Pretoria seeks to appoint black police generals

THE South African government, admitting for the first time to the collapse of confidence in its blighted police force, yesterday purged senior officers who have failed to adapt to post-apartheid politics and established an independent unit to investigate policemen accused of serious crimes such as murder and obstructing justice. In a radical move, the Law and Order Minister, Hernus Kriel, also announced a 'positive discrimination' policy rapidly to promote blacks previously banned from senior positions.

Thirteen of the 55 generals in the South African Police have been sacked as the government tries to rescue the credibility of a force whose standing is lower among blacks now than when the police was a vigorous enforcer of apartheid.

As the shake-up was announced, it was confirmed that a dozen people have died in attacks on commuter trains around Johannesburg this week amid accusations that the police failed to disarm the attackers.

Doubts are now so widespread that even the white community has started questioning police actions, particularly after a leading pathologist revealed a month ago the large numbers of prisoners killed in police custody. This week it was revealed that since the beginning of August at least 14 more people have died in police cells.

The Police Commissioner, Johan van der Merwe, said he backed change because he had read in the papers that his force has an image problem. Mr Kriel was more willing to acknowledge what he described as the need to bridge the gap between the police and 'certain communities'.

'It's not too late to restore confidence. It's a process of changing the hearts and minds of the police,' he admitted.

Mr Kriel said the prohibition on non-whites in the general staff has been lifted and his force is looking for a new breed of general. He confessed that he would like to be able immediately to promote a black person to general, but that none were to hand. Non-whites will be sent on intensive training courses with the first black general likely to be appointed before the end of October.

The government also plans a new unit to investigate police crimes. Mr Kriel said it would be independent, although its board will consist of three senior policemen, the Attorney General and a judge. Inspectors will be drawn from the police, intelligence service, lawyers and foreign experts but, officially at least, will only be answerable to the board.

The ANC described the reforms as no more than a facelift which do not come close to meeting demands for joint oversight of the security forces. But the government's admission that the police force is seriously flawed will ease some of the tensions delaying the resumption of negotiations.

But for those wanting to know if the nature of the beast has changed, it will not go unnoticed that among those officers named for promotion is General Koos Calitz, who last week was widely criticised for what amounted to anti-ANC political pronouncements during an investigation into the murder of a white farmer who had helped expose a police hit squad in the eastern Cape.