Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

SOUTH AFRICA: ‘Shoot to Kill’ Comment Shocks Judge

CAPE TOWN, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - In more than 34 years as a judge, he has not been as deeply concerned by anything as he was by the recent comment of a South African deputy minister of police that police officers should shoot and “kill the bastards”.

“We need to be concerned when people in responsible positions say irresponsible things,” said Judge Deon van Zyl, inspecting judge of SA prisons.

He was speaking on the sidelines of a seminar held in Cape Town by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) to launch the book Criminal (In)Justice in South Africa – A Civil Society Perspective, edited by Chandré Gould.

“There is a severe lack of resources in the police services, but one does not solve the problem by giving what manpower there is extra powers (shooting to kill) to make up for the deficiency,” said Van Zyl.

The seminar was held barely two weeks after a policeman shot Atlegang Aphane, a three-year-old boy. The child was in a car the police mistakenly assumed was being used by criminals.

Criminal (In)Justice

Some of the conclusions and recommendations reached by the authors of Criminal (In)Justice include:

* The National Instruction on emergency response services including emergency call centres and the flying squad has remained in draft form since 2005. This Instruction should be revised and finalised to counter the climate of uncertainty amongst police officers about these services.

* A public education programme should be launched to overcome the problems associated with hoax or non-emergency calls that may block the system.

* More attractive renumeration packages are needed to attract suitable people to the police service.

* South African Police Servce members should be trained, tested and monitored to engage victims in a professional and empathetic manner.

* Punishment and sentencing can only play a small role in managing crime. Attention should be paid to social and economic conditions that contribute to crime. South Africa has many examples of poor areas where community leaders have played a role in establishing centres where the youth are engaged in sporting and other activities, keeping them off the streets and where self-help groups were started, lifting families out of dire poverty.)

At a press conference after the shooting, deputy minister of police Fikile Mbalula told reporters it was inevitable that innocent people would be killed in the crossfire between officers and the innocent. “Yes. Shoot the bastards. Hard-nut-to-crack, incorrigible bastards,” he said.

This is the second time in two years that a minister has publicly stated it is acceptable for police to shoot to kill. In 2008 the then-deputy minister of safety and security, Susan Shabangu, told officers at a public meeting on crime to use their guns and shoot to kill.

South African crime rates are among the highest in the world, and according to statistics from the South African Police Service 2.1 million crimes were reported between April 2008 and March 2009.

This included 18,148 murders, 203,777 cases of assault with intent to cause serious bodily harm, 121,392 robberies with aggravating circumstances, 14,915 carjackings and 70,154 cases of sexual assault.

A number of speakers at the Cape Town seminar were concerned that the “shoot to kill” directive would not lead to a decrease in violent crimes. Lucas Muntingh, of the Community Law Centre at the University of the Western Cape, argued, “This kind of violent rhetoric by the authorities will up the ante.”

According to Muntingh it could lead to criminals being even more violent during criminal activities, and more criminals resorting to armed crimes.

Speakers emphasised that the criminal justice system was overloaded and overwhelmed. Detectives had to deal with on average of 150 case dockets. There was also a severe skills shortage in the detective services, with only 25% adequately trained. These problems were compounded by the fact that the detective services were understaffed by 50 percent, speakers revealed.

“Most violent crimes are committed over weekends, but most police stations are understaffed then because the personnel are having a break,” said Johan Burger, senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme (CJP) of the ISS.

Iole Matthews, of the Independent Project Trust, an independent conflict-resolution body, argued that the problem was exacerbated by the fact that staff in the police services were traumatised by their day-to-day work in a system constantly in flux.

Police officers were debriefed when they had shot at someone, but not debriefed after having worked at a crime scene.

Andrew Faull, a researcher for the CJP, pointed out that officers were confused by conflicting messages. “On the one hand they are told to shoot and kill, but as soon as they fire a docket is opened against them, and they are investigated on murder charges.”

A number of speakers said the morale of police officers was at an all-time low, because of the bad example set by senior officials. They pointed out that former Commissioner of Police Jackie Selebi was now standing trial on corruption charges. But there was not only a problem with high-level leadership – managers often lacked the skills for the job.

Responding to questions from the audience, Irvin Kinnes, of the Centre of Criminology at UCT, said civil society had an important role to play in pressuring the authorities to deal with the gaps in the criminal justice system.

“Civil society should play a more vociferous role in addressing these problems. Our democracy gives us the opportunity to rectify imbalances. It is time for civil society to re-organise our voices. We are in crisis because our political leaders lack the capacity to take us forward.”

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