Deadly force

Safety and security minister Steve Tshwete promises a merciless approach to criminals, but how far should the police be allowed to go in the war on crime?

Newly appointed minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete has been at the centre of the political arena since taking over from Sydney Mufamadi. A Robben Island graduate and former commissar of Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tshwete has publicly exhorted police officers to assume the offensive in the battle against crime. Addressing meetings of police officers throughout South Africa, the tough-minded Tshwete has promised to back them against the criminals who prey on civilians in and around the cities and besiege farmers and their retainers in the rural hinterland.

With his eyes almost invariably hidden by thick prescription dark glasses, Tshwete conjures up images of “Papa” Doc Duvalier’s dreaded Tontons Macoutes in Haiti. Tshwete’s addresses to dutifully assembled members of the police service overflow with metaphors: “I will be in your midst all the time, in the rain, at night and where you are. I will not sit in my office like a doll. We are going to deal with criminals in the same way that a bulldog deals with a bull . . . When we are done, he or she will know they have been dealt with . . . We are going to give them hell because they are giving our people hell.”

With just minor variations Tshwete delivers the same message at meetings with his new charges in widely dispersed venues. It is linked to pledges to obtain more resources to help the police in their fight against crime and to take up their case in Parliament if they feel that they are handicapped by legislation which is too protective of the rights of suspected criminals. Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act is not excluded from the promise. Amended last year, it prohibits police from using “deadly force” unless there is a danger of “imminent death or grievous bodily harm”, either to themselves or to the public if the suspect is not arrested.

Tshwete is careful not to incur the wrath of “human rights watchdogs”, pledging to “reason with” them if they impede his quest to free the police service from legislation which restrains police officers in their bid to curb crime. But his not so subliminal message is that the time for all-out war against criminals and corrupt policemen has come. He does not want to preside over a timorous police service or one whose “hands are tied behind its back”. He is appalled by the thought of policemen “hugging these hyenas”. He wants them to deal “mercilessly with these scum”. He seems to exonerate police zeal against suspect criminals in advance. As he puts it: “Those who raise dust must not complain when they cannot see.”
Despite Judge William de Villiers having declared Tshwete to be a lying witness in the South African Rugby Football Union case, the new minister of safety and security has made a favourable impression on some political commentators. Thus Daily News editor Kaiser Nyatsumba writes in his column of the pending war against criminals: “I say give them hell Steve Tshwete and good luck.”

But there are cautionary voices. An unidentified police officer quoted in an article in Business Day, recalls the secondment of South African Breweries chief Meyer Kahn to the police service to improve its management skills and the wide but unfulfilled expectation that it would herald a major turning point in the fight against banditry. “Before you start shooting off your mouth, pause to see if you can accomplish your task,” cautions the unnamed police officer at one of the parades addressed by Tshwete.

Another dissenting voice is that of Peter Jordi, a senior member of the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand. Jordi has represented black people who accused the police of beating them up in an attempt to obtain confessions or information or, worse still, bribes. He states: “Tshwete does not seem to realise that by encouraging bullying he is encouraging corruption. A police force which feels that it has licence to bully feels it has licence to be corrupt.”

Jordi’s warning should be added to the recent BBC television footage showing members of the Brixton Flying Squad, a corporate descendant of the once feared Brixton Murder and Robbery Squad, beating up suspected vehicle hijackers. The willingness of the now suspended police officers to be filmed in action against the suspected hijackers suggests that they felt their actions were justified as a tough response to rampant crime. Though that may not have been his intention, Police Commissioner George Fivaz comes close to pleading extenuating circumstance when he says: “I must acknowledge that many members of the SA Police Services work under horrendous conditions. SAPS officials have to deal with the murder of their colleagues as well as attacks on themselves. They frequently witness the worst acts of violence perpetrated against ordinary citizens.”

Seen in that context Jordi seems to have a point. Police officers may interpret Tshwete’s remarks as a go-ahead for further tough action and his caveats about the need not to contravene the Constitution, about “reasoning with” rather than ignoring human rights monitors, as statements intended to mollify the human rights lobby.

