key player in the global cocaine trade".

GI-TOC  salvaged a few crumbs of comfort. The judiciary, it reported, is generally independent. And while SA is “an undeniable criminality outlier” in southern Africa, tangibly worsening regional statistics, its resilience to the impact of organised crime is also comparatively high. Albeit that resilience is under strain and failing, South Africa remains the most resilient country in this region, in part because of the efforts of non-state actors.

The same day that the Index was released, Cele with impeccable timing called a media conference to boast how “this administration is stamping the authority of the State” on organised crime and is “flushing out ruthless and greedy organised crime syndicates”. Although Cele didn’t address the GI-TOC report, he did list in great detail recent SAPS successes — largely against the foot soldiers of crime rather than the leaders — due to what he described as a Crime Intelligence (CI) division that was “gaining back its might and bite”.

He also lashed unnamed critics of SAPS who, he said, found the police’s “triumphs over crime a bitter pill to swallow”. This was part of “an emerging Criminal Block that is attempting to push an anti-police agenda”. “It’s with concern that we see media reports and commentary by some academics that seek to discredit the CI unit.” 

Cele presumably was referring to a City Press report, quoting anonymous sources within CI who revealed that the unit had in 2021 spent nearly R100m on buying 80 vehicles, including luxury sedans and SUVs, that remained unregistered and unused. As part of a pervasive climate of financial fecklessness, operational budgets were being scrimped upon, with the rentals of safe houses left unpaid while the head of CI scorned commercial carriers to flit around the country a private jet. 

Gareth Newham, head of the Justice and Violence Prevention programme at the Institute for Security Studies, defends Cele against my assertion that he’s the worst Police minister yet. “Reputedly,” Newham says, “Cele is hardworking and passionate, unlike a number of his predecessors.” 

“However, there has been a profound deterioration in the SAPS over the past decade. Despite the policing budget increasing by 86.5% over the past 11 years, in the past decade detection rates have plunged. So, the SAPS was able to solve 31% of the murder cases opened in 2012, but in 2022 it could only solve 14%.

“Only 10% of aggravated robbery cases were solved and there has been since 2012 a 24% decline in detection rates for all violent crime. The police disciplinary system is operating at about a quarter of its ability half a dozen years ago.

“Instead of using his authority to address this decline in institutional capacity, Cele is focusing only on operational matters. As a result, although there are pockets of ability and excellence, the SAPS is largely dysfunctional,” says Newham.

Newham also cautions against Cele’s evident pleasure — as well as that of the public, judging by gleeful social media comments — at the large number of criminals being killed by SAPS. (In his briefing, Cele listed 11 cash-in-transit robbery suspects shot dead in a “takedown” in April and 19 shot dead under similar circumstances earlier this month.)  Newham observes wryly, “Dead suspects can’t provide any intelligence on the criminal masterminds and the other gangs with which they interact and cooperate on an ad hoc basis.”  

As Cele’s comments illustrate so well, there are two mutually exclusive narratives about South Africa. There’s the country as dispassionately described by international agencies, academic analysts, and political commentators. Then there’s the African National Congress government’s rosy-hued version. 

Each year the gap grows bigger and more noticeable. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundiced Eye