Crime is inescapable in South Africa. Since the crime statistics were released earlier this month, municipal garbage collectors went on strike in Port Elizabeth. One of their demands was danger pay. A long-time employee explained that when collecting rubbish bins in the early hours the workers frequently meet ‘drunk and aggressive’ people ‘who want to rob us.’
Hundreds of ambulance workers in Cape Town also held a demonstration. Many emergency service personnel no longer want to answer calls for help without waiting for a police escort. They say this year alone they have been at the mercy of more than 80 violent attacks.
Khayelitsha school children also protested that there were stabbings in class, with gangsters entering their schools and acting with impunity. Even a crèche is not immune from being targetted by armed criminals.
Clearly, the vice grip of crime is paralysing the nation. The country faces many seemingly intractable problems, but crime exacerbates all of these and makes them harder to fix. It strangles in the crib almost any initiative or attempt to redress inequality.
The decades old problem has been thoroughly researched. There are dozens of thoughtful and insightful books on the subject, umpteen well considered strategies, including the recommendations of government’s own National Development Plan. It is also now over two years since the commission of inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha released its recommendations and there has been precious little movement, stifled by the top echelons, not the people on the ground.
Every year the crime statistics (to the extent they can be believed) paint a very bleak picture. This year, the murder rate – the least easy of the crime statistics to fudge – rose for the fourth consecutive year increasing by 5%, meaning on average 51 people are murdered every single day in South Africa. A staggering 1.7 million serious crimes were reported to police. Yet there are less than 25,000 trained detectives in the country.
The scale of the problem is so vast that it will not be easy to turn around. But a look at the uppermost ranks leaves one in little doubt as to where the rot starts. It is as much a problem of political will as it is one of grim realities on the ground. But without the former, the later has no chance of being reversed.
A glance at the timeline for the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry will tell one the sorry tale. National government for petty political reasons frustrated the process at every opportunity. On this point, it is worth noting that seven of the ten highest murder reporting police stations are in the Western Cape.
The history of the top cop position in the country tells a similar tale. South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi was suspended in 2008 on charges of corruption of which he was later convicted. He was replaced by Bheki Cele, suspended in 2011 over allegations of corruption and dismissed. He was followed by, who presided over the Marikana massacre and whose delusions of adequacy went well beyond that catastrophe. The beleaguered Phiyega, who split the police into factions and caused untold damage, was finally forced to step down in 2015. Her deputy was also suspended. The country currently only has an acting national commissioner. It is untenable in a country under a state of siege.
Other arms of law enforcement are in the same mess, a chaos that replicates itself at a provincial level too. In 2014, the National Head of Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (the Hawks) was also suspended. The Crime Intelligence chief appointed in 2009 was suspended in 2011, reappointed in 2012, then suspended a few months later. Robert McBride, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate head, was suspended in 2015.
Throughout Zuma’s presidency, the crime prevention bodies of the nation have been awash in political intriguing. As Zuma dithers over what is in the interests of his personal power, either no appointment or one bad appointment after another is made. Corruption has long been rife in the police and well before his presidency, but the situation has only worsened under him.
The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has remained a shambles. Last week, the High Court in Pretoria found that Nomgcobo Jiba, deputy head of the NPA (and who was also for some time its acting head), as well as Lawrence Mrwebi, the head of the Specialised Commercial Crimes Unit, should be struck off the advocates roll as unfit and not proper.
In one paragraph, the Pretoria court judge summed up the scourge in South Africa’s law enforcement bodies – ‘prosecuting officials … were like foot soldiers in a war-zoned area crying loud for the freedom and space to declare war and to fight against serious crimes that are crippling our country and threatening investment. Jiba, on the other hand, was like a commander-in-chief and in charge, required to lead by example. But instead, she flouted every rule in the fight against crime’.
This comes against a long history of Jiba and Mrwebi being Zuma’s enforces in the NPA to protect the president from corruption charges and the mounting evidence against him, his family and their shady connections.
The corollary to this is that senior law enforcement officials and police who do try against the odds to keep their integrity intact and to do a job they can be proud of, to act without fear of favour, quickly finds themselves either side-lined or actively persecuted.
And trapped beneath this grotesque edifice of political machinations and corruption are the garbage collectors, the ambulance drivers, the school children and the rest of the people of South Africa.