Rising tide of crime swamps S African police

Civilian takes on task of bringing order to force that has lost control, writes Mary Braid in Johannesburg

When Meyer Kahn, one of South Africa's most successful businessmen, agreed to become the first civilian head of his country's crumbling police force this week he said he intended to enlist the help of everybody, from the Almighty down.

Heaven would be a good place to start; a near miracle is needed to pull the South African Police Service - demoralised, corrupt and haemorrhaging officers - back from the brink, and convince the public that the aptly- abbreviated Saps has not already drowned in the rising tide of crime.

It is hard to overstate the lack of public confidence in the police. Everyone has their own story to sum up the force. For some it is the theft, in broad daylight, of the cash dispensing machine from the fourth floor of Johannesburg police headquarters; for others, the identity parade of suspected car hijackers where victims failed to identify anyone in the line-up but easily fingered the officer behind the desk as the ring leader of a hijack gang.

Just yesterday three men stormed a police station in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, and stole all the officers' guns.

If it was not so serious it would be funny. But laughter rings hollow when the rate of violent crime has risen to rival the highest in the world and international organised crime syndicates are reported to be muscling in.

The level of public concern about crime has reached near hysterical levels. In the wake of the murder of Johannesburg economist Dr Ronnie Bethlehem - shot in his driveway by car hijackers - newspapers have called for a state of emergency and South Africans - black and white - are clamouring for a return of the death penalty.

Today, artists will begin work on a Wall of Remembrance in Soweto to commemorate some of the 25,000 people who died violently in South Africa last year. A similar wall was opened to painters in Johannesburg at the beginning of the month and is covered with portraits of victims along with angry inscriptions from families and friends.

Mr Kahn, group chairman of South African Breweries, says he is taking on the most difficult job of his life.

The government must take some responsibility for the crisis after dismissing it initially as "white whingeing". The arrival of violent vigilante groups, like Pagad, pressure from within the African National Congress's own ranks for the death penalty, and growing international concern changed that.

But it is doubtful that a speedier response would have altered Saps' destiny.

The police have been floored by a double whammy, according to Mark Shaw, of the Institute of Security Studies. Since the end of apartheid, Saps has been struggling to transform itself from instrument of state oppression to a non-racist, civilian-friendly police force.

It would always have been an enormous institutional task. But Saps is trying to metamorphose while dealing with an unprecedented rise in crime.

It is, say some, a no win situation. A solution has certainly so far eluded those in charge and led to unseemly public rows between George Fivaz, Saps' national commissioner, and Sydney Mufamadi, minister with responsibility for police.

"People point to the transformation of the South African armed forces," said Mr Shaw. "But the armed forces have been able to change in a time of peace. The police are having to transform themselves under fire."

That can be taken literally. Post-liberation South Africa is awash with guns and the murder of police officers is becoming commonplace. Last year, 73 were murdered on duty while 211 were killed after-hours. Stress also took its toll, with 160 officers committing suicide. Alienated by necessary change and increased dangers on the job, officers are queuing up to leave. Many stations simply fail to function for lack of manpower.

Mr Kahn can at least take comfort in the lifting of a moratorium on police recruitment.

Fresh blood is badly needed. "Under apartheid the police did not really police," says Antoinette Louw, a criminology researcher at the University of Natal. Detectives generally beat a confession out of black suspects.

Today South Africa sits at the the top of international crime tables. While international crime comparisons should be treated with caution, Ms Louw says South Africa undoubtedly has a very high comparative rate of violent crime.

She traces criminal violence back to the high levels of violence in the home, and in turn attributes that to the wholesale break up of family and community under apartheid.

But just three years after the election of South Africa's first democratic government, legacy-of-the-past explanations are already unfashionable with a public demanding quick and simple solutions.

While Ms Louw believes the rates of some crimes are levelling out, she will not hazard a forecast as to when crime will begin to fall.

Mr Kahn's contract is for just two years. Surely too short to make a difference? Long enough in one of the country's toughest roles, says Ms Louw. Mr Kahn will want out before his term is up; that she can confidently predict.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
News
people
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star