Jordi’s warning is given greater pertinence by last year’s report from the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. It examines the deaths of 165 suspected criminals in police custody or during police action against them over a nine-month period in Gauteng. There was one death in custody for every two deaths during police action. Only one policeman died during action against the suspects (another committed suicide after killing his wife). In the light of the low casualty rate in police ranks, the report is sceptical of the official police explanation that the suspects had only themselves to blame, that they were killed because their own violent behaviour threatened the lives of the police officers seeking to apprehend them. It offers an alternative explanation: police vigilantism. Devoid of faith in the over-stretched criminal justice system and impatient with the emphasis on human rights in post-apartheid South Africa, the police may have taken the law into their own hands. While adding the usual academic provisos, the report suggests that the deaths may have been the result of extra-judicial executions.

A respected former member of the SAPS endorses the report’s conclusion. On the question of whether police vigilantism exists, he replies: “Oh yes! There is a widespread feeling [in its favour] in the SAPS, particularly since the amendment to Section 49. The attitude is ‘We are going to nail the criminals. If we don’t punish them, who will? Let’s kill them and get them off the street.’” He does not think, however, that police vigilantism in South Africa warrants comparison with the death squads in Brazil, who attempt to control the problem of street children by killing them on the slightest of pretexts. Police vigilantism in South Africa is not aimed at street children but at hardened criminals who are too cunning to be netted by the malfunctioning criminal justice system.

One further point is worth noting about the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s report. One of its researchers, David Bruce, who was jailed in the 1980s for refusing to be conscripted into the previous regime’s white-controlled defence force, warns against offering a racial explanation for police vigilantism. It is not simply a manifestation of the prejudices of white policemen against the black majority. As he put it: “Black cops can also be brutal.”

  Numbers of police killed



Tshwete’s promotion to his new portfolio has coincided with a surge of vigilantism in society at large. As well as Pagad, the Muslim-based vigilante movement People Against Gangsterism and Drugs, there is Mapogo a Mathamaga and Die Vuis, The Fist, formed by former security force officers in the Western Cape. Where Pagad draws the bulk of its support from the Muslim community in the Western Cape and Mapogo most of its members from the majority black community, Die Vuis, the youngest of the vigilante movements, has recruited its 7,000 members from Western Cape’s white community or, more precisely, those sections with ties to the old security establishment. According to press reports, prostitutes are its initial target. But its founder Ronnie Els, a former policemen, has ambitious plans to halt drug-trafficking in the province, an objective which the more vocal Pagad has failed to achieve since it burst into prominence in1996 with the killing, in full view of television cameras, of alleged gang leader Rashaad Staggie.

These organisations aside, there have been further manifestations of vigilantism since Tshwete took office. They include
• the slaying in Tembisa of a man accused of murder. Members of the community there raised his bail money and freed him, before trying and “executing” him by forcing him to drink petrol, puncturing his stomach and setting him alight;
• the capture by a white farmer and one of his employees of an alleged intruder who was forced to strip, covered from heat to toe with silver paint and forced to stand in the sun until the paint dried;
• the abduction of a 14-year-old boy accused of theft, who was then beaten, painted white and tied to a tree and left there for nine hours in freezing weather until he was rescued by his mother and aunt;
• the interrogation and assault of a suspected rapist by enraged residents of Khayelitsha in the Western Cape. He was later handed over to the local police station, bleeding and traumatised.

Vigilantism is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. It has taken different forms over the years. The Makgotla movement in Soweto, an attempt by local notables to impose tribal discipline and cohesion on the dislocated urban community, was one earlier manifestation. The vigilante movement that emerged, with the active encouragement of the security forces, in reaction to “the people’s war” launched by the African National Congress in the 1980s was another.

In post-apartheid South Africa vigilantism is fuelled by a loss of faith in the ability of the police to arrest criminals, the courts to prosecute them and the prisons to retain them. As Mark Wellman, a criminologist at Rhodes University, observes, vigilantism is a sign of “public frustration at what is seen to be a major failure in the criminal justice system.”
Tshwete takes a strong stand against the phenomenon, specifically warning Pagad that its attempts to take the law into its own hands will not be tolerated. He seeks to restore faith in the criminal justice by speedily reviving the confidence of the police and by demonstrably putting criminals behind bars. But he faces a demanding task — not only because police faith in the wider criminal justice system is itself shaky, but also because the police cannot protect themselves adequately, let alone the public.

