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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Essays

Decorations with fancy, military ranks amidst high crime rates

Jameson Maluleke - 2010-05-28

What we did when we entered the new South Africa was permissible. It was permissible to decorate our prestigious democracy with the aid of whatever alterations we could find. It was permissible to change everything from the name of a one-year-old baby to the name of a dam so as to drift along with the roaring storm of the democratic revolution.

But it is no longer permissible, in the light of what we know now, to change everything in the hope that we will get rid of apartheid from our mindset, partly because it is naive to scrub our history from our memory, however gloomy it may be, but chiefly because it makes the process of change sound simplistic.

Transformation is a rigorous and positive move from a cave of darkness and despondency into the light of a peaceful and non-racial society. Trivial changes are but child’s play; they have never been part of genuine transformation.

The story of misguided, misinformed and befuddled change was spearheaded by a professor cum minister of education who picked up a failed education policy from a trash bin in an overseas country and came back home to force perplexed teachers to implement it in schools. Reason? To replace Bantu Education with "a hallowed overseas education policy"! Results? High rate of matric failure, pupils can’t write, read or count. Sidelined educationists are beginning to mumble and grumble now, but they can’t raise their voices, as the professor revered for having “discovered” (or shall I say stolen) the (in)famous and useless Outcomes-Based Education system is still alive.

The blind passion to change everything that would remind "free" people of their oppressive past has also spilled over to the police services. Once a paramilitary force until 1995 when it was demilitarised, the police division has been transformed into a civilian police service. Almost overnight senior police officers were referred to as “superintendent”, a title which belongs to the hospitals’ top dogs. The reason behind the move was merely to do away with apartheid military titles rather than to reduce crime levels and improve working conditions.

Until very recently, our national leaders were engaged in a tug of war about yet another change (for better or worse) in the police. Those who want to change the police service back to a paramilitary force, with military ranks and discipline, maintain that “some of the ranks, such as inspector and superintendent became objects of ridicule and cost the police public respect” (defenceWeb 2010). A group made up of political parties, unions and individuals headed by former education and water minister Kader Asmal poured cold water on the militarisation of the police.

Asmal has been widely reported in the media for calling the militarisation of police “crazy”, a comment which sparked a verbal war between him and deputy minister of police Fikile Mbalule.

The change and counter-change detract the police from their responsibility. Why police administrators choose to fiddle while Rome is burning is a mystery in the mind of almost all South Africans. Very soon the police will be confronted by external threats such as soccer hooligans from Europe as well as terrorism. They face the challenge of protecting the country’s citizens and millions of people who will converge on the country during the 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup. They are also challenged by the need to improve their negative image – the police are often blamed for their brutality, and it is alleged that a number of civilians die at the hands of the police every month. Again, there are perceptions on the ground that the police swell the ranks of criminals. The perception goes on to point out that the police spend a great deal of time in the office and that they delight themselves in joy rides on the freeways, thus running away from their sacred duty. It would be wise for the police to strategise and seek better ways to curb the ever rising levels of crime rather than to be obsessed with small changes.

What do they hope to achieve with this monkey business? How does forgetting a country’s shameful past contribute to the fight against crime? Zweli Mnisi, spokesman for police minister Nathi Mthethwa, had already confessed that "we are not that naive to believe if we call (police commissioner Bheki) Cele a general, criminals will run away. We are aware of the fact that this is a process in progress and change will not come overnight" (www.iol.co.za).

Daydreamers claim that there is nothing breathtaking about our crime statistics being astronomical. High levels of crime are found in first-world countries like the UK and the US, explain our self-tailored researchers. Police experts and safety and security gurus in these countries, they say, have thrown in the towel – they can’t win the war against crime. Yet neither an American citizen nor a Briton has taken the liberty to broadcast that crime statistics have gone through the ceiling in their home countries. Unlike South Africans, they choose to keep mum rather than to be alarmists in that crime is a way of life here.

South Africa is neither Britain nor the US. Why must South Africa compare its crime rate with those of other countries? Why do we have to embrace killing, hacking, maiming, raping and hijacking our fellow South Africans as a way of life? Another group of daydreamers say that South Africa supposedly having a high crime rate is just a figment of the imagination of white racists and their black toadies. There is no truth in this careless utterance. We should recall that that blame syndrome has worked before. Blaming others these days is like a tattered blanket that can no longer cover our irresponsibility and negligence.

In every news time on the TV screen we are bombarded by police firing rubber bullets at civilians or bashing them with batons to prevent them from protesting against government’s false promises and lack of service delivery. We are disgusted by groups of police marshalling labour strikers while the innocent are being hijacked or killed for their own possessions. We feel like fainting when vivid and glaring pictures of police officials on the screen jump on to our faces as they rob a bank or collect bribes from street vendors. Almost every day we are forced to listen to the corruption case against Jackie Selebi, a retired police commissioner/general who has since come to epitomise the dark side of the police force.

Indeed, sympathisers say that rotten reputations and corruption in the police are encouraged by employing commissioners or generals who have never been police officers in their lives. These rough and untrained officials don’t know where to begin and are easy targets of the mafia and international drug lords. As common people we have no authority to decide who should be a police commissioner or general. Hiring the police big wheels is a prerogative of police experts and researchers in security studies. Unfortunately, politicians have stolen this responsibility despite the fact that politicians, whatever their rank in a society, are not allowed to hire police leadership. As long as politicians reserve strategic jobs for pals and relatives as repayment for voting them into a public office, so long shall we pay the price of a malfunctioning police force in the country.

What are the responsibilities of the police? Is it honouring themselves with ridiculous titles while innocent and defenceless citizens look to them for protection? A thousand times no. Shakespeare says that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet. By extension, a police officer by any other name remains a police officer. It does not matter whether a police officer is a sergeant-major or a superintendent, a police officer carries heavy responsibilities on his (or her) shoulders – that of maintaining law and order. It is the police officer’s duty to curb the ever rising tide of crime by protecting the lives and property of the country’s citizens. The police are supposed to catch criminals and prevent crimes, thus making our country a peaceful place – a paradise to live in. Safety and security of a country attracts foreign investment; as such, the police play a crucial role in our economic development. The 2010 Soccer World Cup fans will be remember South Africa as a truly beloved country only if the police carry out their responsibilities like intelligent and diligent public servants.

In the meantime, let us constantly remind the police that as taxpayers we look to them for our protection and that of our children, because it is unlawful for us to take the law into our own hands. The salaries they earn every month are from our sweat, blood and toil.

We must insist that rather than squandering millions of rands changing the names of their ranks, the money allocated to the police should train police officers in all facets of knowledge. The time when a police officer was employed merely because of his physical fitness is past. We want to see police officers as scientists, pilots, linguists, psychologists … rather than only as those charging toyi-toying mobs with batons. We want to see the police serving the public rather than being an instrument of corrupt politicians in the government.

Finally, let us pray for days on end for the police administrators not to revert to the police’s old rank names as a lame excuse for neglecting their duty to serve their country, their people and the Almighty God.

Paton, AS. Cry, The Beloved Country. Penguin Books. Hammondsworth. Middlesex. England. (The wording, "It is permissible ..." has been adapted from Paton, p 126.)  

SAP. Written by defenceWeb Friday, 26 February 2010.

Interview with Zweli Mnisi, spokesman for Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, by Eleanor Momberg, www.iol.co.za, April 04, 2010.