Minister of Fear

William Saunderson-Meyer says Bheki Cele spins fairy tales as our crime situation unravels


In Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the wicked Rumpelstiltskin’s ability to spin gold from straw was the key to claiming the first-born child of the miller’s daughter as his own. Some politicians share the evil elf’s talent — they can spin crud into dazzling narratives — and the ultimate price exacted upon the naïve dupes will be similarly devastating. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has an entire Cabinet of Rumpelstiltskins. This collection of malevolent gnomes can layer a cheery veneer over the ugliest of truths. South Africans who believe these rosy but dishonest narratives do so at what will be a considerable future cost.

The tales are various. The power utility, Eskom, has been rescued. The national carrier, SA Airways, has been resurrected. The National Health Insurance will bind our collective wounds. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But of all the ministerial contenders, the biggest spinner of fanciful fables is Bheki Cele. During his two-year spell as National Police Commissioner in President Jacob Zuma’s administration and now almost six years as Minister of Police under Ramaphosa, Cele has repeatedly hailed minor statistical blips as incontrovertible evidence that his gung-ho “boots on the ground” approach to policing is paying dividends. He has also, repeatedly, been proven wrong.

Again last week, presenting the quarterly national crime figures, Cele said that while levels of criminality are unacceptable and that “it’s not to say that South Africans don’t feel fear and don’t feel irritated”, there have been “several breakthroughs”. There have been “several” recent arrests for child pornography and with cash heists, well, “we are getting some sort of hold on it”. 

He cites as further evidence of “green shoots” — a metaphor Cele has pinched from Ramaphosa, who constantly espies “green shoots” in our flagging economy — the 0.8% decline in the 2023/24 second-quarter murder rate over the same period in the previous year. That equates to all of 59 fewer murders, which is statistically meaningless — in a South Africa where 75 people are murdered every day, that’s the equivalent of eight hours less killing.

As the Institute of Strategic Studies points out, “the number of murders (the most reported and thus most reliable crime statistics) has increased by 77% between April 2011 and March 2023, from 15,554 to 27,494. Armed robbery increased by 45% [over the same period].” 

Those were the most dismal annual figures in our history, so far. It works out at 46 murders per 100,000 people, with only Jamaica at that point doing worse, and it’s a marked deterioration from the 36/100k when Cele took office in 2018.

In comparison, the global homicide rate has improved steadily over the past dozen years and is now down to 5.4/100k. In the European Union, even when one includes Turkey and the nine less developed candidate-membership countries, it’s only 0.8/100k. In other words, South Africans endure almost 60 times more homicide deaths than the expanded EU.

Compared to the gun-toting United States rate of 6.8, we have seven times more murders. Three times as many as the 13.7 of conflict-scarred sub-Saharan Africa and twice as many as the endemically violent and drug cartel-dominated countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Not only is crime in South Africa soaring but it is constantly and quickly morphing into new, frightening and increasingly brazen forms. 

There has been the mushrooming since 2014 of extortionist “black business” and “community forums”. These gangsters claim “empowerment” and “transformation” to demand 30% of any new construction project, with the subtle presence of AK47s to speed negotiations, to be followed by assaults or assassinations when gentle persuasion doesn’t work. The amaBhungane investigative journalism unit has established that many have links to the governing party to which, we can probably safely conclude, some of the proceeds flow.

Then there is the hijacking, or ambushing and roadside looting, of freight carriers. Some attacks are carried out by organised crime syndicates, some are xenophobic political violence against foreign drivers. Some are just passing motorists and the residents of townships adjacent to the highway taking advantage of a broken-down vehicle. 

In 2012 there were just over 800 reported cases. Last year, there were 1,996. On initial SAPS figures, this financial year should be about the same but the truck freighting industry warns the official statistics are substantially understated.

Gavin Kelly, CEO of the Road Freight Association, tells me that many trucking companies no longer report these attacks because it’s “a waste of time”, with neither the police nor the judicial process delivering results. “There is absolutely no assistance from SAPs, with plenty of footage circulating on social media showing police officers standing and watching the looting.

“Most people report to SAPS only because it is an insurance requirement when claiming. Also, vehicles are impounded as evidence and are more likely than not to be stripped of goods while under police ‘protection’. [So] those who self-insure don't worry about that,” Kelly says.

StatsSA’s 2022/23 Victims of Crime Survey found a similar situation regarding the theft of personal property, which has increased from around 1 million cases in 2018/19 to more than 1.5 million in 2022/23. Barely a third of crime victims, the survey found, reported these criminal acts to SAPS.   

And, finally, there is the growing phenomenon of kidnap for ransom. This is a crime that a dozen years ago was virtually unknown to South Africans, except as the kind of brigandry that might befall one in the worst parts of the world. 

But the victims in South Africa are not only the wealthy businessmen and lone Western travellers most targeted by South American gangsters and ISIS warriors in sub-Saharan Africa. Here it’s happening to school children, random tourists, and middle-class mums and dads on their way to work.

According to the SA Police Service (SAPS), there were just over 3,800 cases in 2013, nearly 11,000 during the crime lull that marked the pandemic lockdowns, and in 2022/23 exceeded 15,300. On the statistical evidence of the first half, 2023/24 is going to be around 7% higher. 

The experts agree, however, that these SAPS figures are markedly understated, according to a risk assessment last year by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime. Many cases are not reported because of “persistent threats to the victim’s well-being and that of their family, even after release”. 

Such statistics, of course, give us no more than the skeleton of the tragedy. Draped over the numbers are the flesh and blood of real people.

And people are experiencing a steady erosion of their sense of personal safety. Contrary to the assertions of ANC apologists that the fear of crime is a minority group, middle-class phenomenon, the surveys show a far different picture. Most recently, the State of Security Report, produced quarterly by the Automobile Association, found that less than a third (31%) of South Africans of all races feel “mostly” or “completely” safe. A larger number (37%) felt “barely safe” or “not safe at all”, including in their own homes. Almost eight out of 10 (76%) had been a victim of a crime.

For ordinary South Africans, it adds up to a grim picture. Occasionally — despite the annual R3.3 billion spent on 6,000 police officers to protect ministers and other political VIPs — even the cosseted governing elite feels the pain.

A fortnight ago, Transport Minister Sindisiwe Chikunga, travelling with bodyguards in two luxury vehicles on the N3, fell foul of another growing criminal phenomenon, ropes of spikes thrown across the road to disable passing vehicles. When two of her gullible bodyguards got out to change the tire, they and the minister were held at gunpoint. 

The robbers made off with R37,000 in cash, cellphones and the service pistols of her protectors. The thugs had also demanded her wedding ring but relented upon her emotional plea to be allowed to keep “the only thing I value between me and my husband”.  

Later, upon some digging by the Sunday Times, there was the somewhat embarrassing revelation that the “brother” the minister initially said was accompanying her was, in fact, not a brother but a “close associate”. 

In all, judging by the schadenfreude subsequently displayed on social media, the minister’s encounter with crime was exactly what many would hope for as a fairy tale ending.

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