The performance of the police during the July unrest was dismal

The South African Police Service made the national news at least twice this week. The first was the long-awaited report into the July insurrection. Of the three agencies involved, only the SANDF – whose job it is to protect the country against external threats – emerged with any credibility. The intelligence agencies (including the police’s) failed to see the threat.  And when KZN and Gauteng went up in flames, the police stood by.

We harp on about law and order almost incessantly in this country. It’s understandable, this is a very violent society. Murder is commonplace. In fact, our homicide rate in 2020 (the year of the great lockdown) was five times higher than the global average. Don’t even start speaking about rape. Yet, with more than half the entire ‘peace and security’ budget of R208,6-billion in this financial year – that’s right the cops got R104,6-billion; the defence force with its planes, ships, tanks and troops got R46,7-billion, while the prisons, courts and home affairs shared the balance in descending order – this country almost went up in flames last July.

Johannesburg’s Norwood police station managed to lose 158 firearms this year. Some had been handed in as part of the firearm amnesty, others had been confiscated from armed criminals. They should have been destroyed. We shouldn’t be surprised; SAPS Colonel Chris Prinsloo was jailed in 2016 for selling guns to Cape flats gangsters. He was released on parole in 2020; four years into an 18-year sentence.

Apparently, the police have managed to lose 3 405 firearms issued to their own officers over the last five financial years, according to the DA. Pressure group Action Society claims the SAPS is unable to account for more than 26 000 weapons, ranging from sidearms to assault weapons, between 2005 and 2017. That’s almost 30 000 state weapons potentially in the hands of criminals, over and above the 2 000 Prinsloo sold that were used in more than 800 murders.

On Wednesday morning, another police weapon was used to murder Lebo Monene, a nursing assistant. The officer, armed and in uniform, drove up to Tembisa Hospital in a police van, got reception to summon her. They went to the parking lot, where he shot her dead. Then he tried to kill himself. He failed. 

That’s our police service in a nutshell. It’s supposed to serve and to protect. It doesn’t seem to be doing much of either. That, Mr President, is as much the state of our nation as anything else. Five months after you said you’d suspend the police commissioner, General Kehla Sithole, he’s still in his post. 

In the greatest of possible ironies, you had to deliver your SONA this year from the Cape Town City Council chambers. Why? Because the police, who were on guard when Zandile Mafe wandered about for 30 hours before allegedly torching the place, were fast asleep.

You made a raft of new, vague, promises on Thursday, but the question remains: Who else has to die before all South Africans can feel properly protected at all times by a blue line that isn’t actually that thin? What needs to be burnt down next?

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 12 February 2022.