William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Police Minister Mthethwa eyes the Rambo costume

Why is it that every civilian tasked with overseeing of the SA Police Service transmogrifies into Rambo? Successive national commissioners and ministers have within days of appointment perfected gunslinger swaggers and begun laconically promising that cops will ‘shoot first’ and ‘shoot to kill the bastards’.

The exception, Nathi Mthethwa, undoubtedly the best police minister that South Africa has had in a dozen or so years, now seems in danger of ingesting the bug. Last week he boasted that the decline in cash in transit heists and bank robberies was due to the SAPS ‘fighting with fire’. Presumably this is a reference to the increasing number of suspects who are killed ‘resisting arrest’.

It is a surprise that local baddies are not more circumspect. After all, there is a greater chance of being shot by a South African cop than anywhere else in the world.

The number of people shot dead by SAPS has virtually doubled over five years to 521 in 2010. This year’s Independent Complaints Directorate report for the first time doesn’t separate shootings from deaths in custody, but a staggering 1 276 people died as a result of police action last year.

Some might argue that’s a price worth paying for greater public safety. Except that as Gareth Newham of the Institute for Security Studies points out, there is absolutely no correlation between cops killing robbers and the incidence of violent crime, which in any case peaked in 2002/3.

It’s in the DNA of paramilitary organisations like the police to talk of war – suspended national commissioner, General Bheki Cele, liked to refer to his ‘foot soldiers’ and keenly supported the adoption of military ranks – and to think in terms of siege. And admittedly, besieged the police indeed are: by violent criminals; by critics with no conception of the stress experienced at policing’s sharp end; and by some of their own top brass – political apparatchiks rather than merit appointments.

But gung-ho, careless policing comes with a whopping price tag. Mthethwa told parliament this week that civil claims due to assaults, wrongful police actions and vehicle accidents increased in 2010/11 by 46% to almost R3.7-billion. The legal cost of 8 074 claims was over R106-million.

Mthethwa bemoans this drain on the budget and pledges that the police will learn to respect human rights and improve their conduct. ‘Instead of paying legal costs, this money could have been better utilised in other crucial SAPS programmes,’ said Mthethwa.

These are admirable sentiments, except that among those claims is one of R1.45m lodged by Cape Town student Chumani Maxwele, after the presidential policing detail set upon him. The jogging student’s heinous crime was that he had dared show the middle finger to the noisy passing of the blue-light motorcade.

The cops set upon Maxwele, trussed him, stuffed his head in a bin bag, roughed him up, threw him in jail, and rifled his home. He was never charged.

Maxwele, whose damages claim likely will only be heard in the High Court 2014, is already the subject of a ruling by the Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). They declared SAPS guilty of several infringements of Maxwele’s rights and instructed the minister to apologise, as well as to detail how SAPS would prevent this kind of abuse recurring.

Mthethwa studiously ignored the finding until SAHRC gave notice of its intention to apply for a compliance order. Then Mthethwa appealed the SAHRC ruling, only to lose again.

There the matter rests for now. The minister is defying an institution set up specifically to protect the rights enshrined in the Constitution and, in the background; SAPS’ legal bill keeps ticking up.

Mthethwa should stifle his macho instinct to keep slugging. Complying with the SAHRC ruling will not only save SAPS the unnecessary legal fees he professes to be irked by, but will pass down the ranks the important signal that cops aren’t not above the law. Now that would be something new and worthwhile.

Independent Complaints Directorate annual report: http://www.icd.gov.za/documents/annual_reports.asp

SAHRC judgment: http://www.sahrc.org.za/home/index.php?ipkContentID=62&ipkMenuID=50

Centre for Constitutional Rights re Mthethwa: http://www.politicsweb.co.za/politicsweb/view/politicsweb/en/page71654?oid=269298&sn=Detail&pid=71616

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