The fear of violence, widespread before the April 1994 elections, remains,  with good reason, ingrained in the South African psyche.  Regular reports of home invasions, rapes, hijackings, and farm attacks fuel these fears. Those who are most vulnerable live in ‘traditional’ rural areas where well-armed assailants prowl bad roads, far from the nearest police station, at night. People now fear having their movements tracked by hit men, including if they assist in criminal investigations.  Rooted in the past, the current violence is fuelled by gross structural inequality, critical levels of unemployment, and the impunity with which criminal networks operate.  It is likely to get worse unless urgent steps are taken to address known contributory factors. While electoral reform is overdue there is also a crying need for civil society to strengthen its hand.

True democracy does not exist, for the poor rely on the largesse of politicians rather than holding them to account. Patronage, not democratic governance, drives our politics.  When promised service delivery does not happen because of corruption and incompetence powerlessness rears its ugly head in the form of protest, fuelled by criminals using it to their own advantage.

Iniquitous government policy fuels unemployment. Instead of providing training and jobs for shack and hostel dwellers, or serviced sites on which people can build homes, lucrative tenders are dished out to political cronies to provide sub-standard housing.   Patronage encourages a culture of entitlement and demeaning dependency, instead of the dignity of work. Unemployment facilitates recruitment to crime networks – drug running, or training as hit men.  No real effort has been made to deal with pre-1994 Organised Crime networks – including taxi mafia – and they have gone from strength to strength.  The taxi industry poses a threat to social stability, but there is no political will to deal with it. Taxi operators who have attempted to expose gross corruption and secretive government deals are murdered, and no one is brought to book.  It is common knowledge that the industry is a major source of well- armed, trained, hit men for hire.

The private security industry is badly regulated, with its regulatory body suffering from the same cadre deployment problems as other SOEs. It is probable that a large percentage of security companies are not registered.  Even when new companies register, and manage to show the competence to acquire guns, they may quietly disappear, with guns remaining unaccounted for.  Despite the legislation, people with criminal records may be employed.  Enforcing proper regulation of both the taxi and the security industry is not difficult, but it is not prioritised, raising questions about vested interests.  Yet it is in these networks that many of the guns used in crimes circulate.

The new government encountered obstacles in trying to transform the brutal and repressive police force it inherited, but these paled to insignificance with the policing appointments made by former president Zuma.  Grossly irregular promotions of incompetent people, and corruption, flourished for years, as did killings and torture by police members. For the first time in eight years, there was a perceptible improvement in accountability when a well-trained, experienced police member was appointed National Commissioner. As with other Zuma-era appointments it will take years to correct the damage done. Political meddling in the crime intelligence service has done inestimable harm to the fight against crime through the deployment of highly suspect operatives, some of whom had undergone sinister training overseas.  Public Order Policing (POP) has been deteriorating for years, suffering from ill-discipline and a poor standard of training not in step with international norms. Even more problematic than POP is the Tactical Response Unit(TRT), another Zuma-era spawn, whose hallmark is brutality. It is not clear why this notorious unit even exists, given the legislative mandate of Public Order Policing, and the well-trained National Intervention Unit. To make matters worse, police lacking the required identification may be accompanied by unknown security company employees while committing abuses, which is a major impediment to accountability.

Legislation requires that torture, abuse, and killings by SAPS members be investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Directorate (IPID).  IPID suffers from serious constraints, the most critical of which is its lack of independence from the Ministry of Police – an overt conflict of interest, obviated internationally by the appointment of completely independent reporting structures.  Despite lobbyists, supported by a Constitutional Court judgment, having pressed for legislation giving IPID independence for years, parliament – which has become a rubber stamp – drags its heels.

Of great concern is a marked deterioration in prosecution services.  In district courts, malicious prosecutions may clog up rolls instead of being pruned by prosecutors failing to provide guidance to investigators.  Decisions by the KZN DPP’s office not to prosecute apparently dangerous criminals, despite evidence, raise serious questions about whether this service is usurping the role of open courts, and overlooking the possible life or death implications for victims or witnesses. A recent decision not to prosecute POP and Dog Unit members, who seriously abused whistle-blower Thabiso Zulu when maliciously arresting him at his family home in July 2020, raises further concerns about his already perilous safety.  There was medical evidence of the abuse, and the identities of some members were known, yet they are not being held to account.  In October 2019 Zulu was shot and almost killed. In the July 2020 incident, he may well have been killed had he not managed to make a telephone call which led to the local station commissioner being informed of the raid. Zulu has fought tirelessly against corruption, and for justice, and not only has he been denied protection but the police themselves have now, in effect, been given carte blanche by the DPP to continue their campaign against him with impunity.  The matter is being followed up.

Complaints against magistrates, too, are increasing and it is obvious that some of those in this position should never have been appointed. Since it is virtually impossible to remove them when they have lost the confidence of investigators, prosecutors, and the public, it is imperative that far stricter criteria – and much greater transparency – be used in magisterial appointments.

Securing any form of justice for people who cannot afford good lawyers – the majority of South Africans – has become a virtually insoluble problem. It is also a major contributing factor to the escalation of crime.

The outlook is dire and likely to worsen. The situation requires political action,  but it will not happen unless far more South Africans involve themselves in the fight for social and criminal justice for the majority. Professionalism has been largely killed off by trade unionism, and voluntarism is no longer associated with well-heeled elites. While there are many admirable voluntary initiatives, far more of those who are lucky enough to have good jobs could give back in hours of their time – in education, trauma counselling and legal services – to build a more just society. As a collective, we have only ourselves to blame if we allow politicians to continue to ruin our beautiful country

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