Don’t vilify good cops in South Africa’s desperate fight against crime

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by Mail & Guardian on 23 May 2024

It is no secret that South Africa is plagued by violent crime, and too often, the South African Police Service (SAPS) is blamed for its apathy, incompetence and sheer laziness when it comes to responding to criminality.

Many of us presume that when a crime is committed, the perpetrator will just get away with it.

Yet, when the police do their job properly, they are faced with condemnation.

In the early hours of the morning on April 3, nine individuals accused of gang-raping a girl in front of her mother, assault during a house robbery, and various other violent crimes, were gunned down by police. According to reports, the suspects resisted arrest, firing on police, before being fatally shot in return.

The SAPS personnel were members of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Stabilisation Team. According to firearms and security expert Gideon Joubert, the past few weeks has seen this team undertake various “intelligence driven, proactive policing operations,” involving the “targeting and intercepting of violent criminal gangs”.

This rational police work is very much needed to assuage the scourge of violent crime in this country. Too often, SAPS has become “dysfunctional” and even “collapsed”, according to Joubert.

“They aren’t performing their constitutional mandate, which is to protect citizens of the republic and their property against crime.”

But cases like the fatal shooting of nine violent criminals is not a case of SAPS dysfunction. In fact, it presents the very opposite. Proactively intercepting violent criminals prevents further deaths of innocents. If the police have a lead to believe that a gang has committed crimes and plans to commit more, then it is their duty to attempt to arrest them.

And in cases when the criminals resist arrest and fire on the police, it is also the duty of the police to use lethal force to defend themselves, their comrades, and innocent civilians.

“These gang members end up dead as a result of SAPS returning fire, which is completely in accordance with all published rules of engagement, as well as all common law principles, such as the law of private defence. They are more than entitled to use lethal force to protect innocent life from unlawful attack. Which is the case with pretty much all these cases,” says Joubert.

No civilians were caught in the crossfire during the gun battle. There was no collateral damage. No innocent loss of life. SAPS engaged a threat by the book and eliminated it within all bounds of protocol and the law.

Yet, media personalities and social media activists are accusing SAPS of becoming “a law unto themselves”, and are referring to police defending themselves against violent criminals as “extra-judicial executions”.

Joubert considers these accusations “hysterical” and says they “couldn’t be further from the truth”.

“The killing is as a direct result of the perpetrators not surrendering themselves for arrest when confronted by police and using violent means and lethal force to attempt to escape justice.”

This is self-defence, plain and simple, combined with SAPS undertaking its mandate to arrest criminals and protect citizens. But, for some reason, social media and journalists are targeting the police, while pitying violent criminals.

Because South Africa crime ridden, it needs many things to fix societal ills. Deterrence is a big factor. And according to Joubert: “Intensive intelligence driven, focused and targeted operations against criminal gangs will most certainly raise the cost of violent crime and be a far more potent deterring effect than the potential threat of conviction and being sent to prison. Which doesn’t hold much deterrence effect at all.”

The police of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Stabilisation Team are far from being bad cops. They are an example of what more personnel of SAPS should aspire to be: Proactive, disciplined, and skilled. They should be lauded, not falsely accused of breaking the rule of law.

SAPS should engage in more operations like this, utilising well-trained and disciplined personnel to track down and attempt to arrest the violent gangs who are actively killing and terrorising South Africans.

Alongside this, the further devolution of SAPS into decentralised, provincial police forces would help with this focus.

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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.

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