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Politics and Society

The wisdom of destroying property

Since their lives don’t seem to matter, the poor find other means to get attention



It is easy to tell where a government’s priorities lie; one simply has to look at what works. In the case of South Africa, tax collection, spending on prestige projects (such as stadiums for the FIFA World Cup and renovating ministerial homes), security for the top echelon, and an over-funded government communications department unable to distinguish party from state. It also includes extraordinarily well resourced law enforcement to deal with protecting private urban land.

In Cape Town, there is a contrast that could hardly be starker. Informal settlements are policed with a totalitarian efficiency in the service of a draconian bureaucracy. The smallest extension to a zinc shack completed without the necessary paperwork is pounced upon by a City law enforcement branch with an ideologically loaded name of the Anti-Land Invasion Unit (ALIU).

Occupation of vacant land elicits a similar response, often within 24-hours, a few days at most. They arrive, co-ordinated, heavily armed (sometimes even toting stun grenades), dressed in flak jackets and riot gear – the ALIU, South African Police Services, the Metro police, and there are other uniforms, some in camouflage, and private security contractors too among the reinforcements. The City is even investing in high tech surveillance drones.

A screengrab from the infrared camera which was attached to SkyCap's Shadow Rotor Drone  tested by the City of Cape Town. Photo: Daneel Knoetze/GroundUp

A screengrab from the infrared camera which was attached to SkyCap’s Shadow Rotor Drone tested by the City of Cape Town. Photo: Daneel Knoetze/GroundUp

Contrast this with a demoralised, unsupported local cop on the beat in the townships surrounding Cape Town. The Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry into policing, instigated by the premier of the province at the behest of civil society, found that the area with the highest murder rate in the country had the lowest ratio of police to population (one officer for every 900 people; in some areas, one to 1,700). Possibly, as low as one percent of crimes committed in Khayelitsha result in convictions. In many parts of the townships, there is almost no visible policing and it appears that ‘no-go zones’ for police are growing. Khayelitsha’s three police stations are hopelessly understaffed and their detectives chronically overworked; a single detective might be working 150 murder cases.

Meanwhile, in affluent areas of the city, where there are not only far more police, but also a plethora of trained and well-resourced private security firms on the frontline, a murder detective might be expected to handle a couple of dockets. In the whole of 2014, there were no murders in the wealthier precincts of Claremont, Rondebosch, Mowbray or Camps Bay; only one in Sea Point and five in the city bowl.


The discoveries of the Commission were shocking and its conclusions damning. And even though they had much to answer for, the local police were not unresponsive to the Commission’s findings. In fact, in August 2014, there seemed reason for hope. Subsequent to the Commission, the police and community started to rebuild trust and began to develop strategies to tackle crime. In the months that followed, some progress was made, but the local police found themselves hamstrung by their superiors in Pretoria.

The Commission had made extensive and compelling recommendations; a year later, almost nothing has come from head office.  A key finding was that the police’s Theoretical Human Resources Requirement system, the root of numerous egregious anomalies in manpower deployment, urgently needed an overhaul. The local force is unable to allocate itself paperclips, let alone more resources to fight crime.

The Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko has snubbed the Commission report. His predecessor wasted a small fortune and two years in fruitless court battles to stop the Commission, until a full bench of the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled it should go ahead. The policy now has been to ignore its findings.

South Africa's Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, snubbed the

South Africa’s Minister of Police, Nathi Nhleko, snubbed the Khayelitsha Commission report. Photo: Gallo Images

National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, she of the Marikana massacre, has “denied, disputed or redirected” every recommendation, according to Western Cape Premier Helen Zille.

Phiyega’s response, in execrable English is archly defensive and disdainful in tone. ‘This recommendation is not comprehendible (sic)’ it says of one proposal by the commission as it proceeds to dismiss recommendation after recommendation on spurious grounds.

On the urgent need for more police, all Phiyega has to say is this: ‘SAPS has provided additional allocations to the three Khayelitsha stations as the SAPS focus has always been on prioritisation of capacitation (sic) for its human resource’. If the crime situation in Khayelitsha were not as desperate as it is, her response would be laughable.


The result is that while the national commissioner plays gratuitous political football, the people of Khayelitsha are left largely unprotected, at the mercy of gangsters and criminals, and without visible policing. Unless of course they wish to occupy vacant land or extend a one-roomed shack by three feet.  Then an abundance of well-provisioned police promptly descend out of nowhere. Meanwhile, a murder occurs and the victim’s corpse might lie out in the open for hours.


Khayelitsha’s three police stations are hopelessly understaffed and their detectives chronically overworked. Photo: Terry Shean

On average in 2014, three people a week were murdered in the Harare precinct of Khayelitsha; three at the Khayelitsha precinct; almost one a week at Lingelethu-West precinct; six a week in Nyanga; three in Gugulethu; two in Mfuleni; and one nearly every week in Langa. No one seems to pay attention to these deaths in the black townships. The murders are hardly considered newsworthy. The national police commissioner and her minister certainly act as if they don’t care.

The reality is that property is more valued than life. Is it any wonder then, that when people die at the hands of murderers, or are dying on a daily basis from poor sanitation, malnutrition and a lack of health services, and that their deaths draw no attention, that it is completely logical to destroy property, burn public buildings and block roads if you want to get any attention at all from the state and the media? For then, you can be sure, law enforcement will suddenly appear with all the budget and lethal resources it wants.