FREEDOM DAY 1994 – 2017 : REFLECTIONS ON VIOLENCE THEN AND NOW

While the first democratic elections on 27 April 1994 proceeded relatively peacefully, the run up to those elections had been marked by unprecedented levels of violence. The victims were primarily ANC or IFP supporters but the drivers of it were the apartheid security forces, especially right wing elements in the police who were opposed to the sweeping changes initiated by then President de Klerk. The context was one in which negotiations about the nature of the future state were highly contested, with conservative forces pushing for greater devolution of powers to regions, and the IFP refusing to participate in elections until certain preconditions were met. The impasse was resolved days before the elections when the IFP announced that it would participate, and violence levels dropped. However, a similar pattern of violence was to continue for the next few years (4000 were killed between May 1994 and December 1998) but was to gradually diminish. While inter-party tensions and incidents continued into the new millennium, especially around election times, intra-party conflict – especially that linked to local government issues – increased. There have been approximately 35 politically-linked deaths in the province since the beginning of 2016, but, and another seventy plus murders in Glebelands hostel – most linked to internal ANC dynamics – since early 2014.
South Africa has, historically, been a violent society, fuelled by repression, powerlessness and, especially, the violence into which too many children are born and grow up. This violence intensified during the increased repression of the 1980s and what is now KwaZulu-Natal became its epicentre, driven by a proliferation of guns which have never been properly accounted for. While murder linked to politics and corruption – the two often go hand-in hand – occur all over South Africa, levels remain highest in KZN. The current context is one in which there are deep divisions within the ANC over who becomes its next president, for this province has become its main support base and eThekwini its largest party voting region.
During the liberation and negotiation period ANC supporters were the main victims because the full might of the apartheid state was brought against them. Now, in addition to internal party divisions, and individual conflict over coveted positions, the formerly oppressed are themselves accused of the type of intolerance and oppression they themselves experienced. In the run up to the 1994 elections, the Inanda shack area of Bhambayi, an ANC stronghold, experienced extremely high levels of ‘third force’ state-sponsored violence. Now the shack dwellers movement Abahlali base Mjondolo reports that a new armed vigilante group linked to two ANC councillors in Inanda is intimidating and attacking its members, and that the local station commander has not taken action against them, but referred the group’s leadership to the local councillor (a common pattern, police deferring to councillors) There has been a similar targeting of the movement in other areas, including in Cato Crest where, in June 2013 a housing activist was shot dead after being threatened by the then regional chairperson of the ANC.
Politically –linked killings are part and parcel of the abnormally high levels of violence in our society, and the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with it. Attacks on political office bearers have spawned a proliferation of armed bodyguards who – because of lax controls over the security industry – may not even be registered with PSIRA. Taxi operators have virtual private armies. Well trained hit men are used in many killings, and there seems to be no concerted effort to deal with this phenomenon. Who is training them? Where do they get their guns from? It is known that armed hit men hide at Glebelands hostel – yet the police take no action against them. Nor have any convictions been secured for the approximately 80 murders in Glebelands since early 2014, or the five in Westville since early 2016.
Transforming the brutal and racist apartheid police force was probably the biggest challenge faced by the ANC government when it took office, and it failed abysmally. Instead of identifying and promoting long serving black members with proven track records it placed its own cadres, who were hopelessly out of their depth, into key positions. While brutality remains, efficiency has continued to decline and deterioration has been conspicuous in the past seven years. Political interference and the appointment of the wrong people to key management positions – apparently for political reasons – is responsible for the dysfunctional state of the service (but there are many members who strive to do their jobs professionally –and risk their lives because corruption in the service is not dealt with adequately).
All state institutions have suffered because of the marked deterioration in governance in recent years, which is accompanied by a culture of secrecy and an increasing lack of accountability bordering on contempt for the taxpaying public – a far cry from the government which took office in 1994. With some exceptions – which depend largely on the quality of police station management – it has become virtually impossible to get constructive action taken against those responsible for breaking the law with impunity. The situation is one of virtual anarchy which jeopardises everyone’s safety and security, and the gains made in building democracy. It is a situation which calls for vigilance on the part of all citizens to ensure that it does not get even worse.

PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW MINISTER OF POLICE MBALULA

Newly appointed Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula started his tenure with rhetoric reminiscent of the pre-Marikana period when he exhorted police members to ‘shoot back’. Although he has since stressed that ‘rough’ action must be legal, he fails to recognise that he is dealing with a police service in which brutality – including torture – is already widespread. As well as being illegal, such practices can be counter-productive to the fight against violent crime. What he should be addressing are the serious problems he has inherited, including dysfunctional crime intelligence and (with some exceptions) detective services, and widespread corruption. Incompetent management lies at the heart of these problems, which are not due to a lack of resources but the way they are handled.
Take, for example, the top heavy structure of management, and the numbers promoted to senior positions at the expense of rank-and-file members who are the ones out risking their lives. KZN now has six deputy provincial commissioners it did not have twenty years ago, yet the quality of policing – including accountability – has deteriorated noticeably in those two decades. Too many people are promoted to senior management, earning salaries many do not deserve, leaving less for salaries paid to their juniors who do the bulk of the policing work.
Political interference, nepotism and cronyism has led to many being promoted beyond their levels of competence, often at the expense of members with valuable experience and a proven track record of good policing. Many of these members have left the service, or remain marginalised. However, some stations are far better managed than others, and proactive community policing forums can – in some cases- assist in improving service delivery. With the exception of the dedicated VIP component, no police members should be deployed to guard politicians – they should be at stations where resources, including human, are scarce, as in many rural areas.
It is management which is responsible for failing to maintain police buildings and vehicles (the lack of roadworthy Flying Squad vehicles is a recent example), and ensuring that all members have access to bullet proof vests when on active duty. It should also be ensuring discipline (which some long serving members claim has declined) and proper record keeping.
Management also fails to deal with corrupt members who collude with criminals and thus pose a grave threat to their colleagues who strive to do their jobs properly. Nor is there any evidence of action being taken against members whose guns go missing. In the past decade thousands of police issue guns have been stolen or lost, some of them from police storage. From available statistics, few are recovered. In one incident, 43 guns were stolen from the Maphumulo station, in what was clearly an inside job for only specific items were selected, all of them exhibits in taxi cases. The station commissioner had, on more than one occasion, asked provincial management to improve storage security, but without success. Similarly, not long before exhibits were stolen from the SAPS ballistics testing centre at Amazimtoti, the Provincial Commissioner had been informed in writing about members’ security concerns (there was no response from her office). Controls over the use of guns such as R4s are lax, with a member facing charges for shooing his wife dead with one in 2016. A similar gun (or guns) has been used in the Glebelands hostel carnage, and linked to a police member who lives in the complex and associates with criminals. This was drawn to the attention of the member’s Cluster Commander (now a Deputy Provincial Commissioner) and the Provincial Commissioner, in 2015, but there was no response. The member is reportedly still arming criminals..
Crime intelligence services are pivotal in preventing crime, but they now serve primarily political ends. Not only have SAPS turned a blind eye to paramilitary training, but people who need an armed hit man to kill a partner, political opponent or business associate can easily find one – yet the police, whose job it is to identify hit men and illegal guns, are unable to do so. Many police informers are themselves criminals so if they do provide information about impending robberies (and the information they provide may be inaccurate, and used to target their own enemies) police should intervene before they are about to engage in violent criminal activity, for that is when they themselves, as well as innocent people, are at high risk from a gun fight.

Having lost experienced members, failed to train new ones properly, and promoted the wrong people, detective services have continued to decline. What evidence there is suggests that convictions for murder are notoriously low. In the past three years over 80 people have been murdered in Glebelands hosel complex, but there is no known conviction. Nor has there been a conviction in five murder cases since early 2016 in Westville. The police make many arrests, most without sufficient evidence, only to have the cases withdrawn – by which time innocent people may have lost jobs. It seems there is great pressure to make arrests, despite lack of evidence, as a public relations exercise. Those arrested may be abused, or tortured (tubing – near suffocation – is a favoured method, which may lead to death). Torture is a serious crime but management does nothing to stop it. If it is shown to have happened it will impact negatively on prosecution. This abuse is also responsible for huge claims against the police which the taxpayers end up funding. IPID is ineffectual and should be removed from the control of the Minister of Police to that of an independent oversight body. Even when IPID makes recommendations to the police these may be ignored and no follow up action taken.
If the new minister is serious about reducing crime he needs to address all these issues, but given that political interference has played a key role in rendering the criminal justice system dysfunctional it remains to be seen whether he will do so.