South Africa lives in fear of its own darkest shadows

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The Independent Online
POLICE DIVERTED traffic, and about 100 people turned up, for Friday's memorial service around a patch of congealed blood in the westbound slow lane of Main Reef Road on the outskirts of Soweto.

But the tributes to Inspector Michael Ragwala and Sergeant Malose Masekwameng, police dog handlers who were shot dead in an ambush on the spot last Monday morning, were almost inaudible under the noise of droning lorries and a revving goods locomotive.

Only helplessness, the sense of underlying danger, and the resigned knowledge that the two men were the 76th and 77th South African police officers murdered this year seemed to dominate proceedings.

On 2 June, 18 million South African voters will be able to take part in the country's second multi-race elections. Across all races and classes, crime is the leading election issue. Quick-fix political parties want mutilation for thieves and capital punishment for rapists, and the African National Congress talks of being "tough on the underlying causes of crime such as poverty and inequality". But the reality seems to be of a society resigned to living in fear of its own brutalised self.

South Africa has the world's most horrific crime statistics. The murder rate is more than 50 victims per 100,000 people, compared with 6.8 in the United States. A quarter of all homes are burgled in a year and it is said that there is a rape every 26 minutes.

If 1,240 police officers have died since the first democratic elections in 1994, 666 people have died in police custody in the past 10 months alone. A recent BBC Newsnight film showing police beating suspects was broadcast in South Africa, and the officers involved were seen as heroes.

At the beginning of the election campaign, President Nelson Mandela repeated the ANC's claim that crime is only as bad as it ever was, but that whites - the whingers of South Africa - are now experiencing it as well. However, the ANC's claim is not borne out by statistics; burglaries, car hijackings and rapes have increased also in townships since 1994.

"The police have to be given more powers to intervene against criminals," said Sergeant Johann de Jager attending the Main Reef Road memorial service. "The trend at the moment is to take away our powers of intervention. But when you are patrolling in Soweto, your life is in constant danger." Inspector George Nthombeni, a neighbour of Inspector Ragwala, said: "The public has to trust us. They must report crimes. Because of the past, most people do not turn to the police." The widely held image of the South African Police Service (SAPS) is of an unreconstructed force, underpaid and therefore corrupt, with little pride, insufficient training and a culture of violence.

Last week, a spokesman for the United Democratic Movement blamed spending cuts and a lack of commitment to solving management problems for the SAPS' deteriorating image.

"The SAPS has about 18,000 constables compared with 60,000 sergeants. It is hurtling towards a situation where junior officers will have to patrol the streets because there are too few constables to conduct visible policing," said the UDM crime spokesman, Ian de Vries.

But there is also a view that the courts are not doing their job. A racial bias among judges still appears to favour white defendants, seen often to get off with a slap on the wrist rather than prison sentences.

The ANC has pledged to reform the judiciary - which is still dominated by white males - if, in the national elections, it gets the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution. But the biggest problem is probably at grass-roots level where ordinary people - survivors of a repressive and violent apartheid system enforced by the police - cannot bring themselves to see the SAPS as a force for good.

With the exception of Operation Good Hope - a Western Cape police campaign to combat gang violence - few official crime-fighting initiatives have succeeded in attracting wide public support.

More successful are people's forums where grass-roots initiatives - often a kind of neighbourhood watch with a vigilante element - come together in townships to discuss crime fighting.

One such forum, which grew out of a self-help initiative to end political violence in the 1980s, held its latest rally in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg, yesterday. The group was marking 100 Days Of Goodwill in the run-up to the elections.

Sam Motsitsi, a local organiser, said: "We grew out of a peace process between the self-defence units of the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party. After peace talks in 1994, the rival factions were disbanded and members of the units were drafted into the police force or security companies.

"There is harmony in Thokoza because the people created it. The police were always seen as taking sides. Now, because of our initiative to end the political violence, there is a solidarity between everyone," said Mr Motsitsi.

At the memorial service for the dog handlers, Paul Mashatile, member of the Executive Council (MEC) for the Johannesburg region with responsibility for safety and security, called for public support for the police.

"We want to call on our people to work with the police. There must be unity and an understanding that these people [the police] sacrifice their lives for our safety," he said.

Ted Leggett, a researcher at the Centre for Reconciliation and Development at the University of Natal in Durban, said: "We have a country brutalised by its political history. This creates an atmosphere where people know how to use guns and have a history of resisting the law and disregarding the law.

"The way you come of age in a developed country is to get a job. Here you've got to find alternative ways of demonstrating that you've become an adult male. A lot of violence that gets acted out here is simply that - seeking rites of passage."