Before 1994 many of the policemen killed had been targeted by ANC and Pan Africanist Congress guerrillas as collaborators or defenders of the old order, so it was reasonable to expect that numbers killed would fall off after the ANC came to power. But the expected decline in politically motivated killings of policemen, has been all but cancelled out by the upsurge in criminally motivated attacks (see table). From January to June this year more than 100 policemen have been killed. The post-1994 killings have occurred despite attempts by the government to remove the barriers of suspicion between the police service and black citizens through community-police forums, special seminars to induct police officers into the new human rights culture and the establishment of the Independent Complaints Directorate to investigate complaints against the police.

Figures compiled by Anthony Minnaar, of the Institute for Human Rights and Criminal Justice Studies at Technikon SA, show that the vast majority of attackers (nearly 90 per cent for the years 1994-97) responsible for the killing of policemen are either unknown or unnamed. That seems to indicate that police do not have a high success rate in apprehending the killers of their colleagues, a demoralising situation both for the police service and the public that depends on it for protection.

Surveys conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council on public attitudes to the police service show that negative views of the police have increased. Minnaar attributes this to “fear of crime among all South Africans and the perception that the SAPS [is] not succeeding in the fight against crime”.

President Thabo Mbeki has asserted that corrupt policemen are a factor, arguing that they kill their colleagues to cover up their malfeasance. His election campaign statement — he declined to elaborate on it beyond citing unspecified information that he was privy to — cannot have buoyed police morale or boosted public confidence in the police service. Democratic Party leader Tony Leon has strong views about that attempt to deflect blame away from the government, describing it as “a mocking piece of obscenity”.

It is small wonder that a draft law providing for much tighter controls of licensed guns, and making it more difficult and more expensive to obtain a licence, has provoked strong opposition. The vast majority of the nearly two million licensed gun owners cite self-protection as the reason for buying their firearms. While only parts of the Firearms and Ammunition Control Bill have been released to specialist gun associations — those representing hunters and collectors — it has caused great consternation in the gun-owning fraternity.

Juan de Greeff, spokesperson of the South African Gun-Owners’ Association (Saga), accuses the government of seeking to deprive the public of its right to own guns in a society where crime is rampant and confidence in the police service low. His fear rests in part on a clause in the draft law empowering the authorities to compel existing licence holders to reapply to license their weapons when the bill becomes law.

Deputy director-general of the department of safety and security Bernie Fanaroff has tried to convince gun-owners that the draft law is integral to government plans to curb the supply of weapons to the criminal underworld and thus to its campaign to reduce crime. He claims that many of the legally-owned guns that are stolen or lost (30,000 were reported stolen last year) end up as illegal weapons in the hands of criminals. Thus the bid to reduce the supply of weapons has to include measures to reduce the availability of legally-owned firearms. Failure to do so would render recovery of illegal weapons, some of which are smuggled into South Africa, particularly from Mozambique, a futile exercise because the confiscated guns would simply be replaced. Fanaroff has offered assurances in an attempt to defuse opposition: the draft law will be presented to the public for comment and tabled in Parliament for debate and possible amendment before being signed into law.

Saga remains unimpressed and deeply sceptical. If the department of safety and security is really determined to reduce the number of illegal weapons in the possession of brigands and bandits, Fanaroff should explain why the draft law concentrates solely on controlling legally-owned guns, says Saga deputy chairman Martin Hood. He emphasises that opposition to the draft bill is not confined to whites, who had a virtual monopoly on legally-owned guns before 1994. Now that discrimination is outlawed, many of the new licensed gun owners are black and they, too, are fearful of being deprived of their weapons. As members of previously disadvantaged communities, they will be hit hard by the higher licence fee (up from R50 to R500) and the provision compelling licence applicants to undergo psychometric tests costing about R1,200 at their own expense, Hood says.

The ANC is not exactly an exemplar for its cause of tighter gun control. It is the only political party in South Africa to have its own firearm licences: it reportedly possesses 317 weapons, including shotguns and pistols. Eleven of the weapons have been reported stolen. More serious, however, is that three of the missing weapons have been identified by police as weapons which were used in three separate armed robberies. While that may illustrate Fanaroff’s point that legal weapons can end up in criminal hands, it does little to substantiate the ANC’s credentials when it calls for responsible gun ownership. Sheena Duncan, chairperson of Gun Free SA, puts her finger on the issue. “In view of the party’s policy to reduce the proliferation of firearms, I would have thought they would have surrendered their firearms long ago. I simply do not accept that the ANC needs its own security forces to guard them. It does nothing to bolster confidence in the police”.