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.